Whiskey: The Analog Drink
Like most of the guys I grew up with in Nashville, by the time I went to college I’d had more than a few pleasant, and then suddenly very unpleasant, encounters with alcohol. And I had learned quickly (and incorrectly) that the harshness of a drink was a function of its efficiency in getting you stark-raving smashed, with light beer and white wine sitting quietly at one end and whiskey at the other, standing with a smile and a baseball bat. Even then I was someone who wanted to relish the buzz over the blitz, so I gravitated toward the former, especially since the whiskeys I encountered as an underage drinker usually came in gallon-sized plastic jugs, with an ease and cheapness of purchase directly proportional to the difficulty I had in keeping down more than a few shots at a time.
Then, during the summer after my sophomore year in college, I was back home with very little to do besides play golf with my grandfather. One day we were having lunch at his house, and he offered me a drink of bourbon. There is a myth that all Southern gentlemen are connoisseurs of fine barbecue and whiskey. To know Poppy was to know that this was not in any way true. A slightly paunchy man with big ears and a broad smile from Greenwood, Mississippi, my grandfather had a lifelong love of 1950s bachelor food—pear and mayonnaise salad, Spam—and a closet full of half-empty bottles of whatever had been on sale one day at Frugal MacDoogal’s Liquor Warehouse. None were good enough to finish, so they built up like sediment in a prehistoric lake. But recently he had taken a shine to a whiskey called Blanton’s, a pricy “single-barrel” bourbon that came in a ball-shaped bottle with a metal racehorse on the stopper, looking for all the world like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It cost him a bit more than Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam, but, he said as he poured me a finger, he liked it.
I loved it. Blanton’s, which is made by Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky, was and is a fantastic drink, approachable and enjoyable but still complex. I had never had anything like it, and it threw open windows, not just onto the world of good whiskey but onto the very existence of gradations of food and drink, onto the fact that there were burgers that tasted nothing at all like those at McDonald’s, that not all coffee comes from a can. In these days of foodie culture, we take such notions for granted. But for me, in suburban Tennessee in 1996, it was a revelation.
I’ve never stopped loving bourbon, but my reasons have evolved. Taste remains paramount; from notes of vanilla and caramel to pepper and cinnamon, from the thick and chewy whiskeys to the brisk and clean ones, bourbon combines all my favorite flavors into a compact alcoholic package.
But there’s more. Price, for one thing. Unlike Scotch or French wine, a great bourbon can be had for the price of a movie ticket, and even the most heavily mass-produced brands can be nuanced and exciting. There is an unfounded belief that the relationship between big and little whiskey makers is closely analogous to the one between Big and Little Beer—namely, that Big Whiskey from places like Heaven Hill or Buffalo Trace is made with subpar ingredients to produce a bland product that is then foisted on unassuming consumers by millions of dollars in advertising budgets, and that the small guys are all making a whiskey that is obviously superior, if only you’d try it. Not so. I have had many fantastic craft whiskeys; I’ve also had some terrible ones. But get a few drinks into a craft distiller, and he’ll admit that by and large, the stuff coming out of the big distilleries is Grade A terrific, the sort of thing he either aspires to make or does everything to avoid replicating, because really, how do you improve on perfection?
I also like bourbon because I’m a proud American, and these days there’s not a whole lot to be proud of, especially when it comes to the admittedly narrow metric of whether we still make anything worth buying. There was a time when America made everything, and made it with pride and precision. But today: Cars? We used to manufacture great cars. Now GM recalls 10 million at a time because someone ignored a basic defect in the ignition. Computers? Mostly made overseas, and they seem to fail the day the warranty wears out. Airplanes? Okay, we still make good planes. There are a few other things: diesel engines, precision machine tools, guitars.
And whiskey. We make a lot of whiskey in America, and it’s damn good stuff. A friend of mine was in London a few months ago, at the Tate Modern museum, and what did he find behind the counter at the top-floor bar, next to the single malts and cognacs? F.E.W. Spirits whiskey, made by a couple of guys working in a converted chop shop in Evanston, Illinois. That makes me proud.
There’s at least one parallel between craft beer and craft whiskey: innovation. It’s a trite word, worn to a nub by Harvard Business School case studies, but still. The first generation of craft brewers, in the 1980s and early ’90s, hewed closely to established recipes and styles, trying to master the basics and sell to consumers who were still wary of beers made by someone other than Adolphus Busch and his offspring. But then, starting with breweries like Dogfish Head in the mid-1990s, they branched out, tweaking and altering and finally breaking completely with those old recipes, creating new species like the American pale ale, the Cascadian dark ale, the imperial stout, the double IPA, the bourbon-barrel-aged barleywine.
Paradoxically, even though it takes longer to make and age a whiskey than a beer, the new era of distilling has moved much more quickly from the training wheels to mastery to innovation. Maybe it’s because so many craft distillers started out as brewers. Maybe it’s because craft beer primed the public to expect new styles. Whatever the reason, the past few years have seen an onslaught of “alt whiskeys”: quinoa whiskey, cherrywood-smoked malt whiskey, distilled beers, port-barrel-finished bourbon. Not all of it is great, and very little of it will end up on the top shelf at the Brandy Library. But that’s really not the point, now is it?
Here’s what I love most about whiskey: time. You need time to make a good whiskey; Scotch takes at least three years by law, bourbon has no legal minimum, but in either case it’s four or five years before you have something fully matured and worth drinking. That’s four or five years of sitting around, by both the barrels and the distillers, just waiting. Isn’t it funny that whiskey should be so popular right now, when thirty spare seconds means thirty seconds to check email, Instagram, Twitter, and still have time to send a few texts? There is a long-standing (and long-failing) cottage industry that promises to make whiskey faster; I once found a 1934 newspaper article about a Philadelphia distillery that claimed it could make whiskey in a night. Didn’t happen, and it can’t. Whiskey cannot be rushed.
But I also mean time in a different sense. I was born in 1976, toward the tail end of Generation X, young enough to have experienced the first bursts of what we now call the Internet while still in high school but old enough to remember what life was like before it—before cable, before cell phones, before personal computers and satellite radio. This was analog America, a period that now seems so distant not only because it was over a quarter century ago, but because it was a fundamentally different place.
Maybe as a way of recapturing that, I’ve taken to watching slice-of-life movies from around when I was born—Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Last Detail—and I keep a tally of all the ways their plots couldn’t work today. Missed phone callers who couldn’t leave a voicemail, because there was no such thing. Mistaken identities that would have never happened with a smartphone. Getting lost. And whiling away time, sheer unadulterated time, without the aid of electronic devices. The sailors in The Last Detail go on a bender in Washington on their way north, and there’s no one checking on them, because there’s no way to check on them.
Not coincidentally, this was also the tail end of the last great era of whiskey making and drinking in America. The industry was already in a tailspin by the 1970s, suffering from a younger generation’s shift to white wine and weed. But it still had whole oceans of well-aged, superbly made bourbon that it couldn’t move for fifty cents on the dollar. Whiskey lovers back then, just as I was coming into the world, got to drink great bourbon at its finest, and cheapest.
We no longer live in that America. Today everyone is plugged in, everything is immediate and efficient. Whiskey, though, remains whiskey: slow and pondering and relaxed, inefficient by some standards, but unable to change. It’s an analog drink in a digital age.