The American Spirits
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 a 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 become a scholar, and nearly anyone can have or 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.
The bootlegger, that is, did just what the publican had done during our golden age, when the saloon business was organized on a basis of straightforward, standardized adulteration. Pick up a manual of trade practices published in that vanished time. You will find listed eleven grades of rye or bourbon (up to fifteen in manuals that recognize a more fastidious hierarchy of castes) that the proprietor of an honest place is to compound on his premises. They are arranged in the order of their cost to him. The first five contain no whiskey at all; they are neutral spirits plus water and some sophisticating ingredients; the cheapest one has no flavoring but sugar. Then come five more grades, neutral spirits and whiskey mixed in varying proportions, eight to one in the cheapest, fifty-fifty in the most expensive, plus flavoring and coloring matter. So to the eleventh, which consists of two raw whiskeys in equal amounts, plus a dash of a somewhat better one, plus prune juice to supply body and finesse, and the manual says, “this is considered the finest of all grades, as it contains no spirits.” Once you got past the eleventh, you reached unadulterated straight whiskey at its rawest and could then progress by regular steps to the best bonded stock. If you could trust the publican.
Let us contemplate some of the adulterator’s art. One of the pests who still intrude on the fellowship is the knowing man. You have seen him—all too often—take a bottle of whiskey, jiggle it a little (perhaps after graceful ritualistic passes), and then, holding it at a slant, call your attention to the beads that form along the edge, nodding his sagacious head, a connoisseur who can’t be fooled. The oldtime saloonkeeper took thought of him. The manual says to take four parts of the oil of sweet almonds (a benzaldehyde from which the prussic acid has been removed), add it to one part of chemically pure sulphuric acid, neutralize the mixture with ammonia, and then dilute the results with twice as much neutral spirits. “This,” it remarks, “is used to put an artificial bead on inferior liquors.” Or how shall we give our product something like a bourbon taste? Easy enough:
Black oxide of manganese
And now, “Place them all in a glass percolator and let them rest for 12 hours. Then percolate and put into a glass still, and distill half a gallon of the Bourbon Oil.”
There are formulas for Rye Oil, Cognac Oil, Rum Essence, or whatever else your fancy may run to. There are compounds that help to make the blend smoother—prune juice (with raisins), peach juice (with apples), “St. John’s Bread Extract” (with dates), raisin extract (with licorice), tea extract (with currants). “They are,” the instructor says, “harmless and efficient aids both to the liquors and to the pocket.” And surely they make for thought.
In our enlightened age we have changed all that, saving the proprietor so much hand labor. We have shifted the burden of adulteration from him to a working partnership between the manufacturer and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. We have, however, retained the frankness of the manuals. Everything—or at least quite a bit—is printed on the label for you to see. If you want less fusel oil, which is removed by the distilling process but restored in the flavoring extract, you can climb through the hierarchy at your pleasure. If you trust the bar. Do not be cynical: there are some bars which you can trust and which will serve you no more adulterants than you may order by brand name. But of these how many can you trust not to practice dilution? If you have found one—and you will from time to time—you have found a precious thing and you are a judge of good whiskey.
Never be cynical about bars, in fact, though it is right to be wary. A glory of American culture is that there is no place so far and no village so small that you cannot find a bar when you want to. (True, in some of the ruder states it must present itself fictitiously as a club or nostalgically as a speakeasy.) Many are more resourceful than the label admits, many others water their whiskey, many are bad or even lousy. Almost all provide instruction for an inquiring mind in the cubic capacity of glassware and how the eye may be misled by the shape and the hand by weight. But do not scorn any of them, not even the neon-lighted or the television-equipped, for any may sustain you in a needful hour. And each of us knows a fair number of good bars and perhaps even a great one. The good bar extends across America, the quiet place, the place that answers to your mood, the upholder of the tavern’s great tradition, the welcoming shelter and refuge and sanctuary—and any man of virtue and studious habits may count on finding it. If you hear of any I’ve missed, let me know. Let us all know.
