These days, it's not uncommon to find white whiskeys in the fanciest of American cocktail bars. These clear, unaged (or minimally aged) whiskeys were little more than curiosities 10 years ago. Even five years ago, you generally had to know someone with a connection to a distillery to get a taste of one. The stuff was a little too close to moonshine for most drinkers' tastes. Now you can walk into almost any well-stocked liquor store and make your selection.
What a difference a few years make.
In 2005 I was spending a lot of time on the road interviewing moonshiners, home distillers, federal agents, and anyone else with a connection to illicit distillation in the United States. Naturally, I spent a lot of time in the South. Whenever I found myself near New Orleans, I would find an excuse to drop in for a few days or a even few weeks at a time. Cooling my heels one afternoon at the Bourbon Pub
, I was approached by a hustler.
I knew he was a hustler from the very second I laid eyes on him. Handsome, mid-20's, jeans, white tank top, muscled but skinny. He was leaning against a brick wall, scoping out the room. Given my line of research, a certain amount of criminality is expected. This guy was screaming it. I avoided eye contact. That is, until I forgot about him and happened to look across the bar directly into his eyes.
. Within seconds, he had disengaged from the bricks and appeared at my side. I rested my forearm on the wallet in my front pocket. He clearly figured me for a mark. I glanced at Kevin, the bartender I had known for more than 15 years, and flicked up an eyebrow. Kevin glanced at the hustler, gave an almost imperceptible shrug, and went back to cleaning a glass. Ok, so the guy wasn't dangerous.
He introduced himself, and launched into a well-oiled anecdote about how his mother and father — a nun and a priest — had met when their motorcycles crashed on a Guatemalan mountaintop during a rainstorm. It was all bullshit, of course, but the kid had a gift for storytelling. He finished his beer. I bought him a new one. What the hell: It was a great story and happy hour beers were cheap. After I bought him the beer, he tried so hard to get me to admit I was a cop. Convinced, finally, that I wasn't, he shifted closer and had a proposal.
, I thought with the familiar lump of my wallet under my arm, here it comes
"You know, I can get us some weed."
"I'm cool," I told him. "And I'm still working on the beer."
"Yeah, that's cool." He paused a few beats. "You know, if you want something harder, I know where we can get some cocaine." That's not how I thought the sentence was going to end.
Kevin was watching while not, you know, watching
. "Naw, seriously," I demurred. "I'm good."
"Yeah," he agreed. "That's cool."
But he wouldn't drop it. "I've got a place nearby. It's not my
place, but we can go there. I know a guy who can get us some heroin if you want." Yeah, ok. "We" can get some heroin. After turning down weed and coke from a complete stranger, I'm going to shoot for heroin. When I declined, his demeanor changed.
Kevin came over and placed his hands, palms down, on the bar. "Everything ok here?" I asked for another beer. "Just one."
The hustler edged a little closer. I found myself ready to strike while trying to look very casual. "Look." He was trying a different approach. There was a plaintive softness in his voice now, as if on the verge of a confession that everything up until now was all just a smokescreen. "I just got out of lockup yesterday." Probably a lie, but maybe not. "I could really use some money." There. This was beginning to sound true. He was also getting fidgety. I saw no track marks on his bare arms, but his toes were likely another story. "I do
have a place we can go. We can't stay there. It's kinda like an alley by where my friend stays. But if you want" — and here he looked down and away before plowing on — "but if you want, I'll let you fuck me there for ten dollars."
The proposal didn't shock me. The price, though, was breathtaking, the desperation almost heart-wrenching.
"No," I said as gently and quietly as I could. Even junky hustlers have dignity. "No, I'm good right here."
He sat back on his bar stool, deflated. "I don't understand. What do
I cocked an eyebrow. "Honestly?"
He perked up, leaned in again, and started to bring the beer bottle back to his mouth. "Tell me. I can make it happen."
"I'm looking for moonshine." The bottle stopped cold inches from the hustler's face. He turned to face me, his lip curled in a snarl of disgust. He let out a grunt and heaved himself away from me: "Ugh. Nasty!"
The kid who held forth promises of weed, coke, heroin, and — for ten measly bucks — his own body had standards after all.
When I see so-called "legal" moonshine in chichi bars serving white Manhattans and other such concoctions, I can't help but think of how far our American white spirits have traveled in just a few short years.
Shoot, these days, whatever else it may get you, ten bucks might not even cover the cost of your drink.