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An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine

by Max Watman

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4165-7178-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

New York Times contributor Watman (Race Day, 2005) offers a diverting account of moonshine, or white lightning, interspersed with descriptions of his frustrating but ultimately successful efforts to make liquor at home.

Moonshining—illegally distilling liquor—began during the Civil War, when the federal government imposed heavy liquor taxes. While dispelling the myth of the wild-looking, straw-chewing “moonshine man”—most distillers were small farmers who turned excess yields of corn and apples into alcohol—the author finds much color in the still-ongoing battle between moonshiners and “revenuers.” He interviews moonshiners, goes on a drive-along with government agents and visits distilleries and courtrooms to follow hooch’s growth from a sideline for farmers into today’s well-organized, multimillion-dollar business with distilleries producing thousands of gallons weekly. Much of the illegal business is still centered in the South, writes the author, with its acknowledged hub in Franklin County, Va., where the historical society runs a “Moonshine Express” bus tour. Moonshine is now consumed for a low-priced high mainly by African-Americans in unlicensed bars (shot houses or nip joints) in run-down sections of Northern cities. The author recounts famous trials of moonshiners, including the St. Louis whiskey ring that defrauded the U.S. government of $1.5 million annually from 1873 to ’75 and the Virginia distillers convicted in 1935 for conspiring with agents who tipped them off before raids. Watman also chronicles the 2000 crackdown by Operation Lightning Strike—a federal-state effort—on a major Rocky Mount, Va., ring that supplied tons of sugar and bottles to moonshiners. Along the way the author introduces such characters as celebrated moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, author of Me and My Likker; moonshiner-turned-NASCAR driver Junior Johnson; and a 50-year-old black man and former crackhead named Skillet, who reminisces about the good old days in nip joints: “People’d fight and shit, cut each other, hell.”

Bright and readable, with plenty of how-to for hobbyists.