Food & Drink
Rick Bragg’s Whiskey Blues
What does it mean when a Southern writer can’t tell the Pappy from the bad from the ugly?
Illustration: LARS LEETARU
My first lesson in brown whiskey came forty-odd years ago, in a time of bad sideburns and slick leisure suits and eight-track troubadours. I seem to remember Tanya Tucker calling to me from the dashboard, and the Alabama sun burning through the open window of my metal-flake-brown Pontiac Grand Prix. I was a newspaper guy then, on my way to a story I can no longer recall. The Pontiac liked to run hot, but I made it all the way to the middle of nowhere before it finally blew a radiator hose and died in the ditch. I stepped out into a green-gray cloud of scalding steam, cursing all the Pontiacs that Michigan ever made.
I looked north, then south. Nothing. The closest garage or parts house was twenty miles away, and I couldn’t remember the last farmhouse or mobile home I had seen. I waited twenty minutes before I saw a car, then, five minutes later, another; they didn’t even slow down. I threw my necktie into the back seat—I did not want to die in a clip-on—and started walking. The asphalt shimmered in front of me, bottle caps tamped down into the soft tar.
I didn’t really notice the truck, an ancient Ford, till it rolled up beside me. An old man in overalls and a begrimed undershirt, one knobby elbow out the window, looked me up and down.
I was a country boy myself, or at least I had been. Hard to tell, I guess, in that Ban-Lon shirt smoldering across my back.
“Whar’s yore hat?” was all he said, like I was an imbecile left to wander in the weeds.
I crawled into the cab. It smelled of burnt motor oil and gasoline and old beer. I knew it would.
“Thar’s a parts house in Heflin,” he said. He didn’t even consider driving to a house and calling a tow truck. Any fool could change a radiator hose.
“Got any water?” I asked, and he just shook his head and handed me a pint bottle of whiskey, the kind bootleggers sell in every dry county in the world.
“I better not,” I said. “I’m workin’.”
He just looked all around us, at the wide-open, broad, green nothing. If ever there was a land made for secrets, it was Clay County, Alabama.
I unscrewed the cap and took a slash…
I still can’t really describe it, how it seared and abraded my throat. I imagined broken glass, in a puddle of burning gasoline.
AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH, my mind screamed.
But I did not cough and sputter, as they do in the movies. Steam did not pour from my ears, like in the cartoons. I did not pray to Jesus. Back then, young men did not act a fool in front of their elders.
I just thanked him, hoarsely, and wiped away a tear.
He took a slash himself and, as the miles passed beneath us, poured out his wisdom on inexpensive alcohol.
“See, son, your cheap liquor won’t hurt a man’s insides, because it’s weaker than that fancy whiskey, like that Jack Daniel’s, or that Kentucky bourbon,” he said. “That’ll burn a hole right through you.”
If cheap liquor could kill a man, he said, there wouldn’t be any poor men left to walk on God’s green earth. It would just be Lutherans and teetotalers and rich men, and what a sorry place that would be.
That logic did not sound precisely right to me, but I nodded anyway. I’d only had three swallows, and I was already pretty well drunk, for daytime.
I told him the truth; I never had tasted any good liquor.
He told me, in all his long life, he never had, either.
* * *
Twenty years later, I sat at a table in Midtown Manhattan with a small gathering of writers and editors, expatriated Southerners who had followed their dreams and ambitions to West Forty-Second Street, Broadway, and Park Avenue; if ever there had been a caucus of people who knew their brown liquor, this was it. Expensive bottles gleamed behind the bar as waiters brought out some of the finest alcohol Kentucky and Tennessee ever made. “Rich folks’ liquor,” my uncles would have called it, but they would have said it with respect. There were bottles there, glinting amber and gold, that cost more than my Grand Prix.
Someone passed me a glass, and I took a gentlemanly sip.
AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH, my mind screamed.
And right then, I knew. I could barely tell the difference between a two-hundred-dollar bottle of brown liquor in an overpriced restaurant and a two-dollar snort from an old man’s traveling whiskey on the road to Lineville.
