"Bourbon," by Walker Percy (with recipe)
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Sat, 25 Mar 100 16:33:55 -0800
Subject: "Bourbon," by Walker Percy (with recipe)
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Forwarded-by: "Glenn Hughes" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
[Various "obvious" typos corrected by <email@example.com> -psl]
by Walker Percy,
from 'Signposts in a Strange Land'
(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1991), 102-07)
"This is not written by a connoisseur of Bourbon. Nintey-nine percent of
Bourbon drinkers know more about Bourbon than I do. It is about the
aesthetic of Bourbon drinking in general and in particular of knocking it
I can hardly tell one Bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad.
Some bad Boubons are even more memorable than good ones. For example, 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. After knocking back
two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers
looked at each other and said in a single voice: 'Where are the women?'
I have not been able to locate this remarkable Bourbon since.
Not only should connoisseurs of Bourbon not read this article, neither
should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis,
esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth--all real dangers.
I, too, deplore these afflications. But, as between these evils and the
aesthetic of Bourbon drinking, that is, the use of Bourbon to warm the
heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold
phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all,
is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home
from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis
and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at
him but just past the side of his head, and there's Cronkite on the tube
and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and
outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the
sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: 'Jesus, is this
it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?'
If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as
possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol,
the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of Bourbon
drinking is not the pharmacological effect of C(2)H(5)OH on the cortex but
rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little
explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and
the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime--aesthetic considerations to
which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.
By contrast, Scotch: for me (not, I presume, for a Scot), drinking Scotch
is like looking at a picture of Noel Coward. The whiskey assaults the
nasopharynx with all the excitement of paregoric. Scotch drinkers (not
all, of course) I think of as upward-mobile Americans, Houston and New
Orleans businessmen who graduate from Bourbon about the same time they shed
seersuckers for Lilly slacks. Of course, by now these same folk may have
gone back to Bourbon and seersucker for the same reason, because too many
Houston oilmen drink Scotch.
Nothing, therefore, will be said about the fine points of sour mash,
straights, blends, bonded, except a general preference for the lower proofs.
It is a matter of the arithmetic of aesthetics. If one derives the same
pleasure from knocking back 80-proof Bourbon as 100-proof, the formula is
both as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 and as incredible as non-Euclidean geometry.
Consider. One knocks back five one-ounce shots of 80-proof Early Times or
four shots of 100-proof Old Fitzgerald. The alcohol ingestion is the same:
5 X 40% = 2
4 X 50% = 2
Yet, in the case of the Early Times, one has obtained an extra quantum of
joy without cost to liver, brain, or gastric mucosa. A bonus, pure and
simple, an aesthetic gain as incredible as two parallel lines meeting at
An apology to the reader is in order, nevertheless, for it has just occurred
to me that this is the most unedifying and even maleficent piece I ever
wrote--if it should encourage potential alcoholics to start knocking back
Bourbon neat. It is also the unfairest. Because I am, happily and
unhappily, endowed with a bad GI tract, diverticulosis, neurotic colon,
and a mild recurring nausea, which make it less likely for me to become an
alcoholic than my healthier fellow Americans. I can hear the reader now:
Who is he kidding? 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. I submit to this or any semantic. All I am saying
is that if I drink much more than this I will get sick as a dog for two
days and the very sight and smell of whiskey will bring on the heaves.
Readers beware, therefore, save only those who have stronger wills or as
bad a gut as I.
The pleasure of knocking back Bourbon lies in the plain [sic; plane? -psl]
of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My
preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one's value
system--that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of
cultivating one's sensory end organs with the greatest discrimination and
at least cost to one's health, against the virtue of evocation of time and
memory and of the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in
disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to
such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, whereas
connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded stimulation of sensory
end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation.
Two exemplars of the two aesthetics come to mind.
Imagine Clifton Webb, scarf at throat, sitting at Cap d'Antibes on a perfect
day, the little wavelets of the Mediterranean sparkling in the sunlight,
and he is savoring a 1959 Mouton Rothschild.