But a bar, though often a necessity and often an ornament of culture, is for a need, a whim, or perhaps an urgency. For the fleeting hour. For the moment—the high moment, or the low. For, perhaps, the meeting—and may her eyes warm and sparkle when she comes in the door, ten minutes late so that you will always be one up on her. You could not meet her at a better place. Long ago, on 52nd Street I—but let that go. I was saying, bars are a convenience, an assist, a stay and an upholding, but the Americans are a home-loving people and the best place for the devotions proper to their autochthonous liquors is the home. And let’s be fair: though there is never much good whiskey, there is always enough to take care of those who can appreciate it. The surest proof of the moral foundation of the universe is that you can always find good whiskey if you will go looking for it. Resolution, obstinacy, and the spirit of our pioneers will take you to it in the end, though you had better provide yourself with thick-soled shoes for the route may be hard and is certain to be long—and beset with gyps, liars, and the knowing man. I don’t know why but there are more brands of good rye than there are of bourbon. And I don’t know why the God-damned Navy is permitted to monopolize so many of them—but there’s a tip for you. Keep green your friendships in the service, for at any time the officers’ store may have an excellent one that a commisary (one who has not crystallized his tonsils to rock-candy with rum) found on a back road in West Virginia and bought up. I have struck Navy installations a thousand miles from salt water and five hundred miles from fresh that had ryes worth traveling fully that far for—yes, worth listening to commanders talk about MacArthur.
But don’t let me get garrulous so early in the evening. I was saying, there are a lot of sound four-year-old and eight-year-old ryes that seldom or never get advertised. Maybe there are more small distilleries that make rye—the family stillhouse in the vale—and maybe that counts. Or maybe it’s that I’m a rye man myself. But there they are. A wholesaler who has grace and enlightenment buys them, or a club does, or you have intuitive friends or a sudden streak of luck. Regional ryes, perhaps, but by no means small ones. . . . You have your obligations. If you find one new to you, the rest of us are to hear about it. And the dealer’s name.
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 per cent 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 the 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 selfconscious 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 per cent (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 their 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.
And in a world growing daily more bleak with science, it is good to know that art keeps its secrecies. Just as the scientists have never learned precisely what happens in the emulsion of a photographic film when light strikes it, so their most exhaustive researches have never let them in on what happens to whiskey during the aging process. There is paradox: the alcohol should leave it before the water does but the alcohol remains and some of the water goes, no one knows why or whither. There is mystery: what happens does so not in the wood of the keg or in the char that has been burned on its surface but in the zone between them, which is quite imaginary but somehow there. And what happens is beyond analysis by chemistry or anything else—simply, a tendency that whiskey shares with man and all his works, a tendency to live by its baser self, departs from it and the good triumphs. Who wants to know? Enough that whiskey becomes, sometimes, good whiskey. (Here the fellowship will shout: Glory!)
For the palate’s sake, then, we drink whiskey straight. We drink it straight too in patriotic commemoration of the dead who made us a great nation. They walked up to the bar, stood on their own two feet or on one foot if the rail had been polished that morning, and called for whiskey straight in confident expectation and awareness of the national destiny, and we were a sound society, and without fear.
All those decades, all those bars. The Holland House or the Astor House or the St. Nicholas toward which the Englishman on tour made by hackney coach from the boat, so that the magnificence of the New World could burst on him in his first hour such acres of mirrors, such mountains of glasses, such gas chandeliers tipped with a thousand points of flame, and all the ryes and bourbons of a continent to cleanse away the peat-taste of his Scotch. The Knickerbocker . . . I had at least this break from fate, that I got here in time to know the Knickerbocker. It has been exactly reproduced in the most beautiful corner of paradise, with the starry heavens stretching away, admission by card only and saints to serve a probationary period before they can get cards. The Murray Hill, the Parker House, the Planters House, the St. Francis—the Silver Dollar, Joe’s Place, the Last Chance Saloon—river boats and tents at the railhead and tables set up under the elms when the clergy met in convocation or the young gentlemen graduated from college—the last Americans in knee breeches, the first in trousers, deacons in black broadcloth, planters in white linen, cordwainers and longshoremen and principals of seminaries for young women and hard-rock men and conductors on the steam cars and circuit riders and editors and rivermen and sportsmen and peddlers—twenty-two hundred counties, forty eight states, the outlying possessions. The roads ran out in dust or windswept grass and we went on, we came to a river no one had crossed and we forded it, the land angled upward and we climbed to the ridge and exulted, the desert stretched ahead and we plunged into it—and always the honeybee flew ahead of us and there was a hooker of the real stuff at day’s end and one for the road tomorrow. Nothing stopped us from sea to shining sea, nothing could stop us, the jug was plugged tight with a corncob, and we built new commonwealths and constitutions and distilleries as we traveled, the world gaped, and destiny said here’s how.
