Whether Southerners drink more than their regional brethren—more often, that is, or more immoderately, or, as in New Orleans and SEC college towns, both—can be debated elsewhere. My argument today, proffered with the warbly certitude one derives from a second glass of bourbon, is that Southerners drink better than elsewhere Americans. (Quantity, after all, is not quality, though at a certain tipping point in the evening they can sometimes seem to run off into the woods together.) I should preface this, however, with some clarifications: I do not mean to suggest that what Southerners drink is liquidly superior to what is drunk elsewhere, though often it is. From the South came bourbon, came Antoine Peychaud’s invention of the cocktail; from the North, Long Island Iced Tea. Yet my poor throat still bears scar tissue from the moonshine sold at a now-defunct juke joint in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which not even an 8:1 ratio of Mello Yello to moonshine could mellow, and which was otherwise useful because it removed not only paint but the metal beneath it. And while the South possesses its share of beer snobs, they are marginal figures, like trout anglers; the primary test of a beer in the South is its temperature. No, where Southerners differ—and where they excel—is in how they drink: zealously, ebulliently, loquaciously, impiously. One could lay reasonable credit to the environment, I suppose: When it’s 98 degrees outside, a drink is not merely a drink, it’s the sensate equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. Or on the theological briars that pricked Southern drinking culture: In a region dominated by Baptists, drinking carried, at best, the tinge of scandal, and the risk of eternal damnation, at worst. Gusto was required to overcome that hard-shell resistance; every drink mattered because, well, that drink might actually matter.
To drink like a Southerner one must drink with relish, rather than drab connoisseurship; with a sense of semi-forbidden delight, as when breaking curfew for the first time; with garrulous abandon, unlike those pinched-faced drinkers one sees in, say, New England taverns, self-medicating beneath the glow of a soundless television; and with a keen appreciation for what Walker Percy, that paragon of the Southern drinker, called the “cumulative bliss” of a glass of bourbon. There are variations to this, of course. A story I’ve heard, possibly apocryphal, has it that Shelby Foote and William Faulkner once made a pilgrimage together to the battlefields of Shiloh, in Tennessee. It was a Sunday morning, but along the way they were able to score some moonshine from a fellow they spotted having his shoes shined, Faulkner’s logic being that any man having his shoes shined was likely to know where to find some whiskey. By the time they’d reached the battlefield’s famed Peach Orchard, they were loose enough to want to reenact the great cavalry charge on their own, sabers drawn in their minds. That’s how to drink like a Southerner.