There was just something missing in me, something that should have been inherent. I had grown into a man believing that there were just some things a man needed to know, no matter what class he was born to, like how to tie fishing lures, and spot good shotguns, and sharpen a knife. And a man should know brown liquor, from the well brands in a honky-tonk to the bottle gathering dust in a rich man’s will and testament.
I was born to know it; my grandpa made corn whiskey in the deep hollers of the mountain South and did time in Atlanta when the Federals ran him down on a pulpwood road. My kin drank. Whiskey was as essential as air. Sobriety, we truly believed, was a rock we crawled upon only to die.
I remember seeing my uncle Jimbo stand on a riverbank with a pint of Tennessee whiskey in his fist, remember seeing him turn it up till it was all gone, remember the look of wonder on his face, as if he had discovered something in the bottom of that thin, flat bottle that no one had ever experienced before.
And he would make a sound, a sound that was part exultation, part scream.
Now I know it was just a rebel yell.
If it was only fair whiskey, he would bait his hook, find a tree to lean against, and fall asleep. If it was good whiskey, he would do a little buck dance by the water’s edge, tell lies till he was out of breath, and sing every song Jimmie Rodgers ever made.
I, of all people, should have the gift.
I’m a writer, for God’s sake.
I’m a Southern writer.
Find a sober one.
I always understood the escape that brown liquor could bring. It provided a rare peace of mind, a cloudy goodwill. Once, in a bar in Uptown New Orleans, I toasted the LSU Tigers. I hate the LSU Tigers.
But if a man can’t really tell the difference between rough and smooth, between good and bad, then he is a philistine. It was just anesthesia. I drank less and less. The myth of fine alcohol was just that: myth.
Yet, even when I confessed, when I told people of my ignorance, they seemed not to hear. Nice people kept pouring fancy liquor down me, believing I had some kind of divining rod in my bones. I had written books about whiskey men, hadn’t I? I tried to tell them I didn’t drink much, but people still did it, engaging me on caramel coloring and smoky hints and charred barrels while lamenting the heist of a treasure trove of Pappy Van Winkle. I thought “Pappy Van Winkle” was a nursery rhyme.
Somehow, bizarrely, I even developed a reputation for the drinking I did not do.
“Is poor ol’ Rick still having trouble with the bottle?” someone would say.
“He can’t help it, bless his heart,” someone would answer. “You know, his people was always that way.”
I know this because of another well-meaning soul, who would report on the conversation, and then pat me on the arm. The beautiful thing about Southerners is how happy they are to tell you all the evil things that other people say about you.
It was even said that I had a phantom bottle of aged whiskey in my desk drawer, the way old newspapermen and authors used to do. Instead, I only had an ancient, gummy peppermint and a three-year-old pouch of Delta Air Lines peanuts.
I found it easier, in time, to just go along with it all. It made me picturesque. I always wanted to be picturesque.
I accepted glass after glass, joining in conversations on Gentleman Jack or Jim Beam Black, on the differences between the craftsmen of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, between Scotch and Irish, blended and single malt… and on and on. But even as I got older, it all still tasted alike, all tasted harsh; even the smoothest brown whiskey tasted like green persimmons to me.
And I’d just nod and say, “Man, that’s smoooooooth.”
No one ever seemed to notice that when I got up from the table, the glass was still mostly full. I have poured good whiskey on the sand. I have, literally, watered the plants in restaurants.
Someone told me, a while back, they had heard I had finally quit drinking. I sure was glad to hear that.
But then I heard I had relapsed and was back in my cups again. That’s the way it is with imaginary whiskey. Once it gets its imaginary claws in you, it’s almost impossible to imaginarily yank that imaginary monkey off your back.
* * *
Maybe I was, I wondered, just not destined to like brown liquor. Maybe I was, strange as it might seem, a martini man.
Nope. Vermouth reminded of the time I accidentally ate a Wet-Nap at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sylacauga.
