The American Spirits
from The Hour, Chapter 1 (1951)
We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great inheritance. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum. Nevertheless we have improved man’s lot and enriched his civilization with rye, bourbon, and the martini cocktail. In all history has any other nation done so much? Not by two-thirds.
Whiskey came first; it has been the drink of patriots ever since freedom from her mountain height unfurled her banner to the air. The American people achieved nationality and Old Monongahely in a single generation, which should surprise no one since nations flower swiftly once their genius has budded. Look, for instance, at the Irish, for many centuries a breed of half-naked cave dwellers sunk in ignorance and sin and somewhat given to contentiousness. Then the gentle, learned St. Patrick appeared among them. He taught them to make usquebaugh and at once they became the most cultured people in the world. No one challenged their supremacy, certainly the Scotch didn’t, till inspiration crossed the Atlantic and set up a still in Pennsylvania.
Or look nearer home, at the Indians. Gentler than the Irish, they were an engaging people whose trust we repaid with atrocious cruelties. (As when, after the French had educated them to brandy, we forced rum on them.) Yet a thoughtful man may wonder whether they had it in them to rise to cultural distinction. They evoke both pity and dismay: north of Mexico they never learned to make a fermented beverage, still less a distilled one. Concede that they had ingenuity and by means of it achieved a marvel: they took a couple of wild grasses and bred them up to corn. But what did they do with corn? Century succeeded century and, regarding it as mere food, they could not meet the challenge on which, as Mr. Toynbee has pointed out, their hopes of civilization hung. Across the continent, every time the rains came some of the corn stored in their granaries began to rot. Would it be doom, the Age of Polished Stone forever, or toward the stars? The historian watches, his breathing suspended, and sees the pointer settle toward decline. They threw the spoiled stuff out for the birds, angrily reproaching their supernaturals, and never knew that the supernaturals had given them a mash.
The Americans got no help from heaven or the saints but they knew what to do with corn. In the heroic age our forefathers invented self-government, the Constitution, and bourbon, and on the way to them they invented rye. (“If I don’t get rye whiskey I surely will die” expresses one of Mr. Toynbee’s inexorable laws of civilization more succinctly than ever he did.) Our political institutions were shaped by our whiskeys, would be inconceivable without them, and share their nature. They are distilled not only from our native grains but from our native vigor, suavity, generosity, peacefulness, and love of accord. Whoever goes looking for us will find us there.
It is true that the nation has never quite lived up to them. From the beginning a small company have kept idealism alight, but the generality have been content to live less purely and less admirably. The ideal is recognized everywhere; it is embodied in an American folk saying that constitutes our highest tribute to a first-class man, “He’s a gentleman, a scholar, and a judge of good whiskey.” Unhappily it is more often generous than deserved. Anyone who will work hard enough can acquire gentility, but there are never many judges of good whiskey. Now there are only you and I and a few more. One reason is that there is little good whiskey to judge — we do not hold our fellows to the fullness of the nation’s genius.
In the era called Prohibition we lapsed into a barbarism that was all but complete — though that dark time did contribute some graces to our culture. In those days one heard much scorn of Prohibition whiskey, but the truth is that there was just about as much good whiskey then as there had been before or is now. (It was then, moreover, that a taste for Scotch, previously confined to a few rich men who drank an alien liquor as a symbol of conspicuous waste, spread among us — a blight which the true-born American regards as more destructive to the ancient virtues than Communism. Think of it less as a repudiation of our heritage than as the will to believe. If we paid the bootlegger for Scotch, we thought, we might get the Real Old McCoy, though one whiskey is as easily made as another where they print the label and compound the flavoring.) Such good whiskey as existed was hard to find but when hadn’t it been? Below the level of the truly good we went on drinking the same stuff we had drunk before. We are still drinking it now. The untutored are, and the unworthy.
