The High & the Low: Make Mine a Scotch

Illustration by Michael Witte
by Julia Reed - December/January 2017

In defense of drinking something other than bourbon

In 1975, Walker Percy wrote a now-famous essay for Esquire called, simply, “Bourbon.” This was long before the stuff became a cult and a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy could set you back more than two thousand dollars. In the piece, Percy confesses up front that he’s no connoisseur (his preferred brand was Early Times, and he was no stranger to the rather rougher satisfactions of long-ago labels like Two Natural); his subject lay in “the aesthetic of bourbon drinking” and the “pleasure of knocking [it] back.” I will have to take his word for it. I don’t like bourbon.

Let me say up front that I do like Walker Percy. You will not find a bigger fan than me. I reread The Last Gentleman every year and Lancelot and Love in the Ruins almost as much. I reread the bourbon essay too, quite a bit, because like so much of what Percy wrote, it makes me sit up and say, “Yes, yes, I know that!” It also makes me laugh out loud. To (very loosely) paraphrase Percy, there are few better defenses against the anomie of the twenty-first century than the shock of recognition and a good chuckle.

But for me Scotch whiskey is the far superior front line. In Love in the Ruins, set in “a time near the end of the world,” the protagonist holes up in an abandoned Howard Johnson’s with fifteen cases of Early Times and a whole lot of Vienna sausage. By contrast, I could face down pretty much anything with some Dewar’s and Campbell’s chicken noodle. I do not for one minute begrudge Percy his bourbon. And while it doesn’t have the same effect on me, I totally get his description of  “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime” whenever he throws back a shot. That is great stuff on the page. But then—and here is where I have one tiny, tiny quibble with my hero—he gets a tad judgmental about my own whiskey of choice (which, by the way, is the world’s most popular spirit). He says he finds drinking Scotch to be “like looking at a picture of Noel Coward.” That’s a great line too, and very funny, but I happen to adore Noel Coward. There’s also this: “The [Scotch] whiskey assaults the nasopharynx with all the excitement of paregoric.” Unlike Percy, I am not a doctor and I don’t know much about my nasopharynx, but I do know that when I drink Scotch, there’s a warmth surging through my veins that makes me feel immediately better about what Percy aptly described as “the sadness of the old dying Western world” and enables me to be far more compassionate toward my fellow man. The feeling I get sounds not all that unlike the description junkies give of that first lovely hit, which is one of the many reasons I’ve never tried heroin.

Percy’s barbs aside, being a Scotch drinker from the Deep South has been something of a cross to bear my whole life. One of the many stereotypes we Southerners have long had to put up with is that all of us are unreconstructed devotees of corn liquor. People are forever offering me glasses of bourbon—and in far too many instances, handing me a highball before I can put them off. Single-malt Scotch may be as hip these days as small-batch bourbon among the sort of people who keep up with such things, but there are lots of places down here where even a simple bottle of J&B is not easy to come by. Take, for example, the Grey Goose, a now (extremely sadly) defunct bar in Delcambre, Louisiana. My first visit there was on one of life’s seriously perfect nights. My then beloved and I had driven west from New Orleans to eat crawfish at Black’s in Abbeville and generally get up to no good.

When we passed the Goose, an old roadhouse on the two-lane highway between Abbeville and New Iberia, we could hear Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” streaming out the open windows, so, naturally, we pulled into the oyster-shell lot. The crowd mostly consisted of drunk shrimpers, just off the boat and still in their white rubber boots, and the proprietor, a woman with an almost incomprehensible Cajun accent and a slight beard, managed to make me understand that she had not washed her face since the former governor Edwin Edwards had kissed her during his last reelection campaign, which at that point would have been eight years earlier. There was a large photo of Edwards on the wall and some aquatic taxidermy, I think, and when I asked the bartender for a Scotch and water, he just looked at me, utterly uncomprehending. Looking back, I’m sure it was the first time the poor man had heard the word Scotch, much less received an order for it, and I cannot imagine why I placed it, but he got down on the floor and rifled through the lower cabinet, arising triumphantly with a dusty bottle of VO, which I declined in favor of a cold Bud—delicious but not the same. Now I make like my mother, who never travels without a giant plastic flask of Dewar’s or Johnny Walker Black. Twenty-first-century anomie is no small thing to reckon with, and one doesn’t want to be caught off guard.