I was relieved to learn this. Martini drinkers all seemed like people I would like to punch in the snoot.
It was the same with all other cocktails. Designer vodka tasted like paint thinner; fine, dry gin tasted medicinal. Unless you were in the jungle, being carried off by mosquitoes and malaria, there didn’t seem to be any point. High-end tequila tasted like soap. Sherry tasted like cough drops.
I had a Manhattan once. I do not possess the words. Goat sputum, maybe.
I hoped, sincerely, it would be different with rum; I had, after all, spent much of my writing life in tropic-tinged places like Haiti, Miami, and New Orleans. Maybe this was the brown liquor I was meant to drink and love. Pirates drank rum. Revolutions were fueled by it.
Nada. I couldn’t differentiate a five-hundred-dollar bottle of rum, distilled in the bloody heart of a revolution and smuggled out of the country on the last plane out, from the rum I had inside a plastic pirate’s head on spring break 1977 in Panama City Beach.
I had, just once, an inkling of the devotion some drinkers had for brown liquor. A company in Haiti distills a rum called Barbancourt. In it, you can smell the charcoal fires that people use to cook their meals, taste the raw sugarcane. The wet air is thick with ghosts there. You can taste them in it, too.
I watched democracy break out over a glass of it, sitting in a Pétion-Ville bar as, outside, someone threw rocks against the wall. And I tasted, ever so quick, the spirit of the place. And then it was gone.
* * *
Obviously, I was defective. But in time, as pretension of any kind began to matter less and less to me, I came to wonder if perhaps I was fine, and the rest of the entire, liquor-sipping world was putting me on.
I went to a bourbon tasting at one writing event, just to see if one of those experts would actually use the words “fruity bouquet.” No one did, but I heard “essence of oak” and “hints of vanilla” a lot.
If brown liquor was so nuanced, I reasoned, why did so many people consume it in something called “shots”? Gunslingers, hard-boiled gumshoes, flinty-eyed molls, clench-jawed marines, all “knocked back” their liquor almost contemptuously. It did not even register on their palates before it entered their bloodstreams. Only the rich folks had time to sip, and to speculate.
I remember a drinking night with my lifelong friend Greg Garrison and some other buddies in a Birmingham bar, in the 1980s. He did five shots of Wild Turkey and accused the waitress of serving him watered-down booze.
“Miss? Miss?” he said, “I think this whitsey is defective.”
That is a connoisseur.
Now I am old and no longer care, but I am forced to admit that, in my lifetime, brown liquor was the conspirator in just about everything I wrote. I remember drinking rum with a man accused of blowing a jetliner from the sky in his private war against Fidel Castro, because politics should only be discussed while drinking, he said, and only in Spanish. I remember sipping whiskey in a bar in New Orleans, watching a woman dance like a snake across the floor; I am pretty sure she was the devil. I remember riding my motorcycle to a white-sand beach on the Coosa River with a Tupperware jug of premixed Jack and Coke, remember lying in the hot sun amid a bunch of backsliding Baptists, thinking life would never be so good again. I remember a gagging sip of illegal, forbidden whiskey on a rooftop in Peshawar, Pakistan, and a strong, long pull of bourbon smuggled into the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, as Tom Petty sang me to sleep. I remember drinking with freedom fighters, and football coaches, and my father, but that was just in a dream. I even drank Southern Comfort once with Gennifer Flowers, and then she sang me a song; by God, top that.
And once, on a long afternoon in the Mississippi Delta, I drank rotgut whiskey with a notorious bluesman named T-Model Ford. He kept his whiskey behind the seat of his truck, next to his .38. I asked him, blearily, how many men he had killed.
“Does it count,” he said, “if I run over ’em with my Pontiac?”
The liquor runs through it all.
Liquor, and Pontiacs.
I wonder, sometimes, what happened to that old man in Clay County. I’d like to tell him what became of me.
He would probably just unscrew the cap on that bad whiskey and ask me if, in my world travels, I ever found me a hat.