Well, you say, how good is good whiskey? Out in the bourbon country where the honor of the taste buds runs 180-proof, you can get an argument in ten seconds and a duel in five minutes by asserting that it is as good as it used to be. Here the little stillhouse comes in again. Men grown reverend and wise will tell you that the glory departed when the big combine bought up the family distillery. They are remembering their youth and the smell of mash in a hundred Kentucky valleys. There was art then, they say, and the good red liquor had the integrity of the artist and his soul too, and between Old Benevolence and Old Mr. This there were differences of individuality but none of pride, and how shall America have heroes again, or even men, with this dead-level nonentity they force us to drink now?
They scandalize and horrify the modern distiller. The little stillhouse, he tells you, was steadily poisoning Kentucky. The old-time distiller’s mash was not only uncontrolled and vagrant – he got his feet in it and no doubt his hogs too, and it spoiled on him or went contrary or deceived him. Those remembered subtleties were only impurities, or maybe eccentricities of the still going haywire, or the leniency of the gauger, or most likely an old man’s lies. He himself with his prime grains, his pedigreed yeast, his scientific procedures controlled to the sixth decimal place, and his automatic machinery that protects everything from the clumsiness and corruption of human hands – he is making better bourbon than the melancholy gaffers ever tasted in the old time.
We have run into a mass of legend and folklore. It reveals that we are a studious people and serious about serious things, but it does make for prejudice and vulgar error. (You want to know where I stand? You must never besmirch yourself with a blend, son — what do you suppose bond is for?) Devoted men, hewing their way through it, have come out with one finding that leans a little toward the opinion of the elders. The old-time distillers, known locally as the priesthood, put their whiskey into bond at less than proof, that is with the percentage of alcohol below fifty. Four years of the aging process brought it up to proof and they bottled it as it was, uncut. The modern distiller, known everywhere as a servant of the people, impelled by government regulation and the higher excise, bonds his stuff at a few percent above proof. Aging in bond increases the percentage still more, so after bottling he cuts it back to proof with water.
There is instruction here: when you add water to whiskey, you change the taste. In a moment of pure devotion, therefore, the faithful drink it straight….See to it that your demeanor is decorous and seemly at that moment. Attentively but slowly, with the poise of a confidence that has never been betrayed since the Founding Fathers, with due consciousness that providence has bestowed a surpassing bounty on the Americans or that they have earned it for themselves. Our more self-conscious brethren, the oenophilists, are good men too and must not be dispraised, but they vaingloriously claim more than we can allow. Their vintages do indeed have many beauties and blessings and subtleties but they are not superior to ours, only different. True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine with a rich and magical plenitude of overtones and rhymes and resolved dissonances and a contrapuntal succession of fleeting aftertastes. They dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.
The modern distiller will tell you that whiskey comes to full maturity in its sixth year, that thereafter its quality falls off. The truth is not in him, do not give him heed, and why for a hundred and seventy years have sound distillers, and quacks too, used the adjective “Old” in their brand names? He obviously does not believe himself. At mounting expense he keeps some of his product in bond for eight years and charges correspondingly, and the result is well worth the mark-up. Eight years is the longest period for which he can get bond but at still greater expense he keeps some in the wood for four years more — and with a twelve-year-old whiskey to point to, Americans can hold their peace and let who will praise alien civilizations. The distiller will also tell you that nothing happens to the finest after it is bottled, and again he is wrong. He is especially wrong about rye. In the spacious time when taxes increased the cost of whiskey by only five hundred percent (it is several thousand now) the wise and provident and kindly bought it by the keg, in fact bought kegs up to their ability to pay, and bottled it themselves in due time and laid it away for posterity. Better to inherit a rye so laid away in 1915 than great riches. I have known women past their youth and of no blatant charm to make happy marriages because Uncle John, deplored by the family all his life long as a wastrel, had made them his residuary legatee. There is no better warranty of success in marriage; an helpmeet so dowered will hold her husband’s loyalty and tenderness secure. A rye thus kept becomes an evanescence, essential grace. It is not to be drunk but only tasted and to be tasted only when one is conscious of having lived purely.