The Magic of Moonshine

The idea of bespoke liquor has always been appealing to me and Max Watman’s excellent new book, “Chasing the White Dog” does much to whet my interest in the industry of homemade hooch. It’s out in February from Simon & Schuster.

Watman’s combination of history and personal experiences making booze goes down easy thanks in large part to his remarkable prose. A little turn of phrase here and there gives the book serious snap. An example that struck me: “I was anxious as I drove Route 40 through the shaley, steep bit of country, where the hills are close like the bellows of an accordion.”

The best part of the book is Watman’s consistently funny experiences making his own liquor. One waits with baited breath for the outcome of his experiment making applejack:

“I held my jar up to the kitchen light. It was clear as a lens. Swirled around, clingy rivulets streaked the glass, which in wine tasting indicates that there’s a lot of alcohol. I assumed it was the same. (There are other things, I realize now, that might cling to the side of a glass. I wonder what gasoline looks like if you swirl it in a Riedel burgundy goblet?)”

The book does much to dispel the myth of the moonshiner as a backwoods hillbilly redneck, pointing to a bit of sensational journalism that appeared in an October 1877 edition of Harper’s Weekly that described liquor makers of Kentucky in part as thoroughly backward.

Modern moonshine is a big (and illegal) business, where a well-organized operation can expect to sell millions of dollars of illicit liquor each year. It’s a business that flourishes in Philadelphia as readily as Franklin County, Va.

The legal liquor market is, of course, much much larger. Americans bought 1.68 billion liters of spirits during 2009, according to sales figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Sales improved slightly over 2008, but revenue declined for the industry as drinkers opted for less-expensive bottles. Still, liquor makers saw sales in excess of $18.7 billion.

It’s also a business that has changed little since the early nineteenth century, when one in every twenty patents issued by the U.S. government was for distilling-related innovations.

Silicon Valley is no stranger to alcohol, of course. Any number of venture capitalists and executives have bought into wineries or started microbreweries for beer. But there has been little interest in spirits.

There is one notable exception that has bloomed in recent years. San Francisco-based Lotus Vodka was founded by former Yahoo executive Rob Bailey and launched its vitamin-infused vodka in 2007. At least one of the company’s backers is venture capitalist Jeff Clavier, according to reports. Lotus has even branched out to caffeine-infused vodka.

Perhaps more entrepreneurs will consider experimenting with new and innovative spirits after reading Watman’s Book. One can only hope.