Sunday, August 28, 2016

Whiskey a Gone Gone

Yesterday I replenished my (modest) liquor cabinet. After a few recent get-togethers at my place, the whiskey selections had become meager. Had I not noticed while putting bottles away I might not have noticed until guests arrived for the next one. This wasn’t always the case. In my 20s I sampled the stuff extensively. That worked out about as well as Dr. Jekyll’s experiments with his potions. I didn’t actually turn into a monster: just a jackass. I’m trying to think of a funny story to illustrate, but all the stories that come to mind are just sad.

Still, those aren’t the reason I drifted toward more temperate habits. The mornings after were the cause of that. Quantities of alcohol that leave others unfazed the next day are debilitating to me. I’m told one can build up a tolerance. Perhaps so, but I don’t wish to endure enough nausea to test the theory.

I take after my mom in this regard. Her response to alcohol was…well, not a good thing. My dad’s side of the family was a more hard-drinking bunch. True, I never saw my father drink more than two drinks (Seagram’s 7 usually) in a single evening – ever. But I’m pretty sure that was in deference to my mother. My grandfather definitely enjoyed his whiskey, which did nothing to impede his success in business. He ended each night with a shot and started each morning with one, which he poured the night before and kept on the end table next to the bed. The night he died a full shot glass was waiting for him there.

Whiskey has a legitimate place in the world, at least for those with a stronger constitution for it than I have. We all know the havoc it can wreak, but I’ve seen it work wonders, too. Whiskey certainly fueled the productivity of many of my favorite authors. As historian W.J. Rorabaugh noted in The Alcoholic Republic, it was central to the life and economy of the early US republic. George Washington brewed whiskey on his estate and issued daily whiskey rations to troops in the Continental Army, Adams (who started each day with a tankard of hard cider) also enjoyed sipping whiskey, Jefferson threw cocktail parties at the White House, and First Lady Dolly Madison met with temperance advocate Edward Delavan but mixed herself a toddy while doing it. Dolly’s response was typical of responses to later efforts to restrict alcohol. We all know how well the Prohibition experiment worked in the 20th century – except for Canadian brewers who made fortunes from it.

It took surprisingly long for whiskey to be invented – whiskey being brewed from grains rather than from fruits, molasses, vegetables, or what-have-you. It gets its brown coloring from the wooden casks in which it ages. The word derives from Gaelic “uisge.” (Spelling note: it is “whiskey” in the US and Ireland, but “whisky” almost everywhere else; Whisky a Go-Go deliberately opted for the unconventional spelling.) Beer and wine predate written records, but max out at around 13% alcohol; at that point the alcohol kills the yeast and fermentation stops. To increase the alcohol content you need distillation. Yet, even though the ancients distilled fresh water from salt water and also distilled perfumes, they apparently never thought to try the technique on alcoholic beverages. Perhaps they didn’t want to waste any by experimenting with them. Medieval alchemists, with their weird mixture of science and the occult, finally did try it and came up with brandy while trying to find the true spirit of wine (hence “spirits”); they then distilled other hard liquors. Most spirits are between 40% and 50% alcohol (80 to 100 proof), though some are much higher. The first records of regular commercial production of whiskey, though, don’t turn up until the 15th century. Thereafter it caught on rapidly.

In the post-Prohibition 20th century USA, white liquor – notably vodka – displaced much of the whiskey market. Vodka still outsells all types of whiskey combined (32% vs. 24% of all spirits sold) in this country, but in the past decade American whiskey – Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon especially – has been taking back market share; sales are up 7% just this year. Scotch, Canadian, and Irish whiskies are holding their own. Whiskey has reacquired a cachet in artsy circles, which bodes well for future sales, too.

I won’t be accounting for many of those sales. My restock should last through the rest of 2016. I long ago learned not to try to imitate the classic American icon: the cowboy who swaggers into the saloon and growls “Whiskey!” at the bartender. I’m the Sugarfoot who orders sarsaparilla. That’s OK. I’ll feel good in the morning. I remember what it’s like not to.

Dorothy – Whiskey Fever


  1. If I'm imbibing, whiskey is generally my drink of choice. I'm no connoisseur either. I'm about a two drink kinda guy too. I've been able to generally handle the next day better since I've retired. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, and generally I just have a couple of drinks on the weekend. Beer is okay too, but I'm not overly fond of it either.

    1. Candy is dandy
      But liquor is quicker
      -- Ogden Nash