Growing up in a small West Tennessee town, I noticed that adults were accorded several privileges denied me: sex, cars, cigarettes and not having to get booster shots at the beginning of each school year. Perhaps the most exotic privilege, however, was alcohol, which was made more mysterious by its apparent class structure. There was a pecking order that seemed to orient itself around age and status. Beer drinkers tended to be young, reckless day laborers or soldiers home on leave. Wine drinkers were effete, few and furtive—they subscribed to The New Yorker, and if you ran into them in a liquor store they’d tell you they were picking up communion wine—even if they were Baptists and the wine was white. Even more exotic—and scarce—were drinkers of clear spirits; there was something foreign and Yankee-fied about gin and vodka, and I was in my 20s before I saw a martini outside of a movie. So it was that I concluded that real adults, particularly real men, drank brown liquor—bourbon, Tennessee whiskey or Scotch—and even though I was the biggest goodie-two-shoes you ever saw, I couldn’t wait until I could too.
But fate intervened, and before I was old enough to have a fake ID, I was packed off to Webb School in Bell Buckle, where harsh punishment was meted out to drinkers (and smokers too, for that matter). I encountered further delay when, only three weeks after my Webb graduation, I reported to West Point, where they took an even dimmer view of abusing God’s temple. I know what you’re thinking—and you’re right. I did drink while I was at the Academy, but conditions there didn’t favor whiskey. In those days, cadets could not freely leave campus, so beer became our preferred contraband. It was easier to obtain, to conceal and, most important, to jettison when the barracks inspectors closed in. Thus, when I finally graduated and could lift a glass of whiskey without fear of imprisonment, I found that four years of surreptitious drinking had made me a beer man. I struggled with this dilemma. Here I was, a bona fide adult, free of tactical officers and prefects, ready to imbibe Jack Daniel’s like the patrician I wanted to be, and all I wanted was a Heineken.
And for 30 years I remained a beer drinker. I consoled myself with the knowledge that beer is one of man’s oldest technologies. It’s also a convivial, versatile drink. After all, you can’t very well order a Jack Daniel’s and water while you’re watching a Sounds game. Still, I felt that I was missing something, that I’d let down the team, especially when I went back home. But then I turned 50, and to my immense relief, I began drinking whiskey periodically, especially in the fall. There’s something about its smoky flavor that suits autumn. Or maybe it’s because whiskey is a contemplative drink, and realizing that you have more yesterdays than tomorrows will make you contemplative. Whatever the reason, I felt that I had at last become an adult.
I found, however, that, like all adult things, whiskey is complicated. For one thing, whiskey drinkers, like barbecue eaters, are very tribal. Just as pork-eaters tend not to mix with beef-eaters, Scotch-drinkers eschew bourbon-sippers. Devotees can’t even agree on the spelling. English, Scotch and Canadian adherents prefer “whisky,” while American and Irish disciples drink “whiskey.” I go with the latter. After all—I’m an American, and “whiskey” reputedly comes from the Irish “uisque beatha” or “water of life.”
However you spell it, whiskey is distilled from grain (barley, wheat or corn).1 The grain is mixed with water and yeast to form mash, which ferments to form the magic elixir. The resulting distillate is aged in barrels made of oak, which gives the liquid its distinctive amber color. While all mashes are essentially similar, the predominant grain determines the lineage of the whiskey. Scotch is made from barley, while bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye result from mixtures in which one grain accounts for one-half the recipe. For example, bourbon is 51 percent corn. American whiskey can be either sour mash or sweet mash. Sour mash whiskey is akin to sourdough bread in that a portion of an old mash is added to the new—sweet—mash.
And while we’re talking about sour mash, let’s get one thing straight: Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are not bourbons. They’re Tennessee whiskeys, so called because they go through the Lincoln County Process, in which the distillate is filtered through maple charcoal before the whiskey is encased in oak barrels to reach its higher state of being. I don’t know about you, but I swell with civic pride when I realize that our state has contributed this technology to the world—along with the Moon Pie, the RC Cola and rock ’n’ roll. (This knowledge is also an almost sure-fire winner in barroom bets, by the way. You may safely wager any amount of money that the word “bourbon” does not appear on a Jack Daniel’s bottle.)
Finally, there’s the question of proof, which simply describes the alcohol content. For example, 90-proof whiskey has an alcohol content of 45 percent. The term stems from the early days of whiskey-making, when a distiller demonstrated the potency of his product by mixing it with gunpowder. If the mixture burned steadily, its strength was “proved.”
That’s all you really need to know about whiskey’s composition and provenance. There remains only one more thing—how to drink it—and that’s pretty easy. Whiskey doesn’t lend itself to concoctions. You won’t see any umbrellas or plastic monkeys in a whiskey drink. In fact, with apologies to the venerable Manhattan, no whiskey drink should have more than two ingredients—and only the whiskey itself should have any color. If you put Coke in a fine whiskey, you may as well order a cosmo, because you’re hiding the taste. And taste is what it’s about. I prefer Jack Daniel’s and water myself. In fact, I’m going to have one now. This article is done; fall is coming on, and I’ve grown up at last.
(Footnotes) 1 If you’re a tequila or rum person, you can stop reading here. Although both are distilled, neither is, strictly speaking, whiskey, and, as far as I’m concerned, tequila is a drug.