Whiskey Is the Original ‘Cup of Kindness’

The barley fields of Scotland and Ireland gave birth to a drink that became popular around the world

The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2019

On New Year’s Eve, the song “Auld Lang Syne” urges us to “take a cup of kindness.” It’s an old Scottish saying, meaning to share a friendly tipple—presumably of single malt whiskey.

Nowadays there are whisky (Scottish, with no e), whiskey (Irish and North American), rye whiskey (North American) and bourbon (American), but no matter what the drink is called, the method for making it is essentially the same. Like beer, its ancient precursor, whiskey is made with water, grains and yeast. It’s the distillation process that leads to a higher alcohol content in whiskey. For that we must thank an Egyptian alchemist from around the 2nd century named Maria Hebraea (Mary the Jewess) of Alexandria, whose celebrated inventions include the distillation pot.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In the boggy moors of Scotland and Ireland, where never a grape will grow but barley is plentiful, medieval monks learned how to make a whiskey fiery enough to take a man down if he wasn’t careful. The Annals of Clonmacnoise, a 15th-century chronicle of early Irish history, records that in 1405 the clan chieftain Richard MaGranell drank a “surfeit” of whiskey over Christmas and died.

From the 17th century onward, Scotch-Irish emigrants to the New World brought their distillation techniques with them. But it was an Englishman, the Jamestown colonist George Thorpe, who learned that whiskey could be made just as easily with Indian corn. Thorpe was killed in the 1622 Powhatan massacre, but his inventiveness helped to create the American love affair with bourbon, which is made from corn and aged in charred new oak barrels.

Back in the mother country, the punitive Malt Tax of 1725 drove the British whiskey industry underground. Scottish distilleries became secretive nighttime operations, which is how the nickname “moonshine” came to be. A similar whiskey tax levied by the U.S. government in 1791, to pay down the country’s Revolutionary War debt, met with fierce resistance, sparking the so-called Whiskey Rebellion among Pennsylvania farmers. Whiskey production was a lucrative business, so much so that in retirement George Washington turned his Mount Vernon plantation into the country’s largest distillery.

British visitors to the U.S. during the 19th century were delighted by the myriad ways that bourbon could be enjoyed. In 1842, Charles Dickens passed a night in Baltimore drinking mint juleps with Washington Irving; it was, he wrote, “among the most memorable of my life.” American tourists were equally impressed with British know-how around a single malt. In 1874, Mark Twain wrote to his wife Olivia, “Ever since I have been in London I have taken in a wine glass what is called a cock-tail.” The ingredients consisted of “a bottle of scotch whisky, a lemon, some crushed sugar, and a bottle of Angostura bitters.”

Whiskey’s reputation as the liquor of choice for Prohibition Era bootleggers and tortured geniuses like the novelist William Faulkner made it deeply unfashionable among the vodka-drinking MTV generation. But there’s a revival under way, aided by millennials’ love of cocktail culture. In October, a bottle of 1926 Macallan single malt whisky smashed all auction records for a wine or spirit, selling for $1.9 million. That’s $76,000 per ounce of kindness, my dear, or $158,333 a cocktail.

Historically Speaking: Unenforceable Laws Against Pleasure

The 100th anniversary of Prohibition is a reminder of how hard it is to regulate consumption and display

The Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This month we mark the centennial of the ratification of the Constitution’s 18th Amendment, better known as Prohibition. But the temperance movement was active for over a half-century before winning its great prize. As the novelist Anthony Trollope discovered to his regret while touring North America in 1861-2, Maine had been dry for a decade. The convivial Englishman condemned the ban: “This law, like all sumptuary laws, must fail,” he wrote.

Sumptuary laws had largely fallen into disuse by the 19th century, but they were once a near-universal tool, used in the East and West alike to control economies and preserve social hierarchies. A sumptuary law is a rule that regulates consumption in its broadest sense, from what a person may eat and drink to what they may own, wear or display. The oldest known example, the Locrian Law Code devised by the seventh century B.C. Greek law giver Zaleucus, banned all citizens of Locri (except prostitutes) from ostentatious displays of gold jewelry.

Sumptuary laws were often political weapons disguised as moral pieties, aimed at less powerful groups, particularly women. In 215 B.C., at the height of the Second Punic War, the Roman Senate passed the Lex Oppia, which (among other restrictions) banned women from owning more than a half ounce of gold. Ostensibly a wartime austerity measure, 20 years later the law appeared so ridiculous as to be unenforceable. But during debate on its repeal in 195 B.C., Cato the Elder, its strongest defender, inadvertently revealed the Lex Oppia’s true purpose: “What [these women] want is complete freedom…. Once they have achieved equality, they will be your masters.”

Cato’s message about preserving social hierarchy echoed down the centuries. As trade and economic stability returned to Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), so did the use of sumptuary laws to keep the new merchant elites in their place. By the 16th century, sumptuary laws in Europe had extended from clothing to almost every aspect of daily life. The more they were circumvented, the more specific such laws became. An edict issued by King Henry VIII of England in 1517, for example, dictated the maximum number of dishes allowed at a meal: nine for a cardinal, seven for the aristocracy and three for the gentry.

The rise of modern capitalism ultimately made sumptuary laws obsolete. Trade turned once-scarce luxuries into mass commodities that simply couldn’t be controlled. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) confirmed what had been obvious for over a century: Consumption and liberty go hand in hand. “It is the highest impertinence,” he wrote, “to pretend to watch over the economy of private people…either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries.”

Smith’s pragmatic view was echoed by President William Howard Taft. He opposed Prohibition on the grounds that it was coercive rather than consensual, arguing that “experience has shown that a law of this kind, sumptuary in its character, can only be properly enforced in districts in which a majority of the people favor the law.” Mass immigration in early 20th-century America had changed many cities into ethnic melting-pots. Taft recognized Prohibition as an attempt by nativists to impose cultural uniformity on immigrant communities whose attitudes toward alcohol were more permissive. But his warning was ignored, and the disastrous course of Prohibition was set.

The Sunday Times: Let them eat cannabis cake: a great social experiment has begun

Photo: Martin Vorel

Photo: Martin Vorel

In 1992 American TV audiences were amazed when the presidential hopeful Bill Clinton admitted on air that he had smoked cannabis while at Oxford. He managed to save his campaign by adding: “But I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and didn’t try it again.”

Back when Clinton was covering up his pothead years, there was no one in America — at least no one sober — who would have predicted that marijuana was going to become legal in a generation. The 1990s weren’t only about millions of schoolchildren being encouraged to “just say no” to drugs; they were also the decade when law enforcement agencies switched from chasing crack-cocaine dealers to focusing on cannabis possession.

Between 1992 and 2002, marijuana went from being a mere 28% of all drug arrests to 45%. As Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas said about prohibition in 1930 (three years before its repeal): there appeared to be as much chance of legalising cannabis as “there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars — with the Washington Monument tied to its tail”.

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