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To Bourbon: A Mash Note

When I began drinking whiskey, I didn’t know quality. Who does? Mostly I drank Jack Daniels, and only at the bar. “Jack and Coke,” I would say, then “Jack and Diet” because that was “healthier.” If I was broke, or if I was no longer able to taste flavor, I would switch to well whiskey. “Whiskey and Diet,” I would say, and the bartender would give me the punishment I deserved.

Well whiskey should be lit on fire and used as a weapon in riots and revolutions. It tastes of sawdust and broken banjos and lonely Friday nights. Drink it only if you are actively trying to destroy yourself. The bilious shock of the neutral grain spirits will be an effective obstacle to your destruction, a boulder to roll uphill, a reason to go to bed and hope the morning sun burns off your sadness.

I don’t remember when I first turned to better whiskey (I drink a lot.), but that better whiskey was bourbon. There was a bottle of Booker’s in 2008, given to me for standing up in a destination wedding. I hadn’t checked a bag on the flight there and wasn’t planning on doing it for the flight home, so it was on me to finish the bottle the night before the wedding. I almost did it, too, with help from friends, but then my hands, trying to save me from becoming an even bigger embarrassment, made me drop the bottle onto concrete, thereby ending the mission. I was in a completely wiped-out state the next afternoon, the constant sensation of sleep pulling on my eyelids as I stood around waiting, as I escorted a bridesmaid down the aisle, as I painfully ate dinner at the reception. “I am going to go easy tonight”: a notion that lasted until the music started playing.

Not long after, there was a bottle of Jim Beam. “Nope, that’s no good. Better go higher in price point.” I likely tried Bulleit around then, the bourbon the cool kids order when they want to seem like they know bourbon, which is smart of them because it’s actually very good. That was probably what made me a dedicated bourbon fan, snobbish enough to avoid the bottom shelf, but not rich enough to climb all the way to the top. The middle has been satisfying, nonetheless.

I began trying different kinds based on a complex math system of 1.) What looked good, 2.) What I dimly remembered reading about this one time, and 3.) How much money I had. A few consistent favorites emerged: Maker’s Mark (asked for at the bar, never purchased as a bottle), Blanton’s (requested as a present), Town Branch, Larceny, Four Roses, Rebel Yell. To this day, I dabble in ryes, I revisit Irish whiskey, I continue wading into Scotch, but my heart belongs to bourbon.

It’s the flavor. For me, average Irish and Scotch whisk(e)y often tastes too thin up front, with the wood coming through most strongly, like I’m tonguing the side of the barrel. The average bourbon, on the other hand, is much more likely to have a dynamic sweetness that mellows the wood, adds notes of corn, vanilla, cinnamon, autumn leaves, jazz, the New Deal, nighttime New York circa 1955. It splashes into my mouth and lingers, and after I swallow I can taste its ghost vibrating on my palate and transforming.

I most want bourbon at the end of a hard week. My mind in a fog, buzzing with work done and still to do, jumping from topic to topic, tired but unable to relax. That first sip is a teacher rapping a wooden ruler against the desk, making my mind sit up straight. The second sip, the teacher smiles, tells us we’re going to watch a video today, and my mind eases back in its chair and takes a long, slow breath.

Only a glass or two, I don’t usually have a hangover. A couple more, and I might wake up with a distant echo in my head, a vague confusion, and an impulse to squint my eyes against the light. (Increasingly, the same feeling I have on most mornings, when I haven’t been drinking the night before.) If I’m out with friends ’til the wee small hours, all of us have to go home early and now it’s four in the morning, did we drink that whole bottle?, the next day is a comic tragedy. I’m hungry and fuzzy, I eat something greasy and fried and then get nauseous, the fuzziness coheres into a headache, I just want to sleep but can’t, I would murder for a pint of ice cream, a carton of milk, the teat of a cow, anything dairy. The pain and the fuzz gradually fade away and I am a person again, dog tired and ready for bed.

Some sick part of me likes it, probably the part that grew up Catholic. It’s a fast form of karma, an instant suffering for sin, the yin and the yang of the drinking life. Had fun last night? Here’s a day of your life wasted, lying on the couch and thinking, “I should watch a movie,” but not able to move. I hear my conscience say, “Some day all this will end,” and I respond, “Fine, just let me get in a nap before it does.”

Justin Muschong is a writer based in Astoria, Queens, who has contributed to Resource Magazine and Newtown Literary. As a screenwriter, he has written films that have earned distinction at several international festivals, with his scripts winning recognition from Gotham Screen and Project Twenty1. He also serves as the Senior Editor for Samuel Christensen Law Firm. He tweets inanity @JustinMuschong.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully said!