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It's Bourbon's Turn

A few bourbon notes, infused with Walker Percy observations

Photo by Nick Rickert / Unsplash
“If this joker has to knock back five shots of Bourbon every afternoon just to stand the twentieth century, he’s already an alcoholic. Very well.” Walker Percy, referring to himself in the third person, “Bourbon” (1975) (See Signposts in a Strange Land)

Move over gin craze. Bourbon is the new rage.

That’s what a friend told me last week, as he tossed back tequila and I sank gins. We were, he assured me, passé.

He seemed to know what he was talking about and it seems I’ve seen a lot of references to the brown stuff lately. I was so shaken by my lack of imbibery relevance, I drank more gin than usual, in hopes of killing the bottle and throwing away the evidence of my irrelevance.

I guess bourbon was considered lower class back in 1975, when Walker Percy noted in his essay “Bourbon” that he thought scotch was for “upward-mobile Americans,” whereas bourbon wasn’t.

That’s not the case anymore. It’s popular, especially, I gather, among snobs, who take it seriously and take themselves seriously. They’ll take their superiority anywhere they can find it. If they can find it in a $36 pack of bourbon-infused toothpicks, they’ll pick it. If their esteem explodes with a $500 bottle off the Facebook whiskey black market, they’ll buy the fuse.

This article spends about the best (reasonably-priced) bourbons spends its entire introduction, bemoaning all the connoisseurship.

Its list seems pretty reasonable, but I was disappointed it didn’t contain Two Natural:

I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 Bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. Walker Percy, “Bourbon” (1975) (See Signposts in a Strange Land)

Percy noted that he hadn’t been able to find it since that time. Based on results from my Google machine, it appears it has been out of stock for at least half-a-century.

It appears the bourbon craze might be putting pressure on glass manufacturers. Owens Illinois is building a big factory in Kentucky to crank out a lot more bottles, just about 90 minutes away from the capital of bourbon country, Bardstown.

For those who aren’t aware, Bardstown is very close to the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani, where Merton wrote Seven Storey Mountain and lived for about 25 years. If you’re a bourbon drinker and a Merton fan, you can make two pilgrimages in one trip.

Percy seems dismissive of the Mint Julep.

[I]n the Deep South [the Mint Julep] is not really drunk much. In fact, they are drunk so seldom that when, say, on Derby Day somebody gives a julep party, people drink them like cocktails, forgetting that a good julep holds at least five ounces of Bourbon. Men fall facedown unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahlil Gibran and the limber lost.

In the next paragraph, he called it an "atrocity, a heavy syrupy bourbon and water in a small glass clotted with ice. But good!"

So, he seems hopelessly ambivalent on the Mint Julep. His uncle, Will Percy, who helped raise him, wasn't so ambivalent. He offered this recipe in his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee:

First you needed excellent bourbon whisky; rye or Scotch would not do at all. Then you put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampened it with water. Next, very quickly—and here was the trick in the procedure—you crushed your ice, actually powdered it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remained dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, you crammed the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Last you filled the glass, which apparently had no room left for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better, and grated a bit of nutmeg on the top.