Ah, the romance of moonshine. Copper stills in hidden valleys. Heroic bootleggers speeding the back roads. Family recipes handed down through generations.
Such are the myths Max Watman cheerfully explodes in "Chasing the White Dog" (Simon & Schuster, 2010). In search of moonshine, Watman rides along with law enforcement agents, befriends a former crackhead, sits through trials, builds his own still, delves into the craft distilling movement and learns to drive a race car.
He finds urban criminals selling vast quantities of vile hooch, the occasional "rarist" making old-fashioned liquor up in the hills and passionate hobbyists, some who've built their operations into viable, legal businesses.
It's a fun read, and it perfectly captures a growing fascination with white whiskey -- a fascination happily and legally now being fed by Death's Door, Tuthilltown Spirits, Buffalo Trace and other distillers.
"This is the most white dog we've had on the shelf since people started putting whiskey in barrels," Watman told me during a telephone interview.
It's hard to know what to expect when you first encounter white whiskey. It's clear, but it tastes nothing like grain alcohol or even vodka. Some of it is bottled at a whiskeylike 40 percent alcohol by volume, but there's at least one (Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash No. 1) that's a high-octane 62.5 percent alcohol by volume .
All the brands mentioned here are legally produced, so they're not technically moonshine, which is always illegal. That said, some distillers like calling theirs moonshine anyway. Others call it white dog, referring to the pure distillate that runs from the still.
There's some corn liquor out there, but wheat, rye and other grains are also used. One thing's for certain, it's a far more interesting spirit than you might think. You won't taste any of the oaky complexity that defines an aged whiskey. Instead, it's all chewy, grainy character.
"It's the rawest expression of a distiller's art," Watman says.
Tuthilltown's Hudson New York Corn Whiskey is handmade from corn grown by farms near the distillery. Some is bottled straight from the still, while the rest goes into charred new oak barrels to eventually become Hudson Baby Bourbon.
"We didn't start out to make corn whiskey," distiller and co-owner Ralph Erenzo said. "We started out to make an aged spirit, but when we tasted this, we thought it was so extraordinary, so new and different."
Death's Door distills its version from organic hard red winter wheat and a bit of malted barley. It does get almost 72 hours in a new oak barrel, in order to qualify as whiskey (a labeling requirement for everything except whiskies made from 100 percent corn). But there's little wood in the taste. The malt comes through in the nose and flavor, along with a hint of vanilla and an earthiness that reminds me of tequila.
The distillery originally planned to age all its whiskey, but that changed after a Chicago distributor sampled the whiskey flowing from the still and placed an order for 50 cases, said Peter Wilkins of Artisanal Distillates, who helps market the brand. Brian Ellison, president of Death's Door, says he's still surprised by its success.
"It was a lark of an idea," Ellison says. "Two years ago we thought we'd be through selling white dog by now."