The brand of Scotch I grew up drinking was called John Handy (presumably named after the Scot who graced the bottle in tartans and a tam). I developed a pretty healthy taste for it at a relatively young age by enthusiastically clearing up the glasses during my parents’ frequent and lively cocktail parties, and I kept at it until they stopped making it in the early 2000s. Though Mississippi was dry in my youth (it was the last state to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, in 1966), booze flowed freely—it just meant that we were dependent on the brands the bootlegger stocked. I know our own personal bootlegger carried Old Crow bourbon because my mother left a bottle in the mailbox at Christmas as a present for the postman. My father recalls that Ballantine’s and Grand Old Parr were among the Scotch offerings. The latter, featuring an etching of a bearded man on a fake parchment label and cobwebs etched into the glass, was a big favorite, especially with his lady friends (before my mother’s time), who liked using the bottle as a candleholder. When, on Daddy’s first trip to Westminster Abbey, he encountered Thomas Parr’s grave, the guide told him Parr was famous only for being very old. The label did not lie.

Daddy and his friends switched to John Handy after it was served at a party given by the local bon vivant Larry Pryor, who was a world traveler and renowned foxhunt host (I learned to ride on a horse named Squire Pryor), a bachelor who generally served the best of everything so everybody figured that was the way to go. It turned out to be imported to New Orleans, where it was mixed with the local tap water and bottled before being distributed by the Schwegmann’s grocery store chain. It wasn’t until I went off to boarding school that I learned that John Handy wasn’t exactly the toast of the nation. In an attempt to seem older than my sixteen years, I asked for it by name in the D.C. liquor store where my friends and I occasionally scored. The man at the counter happened to be from Louisiana, and he not only refused to sell us anything, he also advised me not to embarrass myself further by asking for a bottle that no one in our nation’s capital would likely have ever seen.

My father and his business partner Barthell Joseph remained staunch Handy defenders until its demise (I am betting that its seven-dollars-a-fifth price tag had a whole lot to do with their loyalty, but they also really liked it—the last present I got from Barthell before he died was two cases of half gallons, for which I was grateful). But my mother made the switch to Dewar’s years ago. I recently sampled the half gallon I keep stashed in Barthell’s memory, and I now understand why, though I owe the good Mr. Handy a lot for nurturing my love of a whiskey that saw me through many trying times and even more delightful ones.

There was one other thing in the Percy essay that bugged me. He said he thought of Scotch drinkers “as upwardly mobile Americans, Houston and New Orleans businessmen who graduate from bourbon about the same time they shed seersucker for Lilly slacks.” Ouch. I know a lot of people in Houston and New Orleans, but most of them aren’t exactly businessmen in the strict sense of the term, so I asked my good friend Will Feltus, who does this sort of thing for a living, to tell me who exactly does drink Scotch. A bourbon drinker from Natchez, Will had just finished studying a Nielsen Scarborough 2016 survey of two hundred thousand booze consumers, and the first fact he delivered was a shocker: A whopping 61 percent of the respondents (American adults over eighteen) reported not drinking any distilled spirits in the last thirty days. My first thought was that we people in Mississippi did not endure (the admittedly not very hard) hardship of living in a dry state so that other people would not engage in their God-given right to drink freely, without any encumbrances or inhibitions. The second was that no wonder this country of ours is so messed up—how the hell else are you supposed to keep Percy’s noxious particles and the general trauma of everyday existence at bay without the odd nip?

Of those who did imbibe, it turns out that Scotch drinkers are not “upwardly mobile” but more “upscale,” full stop—better educated and more likely to have an AmEx card. They are also way more male than female, tend toward the middle politically (bourbon drinkers are further to the right), and mostly live and drink in the mid-Atlantic and Pacific states. The rest of the info is as you would predict. Bourbon remains more popular in the South (especially Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas) than anywhere else, but not by all that wide a margin, maybe because all the women are drinking vodka. There was also the finding that 42 percent of Scotch drinkers will also drink bourbon but only 20 percent of bourbon drinkers will drink Scotch. This bears out what I’ve always liked to think: that we Scotch drinkers as a class are more open-minded, more diverse and willing in our appetites—equally at home listening to, say, Noel Coward’s “I Went to a Marvellous Party” or the Kentucky-born Loretta Lynn singing “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind).” It’s certainly true that these days I would not turn down a swig of Pappy or even a modest glass of straight-up Blanton’s, but I’ll remain ever true to the amber elixir that warms both my blood and my heart. And I’m in good company. When the young Winston Churchill covered the Second Boer War as a correspondent for the Morning Post, he took along roughly $4,000 worth of wine and spirits, including 18 bottles of St.-Emilion and another 18 of 10-year-old Scotch. 

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