Then imagine William Faulkner, having finished 'Absalom, Absalom!', drained,
written out, pissed-off, feeling himself over the edge and out of it,
nowhere, but he goes somewhere, his favorite hunting place in the Delta
wilderness of the Big Sunflower River and, still feeling bad with his
hunting cronies and maybe even a little phony, which he was, what with him
trying to pretend he was one of them, a farmer, hunkered down in the cold
and rain after the hunt, after honorably passing up the does and seeing no
bucks, shivering and snot-nosed, takes out a flat pint of any Bourbon at
all and flatfoots about a third of it. He shivers again but not from the
Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.
1926: As a child watching my father in Birmingham, in the exurbs, living
next to a number-6 fairway of the New Country Club, him disdaining both
the bathtub gin and white lightening of the time, aging his own Bourbon in
a charcoal keg, on his hands and knees in the basement sucking on the
siphon, a matter of gravity requiring cheek pressed against the concrete
floor, the siphon getting going, the decanter ready, the first hot spurt
into his mouth not spat out.
1933: My uncle's sun parlour in the Mississippi Delta and toddies on a
Sunday afternoon, the prolonged and meditative tinkle of silver spoon
against crystal to dissolve the sugar; talk, tinkle, talk; the talk mostly
political: "Roosevelt is doing a good job; no, the son of a bitch is
betraying his class."
1934: Drinking at a Delta dance, the boys in bi-swing jackets and tab
collars, tough-talking and profane and also scared of the girls and
therefore safe in the men's room. Somebody passes around bootleg Bourbon
in a Coke bottle. It's awful. Tears start from eyes, faces turn red.
'Hot damn, that's good!'
1935: Drinking at a football game in college. UNC versus Duke. One has a
blind date. One is lucky. She is beautiful. Her clothes are the color of
the fall leaves and her face turns up like a flower. But what to SAY to
her, let alone what to do, and whether she is 'nice' or 'hot' -- a
distinction made in those days. But what to SAY? Take a drink, by now
from a proper concave hip flask (a long way from the Delta Coke bottle)
with a hinged top. Will she have a drink? No. But that's all right. The
taste of the Bourbon (Cream of Kentucky) and the smell of her fuse with
the brilliant Carolina fall and the sounds of the crowd and the hit of the
linesmen in a single synesthesia.
1941: Drinking mint juleps, famed Southern Bourbon drink, though in the
Deep South 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 face-down unconscious, women wander in the woods
disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahil Gibran and the
Would you believe the first mind julep I had I was sitting not on a columned
porth but in the Boo Snooker bar of the New Yorker Hotel with a Bellevue
nurse in 1941? The nurse, a nice upstate girl, head floor nurse, brisk,
swift, good-looking; Bellevue nurses, the best in the world and this one
the best of Bellevue, at least the best-looking. The julep, an atrocity,
a heavy syrupy Bourbon and water in a small glass clotted with ice. But
How could two women be more different than the beautiful languid Carolina
girl and this swift handsome girl from Utica, best Dutch stock? One thing
was sure. Each has to be courted, loved, drunk with, with Bourbon. I
should have stuck with the Bourbon. We changed to gin fizzes because the
bartender said he came from New Orleans and could make good ones. He could
They were delicious. What I didn't know was that they were made with raw
egg albumen and I was allergic to it. What a lovely fine strapping smart
And thinking of being invited into her apartment where she lived alone and
of her offering to cook a little supper and of the many kisses and the
sweet love that already existed between us and was bound to grow apace,
when on the Brooklyn Bridge itself my upper lip began to swell and little
sparks of light flew past the corner of my eye like St. Elmo's fire. In
the space of thirty seconds my lip stuck out a full three-quarter inch,
like a shelf, like Mortimer Snerd. Not only was kissing out of the question
but my eyes swelled shut. I made it across the bridge, pulled over to the
curb, and fainted. Whereupon this noble nurse drove me back to Bellevue,
game me a shot, and put me to bed.
Anybody who monkeys around with gin and egg white deserves what he gets.
I should have stuck with Bourbon and have from that day to this.
POSTSCRIPT: Reader, just in case you don't want to knock it back straight
and would rather monkey around with perfectly good Bourbon, here's my
favorite recipe, "Cud'n Walker's Uncle Will's Favorite Mint Julep Receipt."
You need excellent Bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half
an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water.
Next, very quickly--and here is the trick in the procedure--cruch your
ice, actually powder it, preferably with a wooden mallet, so quickly that
it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside
of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand.
Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything
else, with Bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the
top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair
for half an hour of cumulative bliss."
© 2000 Peter Langston