Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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Bourbon: A Personal History

by Harry Henson

    Bourbon whiskey, unlike rye, is produced from corn – maize – not traditional European grains. As such, it is a uniquely Southern product, and of all distinctly Southern things it is the one most likely to ride out the deluge of globalism. A thousand years from now, few will know anything about Lee or Jackson, worms will have eaten Faulkner’s works, but if mankind still survives, somebody somewhere on this globe will still smack their lips after tossing back the day’s first shot.

    “Whiskey” in the Gaelic supposedly means “water of life.” Modern puritans and prohibitionists would have you believe that it really means “water of death,” but as we well understand, the devil’s children are always liars. In fact, most of us know, or know of, contented souls who livein perfect health well into their tenth or even eleventh decade, assisted by the life-giving elixir. (Why a teetotaler should wish to live a long life anyway  is a question we should here leave unexamined.)

   In my own case, I had a great-grandfather who lived to 97, still capable a week before he died of walking five miles to the still and back for a fresh jug, over mountain roads. However, this is hearsay. But I was very well-acquainted with an aunt who died at about 104 a few years ago.  I say “about” because we are uncertain of her exact birthdate since she carefully excised the incriminating entry from the family Bible. All her life, at least until far advanced in age, she relished her highballs and consumed them in a quantity that I, even as a dissipated bohemian student during the mid-1970s, found daunting.

     I remember the summer gatherings on my grandmother’s porch for that ultimate Southern ritual of gossip and telling stories through steamy mosquito-ridden evenings while ice cubes clinked and bottles gurgled. They were fascinating stories too, particularly when they told you to go away and play before beginning to tell them; unfortunately I can’t remember a detail from a single one, even though my innocent lips had at that time never tasted booze – a deficiency I remedied soon after getting a driver’s license.

   Strolling casually into the liquor store of the next-by small town – everybody knew me in the town where I actually lived – I asked for a quart of Old Grand-Dad. I had seen an ad for that brand in a Playboy magazine and thought it looked neat. Unfortunately, I was ignorant of modern measurements and unaware that the quart size was a historical artifact.

   The clerk stared suspiciously at my youthful face and demanded identification.

   “Oh,” I said, “I forgot and left it in the car. I’ll be right back.”

    Outside, elderly gentlemen sunned themselves on benches, waiting for just these types of emergency. A swift negotiation, and one rose stiffly to make my purchase. Soon, I was speeding along winding country lanes, indulging my first encounter with the potent ambrosia of Faulkner and Percy. I even had a supply of actual branch water in an Army surplus canteen, filled from a running stream on my grandmother’s farm – bourbon was best when chased with branch water, the old people always said.

    Although I was only 16 and unfamiliar with any more potent a beverage than beer, the bourbon and spring water went down with only a little coughing and burning of eyes. In fact, I killed the whole bottle – luckily, only a half-pint – while a yellow full moon rose over cornfields just being harvested.

    Even after near 40 years, the autumn smell of freshly cut corn brings the memory of that night back clearly – although at the time I couldn’t remember making it home.

     In subsequent years I have deviated into drinking other liquors – even rum on some occasions – but in the end, the call of the sour mash remains strongest. Who could take a shot of rum straight? But bourbon can be taken straight, or mixed with soda water, or just plain water from the tap. Can such a claim be made for any other beverage? A good scotch or cognac is ruined by being adulterated, and a cheap one is too vile to be drunk neat. But bourbon is outstanding with just about anything you want to combine it with – although I would balk at milk – and the national drink of the Redneck South, Bourbon and Coke, has always made me shudder.

   Well, anybody writing about bourbon and the South, almost by law, has to give a recipe for mint juleps. A confession: I can live quite well without juleps, but when I have one it must be prepared with correct form.

    FIRST, a julep has to be served in a silver cup. Pewter, ceramics, glass or, particularly, plastic, will not do.

    SECOND, and of vital importance, you must use fresh mint. No syrup!

    THIRD, crush the ice with a mallet – down to powder. Crush the mint into the cup, rubbing it all over the inside. Pack the ice to the rim of the cup.

     FOURTH, pour the bourbon in. Let it sit a couple of minutes to extract the essence of the mint.

    As you see, this is a drink not meant for yuppies or other girly boys.

    Consume two or three of them on the veranda during a steamy summer evening, and you will begin to understand the propensity of 19th century Southerners for shouting at each other.

   And that reminds me of the FIFTH and final necessity:

   Drink a julep outside, on a porch or in a gazebo, never in air conditioning.

   You can, of course, ignore all these instructions and prepare a julep however you please. But you won’t have a julep – or, more importantly, the experience of a julep.   
  Harry Henson is a writer living in Richmond County on the Northern Neck.





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