Bourbon

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Liquor and the evangelical churches once lived compatibly together. The minister’s pay was often calculated in whiskey. Edward Eggleston refers in The Hoosier Schoolmaster , published in 1871, to a denomination known as Whiskey Baptists, and it is undoubtedly true that Saint Paul’s admonition to Timothy—to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (I Tim. 5:23)—was enthusiastically followed by many devout church members. The excesses of what may be called the Dark Age of American Drinking, climaxing somewhere around 1860, produced a new climate of opinion in which spirits were widely denounced as “The Serpent on the Sideboard.”

The reasons for the heavy drinking can be understood from a human point of view. They lay in the cultural heritage of an Anglo-Saxon-Celtic ancestry, in a life of hardship and exposure, in a lack of social outlet. “Hot waters” were a fair substitute for the central heating that had not yet been invented and served to soften the rigors of Calvinistic religion.

Despite the deep feeling that existed in America against taxes on consumption, Congress passed an internalrevenue act in 1862 taxing domestic liquors to help finance the Civil War. Alcohol, not one of life’s necessities, meets marvelously well the criteria for the art of taxation, which Jean Baptiste Colbert, celebrated finance minister to Louis xiv, described as consisting of “so plucking the goose as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of squealing.” The tax on alcohol disturbed an ancient way of life among the southern highlanders, where community opinion supported the practice celebrated in the old song:

I’ll go to some holler I’ll put up my still I’ll make you one gallon for a two dollar bill.

The moonshiner has usually been treated either humorously or romantically in popular literature. But these people were not comics or Robin Hoods. After a course in weaving chair bottoms in the state penitentiary they always went back to the mash rake and the meal vats. And sometimes there was the crack of a Winchester down in the hollow and a splash of blood on the laurel.

A revenue agent, so an old story goes, encountered a boy at the door of a mountainside shack.

“Is your father around, sonny?”

“Nope. Pap’s up thar makin’.”

“Makin’?”

“You know—’shine.”

“Up where, did you say?”

“Yander,” pointing toward the steep hillside.

“Is your mother at home?”

“Ma’s up thar, too, helping pappy.”

“Sonny,” said the officer, “could you use fifty cents? All you have to do is to take me up there where I can talk to your father and mother.”

Silently the boy held out his hand.

“No, no,” the government man objected. “Not now, but later—after we get back.”

“I’ll take the money now,” said the boy. “You ain’t coming back.”

Of all alcoholic potables the most majestic, ornamental, and ceremonial is the bourbon drink for great occasions—the mint julep. Its gentle sway has produced a lore that is vast, intricate, and controversial. There are sharp disputes about whether to crush or not to crush the mint or whether the use of alien liquors, such as Georgia corn whiskey sweetened with molasses, should be condoned. These are issues that have estranged and embittered the most devoted of friends. Take, for example, the anguish that the late Colonel Irvin S. Cobb, a man who had a cigar, a bridge, a hotel, and a julep named after him, felt when he heard that his friend H. L. Mencken not only crushed the mint but poured Baltimore rye into his julep cup as well. Of this barbarity Cobb said: “Any guy who’d put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves, would put scorpions in a baby’s bed.”

Kentuckians, who were offering silver julep-goblets as prizes at county fairs as long ago as 1816, have written with eloquence and poetic sentiment of their old bourbon that, as they say, “sits up in the glass,” and they have described in loving detail the proper architecture of the julep. A realistic variation upon the lyric approach to this sensitive topic comes from the accomplished pen of the late, great editor Henry “Marse” Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal , who wrote: Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it. Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them. Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey. Pour the whiskey into a wellfrosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey .