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whiskey

9 december 2011

Writing "a global history" of whiskey, as Kevin Kosar sets out to do for the Reaktion Books Edible series, is a somewhat self-contradictory project. Distilled spirits are truly a global phenomenon, from Chinese baijiu to Italian grappa. But whiskey is associated with just four countries: Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada. And even within those countries, whiskey production is tightly limited by region. There are only three distilleries (admittedly, large ones) in Ireland. Bourbon is made mostly in Kentucky. Many of the fabled whiskies of Scotland are made on the island of Islay, pop. 3,457. Whiskey distilling is simply not a broad-based popular craft. Yet in the 21st century, whiskey consumption has become more and more universal. Smoky or sour, given its characteristic flavors by aging in barrels either borrowed or burnt, whiskey has come out of very peculiar local traditions to become the prestige liquor of the entire globe.

Kosar's book is more about Scotland, Ireland, and Kentucky than about that global sprawl, but it covers its intended subject admirably. We get a history of whiskey from the first mentions in written texts down to the present era of mass production and high-end specialty brands.

In Kosar's analysis, the fortunes of whiskey have always been strongly tied to government policies. It's odd that this should be so: all sorts of food products are, obviously, affected by government intervention, but cuisines and cultivation tend to have lives of their own. Beer and wine have been regulated, taxed, sometimes prohibited, but remain craft beverages as well as commodities. Whiskey, by contrast, is always a commodity. As William Hogeland notes, whiskey served early Americans as a way of getting grain crops to distant markets in efficiently preserved form. Any grain farmer can quickly distill way more whiskey than (one hopes) he and his household can drink; whiskey's natural destination is the marketplace (aboveboard or black), not the family table. And when things reach the marketplace, the government disposes of them.

American governments learned from that 1790s Rebellion to avoid the kind of micromanagement that at times stifled Scotch and Irish distilleries. I was brought up to believe that the whole history of 19th-century Appalachia consisted of running battles between moonshiners and "revenuers," but it seems that state and federal authorities in America displayed a much more laissez-faire attitude toward strong drink than their counterparts in the UK. In the 20th century, the Irish Republic inadvertently threw a blanket on its distillers by mandating that only five-year-old whiskey could be genuine "Irish"; the resulting liquor was good stuff, but couldn't compete on international markets with younger, cheaper Scotch and Canadian whiskies.

Canadian whiskey was largely the creation of government action – though in this case, the actions of the U.S. government. Prohibition roughed up the bourbon and rye industries, but it made Seagram's the world's dominant distillery. Americans of the early 20th century were such sponges that the 18th Amendment sent shock waves through the global alcohol community, and set the stage for long-lasting redistributions of power.

I grew up with whiskey: my mother dabbed Corby's on my gums to stop teething pain. It may or may not have done so, but it left me with a sense that its nasty rye-toast taste was a normal part of the food supply. I mixed Corby's and pop for my grandfather's highballs; my mother preferred Southern Comfort and 7-Up, a concoction as close as you can get to alcoholic pancake syrup. But appreciation of most whiskies has escaped me. I just don't like Scotch; like the officers trying to fabricate it in Mister Roberts, I think it tastes like iodine. Bourbon is a little better, but I never seek it out. The one whiskey I enjoy is Irish, preferably Paddy, a very lightly-flavored brand that's hard to find in the States. If I'm in a bar where the perishable beverages are of dicey provenance, I order Jameson straight up. The whiskey kills anything residing in the glass, and I can feel like Bogart as I nurse a finger of neat Irish through the evening. Here's looking at you, kid.

Kosar, Kevin R. Whiskey: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.

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