I recently spent a week in Kentucky with ten children in my care. This provided an ideal opportunity for some moonshining.
Chapter 59 of Mason & Dixon finds our charismatic surveyors at Captain Shelby’s home in Virginia, where they hear told a saga (more of that trademark M&D nested narration) of rioting and baby-snatching that somehow ends in a shotgun wedding between Catherine Wheat, daughter of a local distiller, and Tom Hynes, who doesn’t “have much against it,” ‘it’ being getting married. The wedding takes place on New Year’s Eve:
Thus, upon the night of December 31st, all are gather’d at Mr. Warford’s House, in clean Clothes and hopeful Spirits. Snow drifts in the corners of Window-panes distant from the Fire. Mrs Warford has made a great dark, spirit-soak’d Fruit-Cake, and iced it for good Measure, in bridal White. Conrad Wheat has brought a Waggon-load of his lately run Conoloways White, whose drinking requires close attention, lest it prove but one more way of falling asleep.Mason & Dixon, p. 582.
The Pynchon wiki helpfully suggests that that “Conoloways White” is probably moonshine (or “white dog”) that Conrad Wheat, father of the bride, has distilled from Conoloways Creek water. Google Maps produces no Conoloways Creeks, but exactly one Conoloway Creek without the “s.” And as fate ordained, that Conoloway Creek lies not too long of a waggon ride south of Louisville, KY, where I was to find myself leading my troupe of Australian schoolchildren. Before you could say “customs violation”, I had engaged a woman from the internet to bring me a vessel of Conoloway creek-water. Michelle was extremely friendly and helpful, even documenting the water collection in a selfie. I transferred it into a non-suspicious looking Sprite bottle and brought the stuff back to Australia (alongside that Foster’s from last week).
Conrad Wheat’s White is “lately run” off his still; I myself am still without a still, as well as hesitant to add illegal distilling to illegal importation of creek-water on my rap sheet. Even if I did have the necessary equipment, I imagine more substantial water volumes would be required to actually do any actual Conoloways ‘shining. I do however have some previously obtained Kentucky moonshine. The “White Dog” from Buffalo Trace has been sitting on my shelf awaiting an eventual and still forthcoming appearance in a Mason & Dixon moonshine post for longer than I want to think about; it can make a preview appearance here. Of course, it’s not moonshine in the sense of being an illegal or amateur production, but just in that it is unaged new make spirit with some corn in the wash.
My approximation of Wheat’s wedding Conoloways White is therefore one part Conoloway creek-water and one part Buffalo Trace White Dog. This does leave the alcohol a little low, but who’s to say Wheat didn’t dilute his ‘shine a little to stretch supplies for the big wedding. It’s pretty pleasant drinking. Sweet corn with a little grassiness on the nose, and more of that plus a bit of citrusy and peppery character drinking. The creek water on its own is pretty crisp and bright and no actually I apologise I won’t make you read me try to describe the flavour of a water.
Okay but. The narrated events take place near North Mountain in West Virginia. That always sounded close enough to Kentucky for me. But looking now, it’s actually some distance. Any previous doubts would have been taken care of by the fact that no other Conoloway Creeks appeared to exist. Maybe Conrad Wheat offered a range of regional moonshines showcasing the unique terroir of different rivers. But I have just now came across this reference to a “Tonoloway” Creek with the troubling note “In the 1700s, surveyors often recorded the creek’s name as ‘Conoloway.’” It’s way way closer to North Mountain. That’s Wheat’s creek.
So I got the wrong creek! But it’s still a Conoloways White. I’m sure some water molecules from the 18th century Tonoloways Creek, Pennsylvania were flowing through the 2019 Conoloways Creek, Kentucky anyway.
Forgot to mention before now, but this post marks the fifth birthday of Tom Pynchon’s Liquor Cabinet! Thanks Michelle for your help getting the water, and thanks everyone for reading! This bizarre odyssey marches onwards!