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March 21, 2010

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Tales of rotgut and nip joints

MAX Watman's description of one of the liquor-distilling experts he interviews in "Chasing the White Dog" also applies to the author himself: "He hobbies hard."

In the grips of a passion for homemade spirits, Watman fumblingly assembles a rudimentary still, violating federal law and risking death by explosion or ergot (a poisonous fungus). Such dangers make him anxious, but Watman has the enthusiast's capacity for losing himself in recondite detail.

He lovingly catalogs the ingredients of a whiskey mash on display at a supply store in upstate New York: "crystal six-row malted barley, torrefied wheat, Maris Otter, Belgian candy sugar, flaked maize, amylase enzymes." He minutely recounts his distillation experiments, but the tone is less instructional than slapstick. "After three sips, my mouth was numb," he says about one of his early batches of whiskey. He eventually makes some respectable applejack.

Watman, a journalist and the author of a book on horse racing, knows where his true talent lies: "I'm not a distiller; I tell stories." He's a good storyteller because he's a good listener - curious, amiable and game for anything, whether it's a visit with a Nascar champion to an illicit still in Pennsylvania or a strategy session with the defense lawyer in a bootlegging trial in Virginia.

Among the diverse people he profiles is Popcorn Sutton, a quasi-traditional bootlegger who cultivates a backwoods image while hawking his book, "Me and My Likker." On the other side of the law, there's Jimmy Beheler of the Alcoholic Beverage Control in Virginia, scorned in his hometown, Watman writes, for violating the "hill country omerta" that "moonshiners would not get arrested unless agents caught them red-handed."

A patron of the "nip joints" where bootleg liquor is consumed helps disillusion the author about the outlaw allure of moonshine. "This rotgut really might pose some sort of health risk," Watman says of one joint's liquor. He comes to see modern-day bootlegging as a soulless criminal enterprise. His heroes are micro-distillers like Rory Donovan of Colorado ("a roughneck and an artisan"), small-scale producers who've gone legit.

As attuned as he is to the absurd, he plays his thesis too straight. There are farcical and bittersweet aftertastes he seems to miss in the transformation of homemade liquor from a vital commodity in early agrarian America to a yuppie lifestyle accessory today.

But if he lacks patience for heavy analysis, he's still a merry companion.


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