Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
MINNEAPOLIS — In the shank of a recent evening as winds from a Midwestern front signaled that temperatures would be dropping precipitously in this part of the country, Mat Garretson, a Georgia boy, was waxing with warm emotion in his voice about the resurgence of interest in rye whiskey.
Garretson, a onetime winemaker in Paso Robles, Calif., has switched products. He now is into marketing double rye whiskey for High West Distillery of Park City, Utah, which is owned by David Perkins, a native of Atlanta. One day Garretson was an expert on the Rhone grape, and the next he was capable of delivering a verbal dissertation on the renewed popularity of rye whiskey. I expected to hear him singing a few bars from the old Tex Ritter tune which goes, “... rye whiskey, rye whiskey, I cry. If I don’t get rye whiskey, well, I think I’ll die.”
When the Puritans landed here, whisky (British spelling) was not so important, but with the Scots-Irish, who came along later, it was a different matter. The Irish all made home brew or “poteen,” and, just like it was in Ireland until 1661, the product was not taxed. The taxing of whiskey (American spelling) was resisted vigorously. When Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury, ordered that home brew be taxed to pay for the Revolutionary War, the protesting reached such a state that President George Washington had to send troops to Western Pennsylvania to suppress the “Whiskey Rebellion.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that a lot of those who fought in the American Revolution, which had to do with the issue of “taxation without representation,” were suddenly told they would be taxed on a beverage they produced for their own use and for barter, which was a means of survival. And what was happening at harvest time at the Mt. Vernon plantation of the president? An excellent distiller, George’s biggest cash crop was rye whiskey. The supply never equaled demand. It is the same today. You can visit Mt. Vernon and purchase a bottle of George Washington’s “Straight Rye” for $185 a bottle — if you get in line soon enough.
The “Whiskey Rebellion” had an influence on the formation of political parties in the United States. When Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the Republican Party, was elected president, winning over Hamilton’s Federalist Party, the whiskey tax was repealed.
What does all this say about that? First of all, people are going to drink. Consumption of alcohol dates back to the time when Noah is supposed to have gotten tipsy and, of course, at the marriage feast of Cana when the Master turned the water into wine. Secondly, the government is always going to get its cut.
Although I grew up in an environment that advocated abstinence when it came to alcoholic beverages, I happen to think that a bottle of vintage Bordeaux can bring as much pleasure to an evening as one could ever expect. A single malt over ice while observing a Scottish sunset would be hard to top.
If you are a native Georgian, whether you imbibe or not, there is the likelihood that one of your ancestors migrated south because of the whiskey tax. Moonshine is still being produced aplenty, or so I hear. Producers remain opposed to taxation. Distilled products usually have a relationship with things agricultural. Scotch comes from barley, it is obvious how rye whiskey is made, and the abundance of corn led to bourbon and, of course, white lightning, which indirectly spawned stock car racing.
If you remember the days of western movies, you surely recall the scenes of the pistol-packing cowboys sauntering into the bar and ordering straight whiskey before the inevitable trouble began. It was rye whiskey they were ordering. If rye whiskey is making a comeback, I hope cowboy movies will regain prominence. Let’s bring back the days, even if it includes strong drink, when the man in the white hat always won.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.