You Live in the Moonshine Capital of the World


My mother, God bless her, has a hookup.

For Christmas, she gave me a Mason jar of real, legitimate, 100 percent illegal, North Carolina-made peach moonshine—a clear liquid that smells like paint thinner but is surprisingly quaffable, the kind of drink you take in sips, with a subtle flavor that warms, but doesn’t burn, your throat on the way down. It was a hit at the New Year’s Eve party I attended. And there’s still a good third of the bottle in my freezer, waiting on a special occasion. Or, whenever the mood strikes.

She also bought my dad a book a moonshining, which he in turn passed along to me: Chasing the White Dog, by Max Watman. The extraordinarily prosaic book juxtaposes Watman’s efforts to make his own hooch—which is, of course, illegal—but talks about the history of moonshine, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the modern-day stills in backwoods Virginia. I’m a little more than halfway through it. (The paperback version comes out February 15th.)

But early on, in the second chapter, in fact, Watman tosses out a factoid that caught me a bit by surprise: Philadelphia, and in particular, North Philadelphia, is the moonshine capital of the world. Every year, he writes, inside speakeasies and one dimly lit allies, Philadelphians consume some 10 million (!) shots of the stuff, much of it in 3-ounce gulps, sold for $1. It’s not only the “biggest market for moonshine in America,” but also “where the vast majority of illicit hooch is sold.”

I haven’t lived in this city all that long—about a year and a half now—but this was the first I’d heard of Philly as a moonshine mecca; I asked around the office, and nobody here had heard anything about that either. So, I rung up the Philadelphia Police Department, where spokescop Lieutenant Raymond Evers told me, “I don’t know where he’s getting that from. I think he’s full of shit.”

Max Watman isn’t the kind of guy who’d make stuff up wholesale—and even if he was, this would be a particularly odd tidbit to invent, as it’s not like the thesis of his book was dependent on it. He’s an award-winning journalist whose previous book, on horse racing, was an editor’s choice in the prestigious New York Times Book Review, and in 2008, he won a National Endowment for the Arts literary fellowship. So, that leaves us two options: 1.) His facts are wrong; or 2.) he’s right, and the PPD is, well, not quite on top of this thing.

I e-mailed Watman last week to ask him about his source (the book, for better or worse, isn’t footnoted), and to relay to police department’s disbelief. He responded this morning:

All of the moonshiners and enforcement agents in North Carolina and  Virginia talk about Philadelphia—to the point of redundant  absurdity. (“What were you going to do with it all . . .” “Sell it in Philadelphia.”) Most of those illegal bars sell moonshine, unless things have changed drastically in the last 3 or 4 years. I saw a quote from a Philadelphia cop who said that moonshine was the biggest street drug among underaged kids.

The 10 million shots thing is, of course, based on anecdotal evidence about the stills that were busted. If they make X amount of liquor, then they must sell it, and if they sell it then it’s drunk, and  therefore … I think that what happens—it certainly happens in Virginia—is that only certain agents actually understand what’s going on. I know that in Philadelphia, the enforcement focus is on the speakeasies and  the other things that happen there. They are far more interested in
the prostitution, the gambling, and the drugs, than they are the booze. To the point that they might dismiss its existence altogether. This mirrors what folks have told me about the priorities of the Virginia [Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control]. In Richmond, I hear, they would say that there is no moonshine problem in Virginia. If you talked to the Illegal Whiskey Task Force, of course, you’d get a different answer.

Moonshine’s apparent saturation in North Philly is, as Watman notes, a bit counterintuitive, in the sense that the drink most commonly associated with poor whites in the sticks is, if Watman is correct, the province of poor blacks in the hood. A caution, before all you boozehounds head out to North Philly looking to score: The book suggests that much of this illicit booze isn’t exactly what you’d call quality product. It’s almost certainly closer to paint thinner than the delectable (but highly intoxicating) liquid sitting in my freezer.