But there are times when neither the palate nor patriotism is to be consulted and this is a versatile distillate, ministering to many needs. That other supreme American gift to world culture, the martini, will do only at its own hour. But man’s lot is hard and distressful and he may want a drink at almost any hour—midafternoon, after dinner, at midnight, and some say in the morning. (These last drink rum—to hell with them.) At such times you may add water to the American spirits. Charged water is permitted with rye, if you like it that way, and in the splendid city of St. Louis, where civilization took residence long before the Yankees stopped honing their crabbedness on rum, call it “seltzer.” But always plain water with the corn-spirit and the good will of a united people shows in the localisms, “bourbon and branch water” our brethren say south of Mason’s and Dixon’s Line, “bourbon and ditch” west of the hundredth meridian. (You may detect the presence of the Adversary by a faint odor of brimstone and a request for ginger ale.) And, except when you are in a wayward mood, no ice. Ice is for cocktails.
The water bids our genius show its gentleness, taking you by the hand and leading you as softly as the flowers breathe toward loving-kindness. Or as the homing bird soars on unmoving wings at eventide. On this firm foundation the Republic stands. In England they call for a division and the ministry falls, in Russia they shoot a thousand commissars, but in freedom’s land they recess, speak the hallowed names of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, and send out for a statesman’s standby and some soda. Strife ceases, the middle way is found, the bill gets passed, and none shall break our union.
But, first of all, this touch softer than woman’s is to restore you and me to humanity. I do not need the record, a priest, or a philosopher to remind me what I am—timorous, blundering, self-deceived, preposterous, ground down by failure and betrayal of the dream, evidence that though mankind has developed past the earthworm it has not got much farther. And you, you don’t fool me, I know you all too well, I need only look at you or hear you speak. If you were to quote the catechism, “God made me,” you would be lying and on the edge of blasphemy, or over the edge.
The hell we are. This is merely a moroseness of tired and buffeted men, an illusion, and help is at hand to brush it away. When weariness and discouragement come upon us there are many things we might put into our heads to steal away our brains—Marx, the Koran of abstainers, Mein Kampf, addresses made at Commencement or on Mother’s Day, the Chicago Tribune. But we were nourished in a tradition of goodness and the right and we don’t, and I’ll have mine with soda but not drowned. The barb is blunted, the knife sheathed; a star appears above the treetop, the harsh voices of fools die out, and all unseen there was a fire burning on the hearth. In a few minutes we will see each other as we truly are, sound men, stout hearts, lovers of the true and upholders of the good. There’s a good deal in what you’re saying and you say it marvelously well. Dismay, annoyance, resentment—we should have remembered that they are traps the world sets for the unwary. The battle is to the brave, the game to the skillful, the day’s job to who shall do it fortified. We needed only a moment of quickening, a reminder by wisdom laced with a little water that there are dignity and gallant deeds and dauntlessness and disregard of the odds, that evil yields and the shadows flee away. A moment of renewal and then get back in there and pitch, we’re doing all right. Well, maybe a short one--and hey, there’s Bill, get him over here for a minute, a man needs to be told it’s all a lie.
The alchemists never found the philosopher’s stone but they knew that when they did it would, by a process in which distillation succeeded fermentation, transmute base metals into gold. They were on the right track, they made a good start, and American genius finished the job. I give you: Confusion to the enemies of the Republic.