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The Measure of Whisky and Literature

Andy Warmington

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     Whisky has made fleeting appearances in both literature and the lives of its authors for over 200 years. The thoughts and reputations of writers with a suitably high profile and preference for darker spirits appear on record, and their relationship to alcohol was as individual as their writing. What we can see however, are some glimpses of correlation between the development of the whisky industry and its prominence in the pages of prose and the glass of the writer.

     The process of making whisky is distillation, usually two or three times, of a beer-like mixture of water, grain and yeast. The production of whisky prior to the eighteenth-century is such that there is little consensus between historians exactly how, where and when it was introduced to Ireland and Scotland. Distillation of fermented beverages can be traced to the Islamic Golden Age (probably) around the 9th Century, when Arab chemists experimented with the ‘purification’ of alcohol.

     Later, in fourteenth-century Ireland, a family of physicians emigrated to Scotland and adopted the surname Beaton, a ‘medical kindred’ also known as the Clann Meic-bethad or Clan MacBeth, who were the first recorded physicians to practice distillation in Ireland (probably) and Scotland. As Kate Hopkins writes in her book, 99 Drams of Whisky, the academic historian’s response to the true originator of whisky on these isles is likely to be, “Hell if I know. That part of the world wasn't too keen on keeping records of who was doing what.” For almost 200 years, nothing, save for the scraps of a medieval mail-order from a Scottish king to some monks distilling aqua vitae in the walls of their Abbey near Fife. The Excise Act of 1644 drove whisky production further underground, and with poetic licence one imagines an illicit still for every star in the sky until after the Act of Union. The Excise Act of 1823 was remarkably effective in reducing the smugglers’ production and distribution of illegal whisky. For the next 100 years, whisky was in plentiful supply on both sides of the Atlantic and began to work its way into the prominent mass-media culture of the time, literature.

     The link should not be over-stated, but you gain some insight into the stereotype of the grain-pickled author by looking at it concurrently to the state of the whisky industry itself. It seems the chief influences whisky had on the world of literature in this period were as a reductively destructive force on the author and a vicariously destructive force on the fictional character. What is often presented as well-worn masculine bravado, the mythical wit of the functioning alcoholic or quotes misattributed altogether has some correlation to the economic and legislative aspects of whisky production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

     So, what do we make of the whisky-soaked author in their shifting garrets and musty writing rooms? Tortured genius or pitiful husk? Victim, or villain? The introduction of alcohol into both the author myth and the literary work itself leans on the accessibility, familiarity and mind-altering properties. Taking the reader into the world of say, opiate addiction or psychotropic experimentation requires a cooperative reader, willing to go on that trip, so to speak. Reference to alcohol in prose might be painful or amusing, personal or impersonal, freeing or trapping, and don’t these writers know it.

     F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that the American writer allowed time in his day for a hangover much as the Spanish reserved theirs for a siesta. The sentiment goes back to antiquity. The poet Horace said, around 36 BC, “no poems can please nor live long which are written by water-drinkers.” Without too much deference to dry wit, before adequate precautions against cholera, not many poets lived long either if they were habitual water-drinkers.

     Whisky has a regrettable reputation as a ‘man’s drink’, although it is enjoyed—and distilled—by women, and the writers among them. Flannery O’Connor, from the state of Georgia, was a writer with a fondness for whisky. Her first novel, Wise Blood, is often remembered for a minor character, Maude, a waitress at the ‘Frosty Bottle’ bar. In O’Connor’s prose, like the opening line of an indie pop anthem, “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.”

     In the American inter-war period, William Faulkner wrote thirteen novels and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. “What can equal a mother’s love? Except a good drink of whiskey”, Faulkner wrote in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.

     The subject of whisky made frequent appearances in Faulkner’s work, although he took a curiously professional approach to his nascent alcoholism, preferring to stay sober while writing a draft and celebrating its completion with a binge of whisky cocktails. Ernest Hemingway was sceptical of this claim, believing he could tell at what point in a given page Faulkner had taken his first sip. Faulkner was later reprimanded by a publisher who discovered him hospitalised with burns from passing out with his back to a hot radiator, after days of drinking celebrating a manuscript submission. His curt response to the question of whether he felt any shame, “It was my vacation.”

     Further back to the earliest days of regulated whisky production in Scotland, poet Robert Burns recorded his thoughts on the introduction of taxes on malt in his 1785 poem, Scotch Drink. “Thae curst horse-leeches o' the' Excise, Wha mak the whisky stells their prize! Haud up thy han', Deil! ance, twice, thrice! There, seize the blinkers!” The connection between Robert Burns and legal issues around whisky has lived on, with a series of unofficial Robert Burns whiskies and only one officially recognised by the World Burns Federation, a blend and a malt produced by the Arran Distillery.

     Patrick Hamilton was a gifted novelist, but his writing success was largely confined to the theatre in his lifetime for Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938)—from where we get the term for the form of psychological abuse, gaslighting—respectively. Although many of his novel characters focussed their attentions on gin, a more readily available spirit in pre-war and Blitz-era London, Hamilton himself plunged much of his fortune gained from playwriting to an endless supply of whisky, drinking up to a bottle a day. Hamilton died in 1962 of cirrhosis of the liver, around the time when good whisky was becoming hard to find. As a result of various restrictions on grain being lifted in post-war Britain, and an increased demand for international exports through the 1960s and 1970s, the distillation of whisky spirit in gallons increased exponentially. This coincided with a shortage of sherry casks to mature the whisky in, and subsequently an abundance of cheap grain blends and weak-coloured malts flooded the market.

     Whisky features in several John Steinbeck novels along with characters displaying a singular proclivity for the spirit. Tom Joad drains an entire pint of whisky in The Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck even goes beyond the character to create a fictional whisky brand in Cannery Row, a foul, cheap brew by the name of Old Tennessee, known on the row as “old tennis shoes.”

     Raymond Chandler the author was an exceptionally dedicated whisky drinker, having apocryphally subsisted on bourbon and vitamin injections for eight days straight when he was finishing the script for The Blue Dahlia. The most famous character in his novels, private detective Philip Marlowe, was practically a chain drinker of whisky. If it were not for the time he spends on the case lighting cigarettes, firing pistols and, disgracefully, backhanding broads, he would do little else with his hands than lift a glass to his lips.

     Perhaps the best example of whisky in literature as a crucial plot device is in Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana. Greene’s description of work-a-day espionage by British ex-pats in revolutionary Cuba was heavily drawn on his own experiences working in the intelligence services, and the protagonist’s collection of whisky miniatures sets up a beautifully understated confrontation with the novel’s villain, charged with tension and eminent danger. The spy, James Wormold challenges Captain Segura, the cruel police chief to a game of draughts using his collection of whisky miniatures as the pieces, 12 Scotch and 12 bourbon, which must be drunk upon taking. Wormold deliberately plays badly so he ‘loses’ the strongest pieces to Segura, who downs each in turn, slipping in a drunken coma so Wormold can retrieve the list of informers tucked into his pistol holster.

     Many whisky-drinking novel characters were contemporaneous to the beverage’s wide availability in fin-de-siècle and inter-war literature, but they have also been used by authors from Ian Fleming to Ian Rankin to portray a traditionalist character’s sophistication, hedonism or troubled mind.

     The James Bond movies focused mainly on the vodka martini cocktail, whose preparation lent itself so lyrically to Sean Connery’s gentle, Edinburgh digraph, but in fact the written version of the character was equally fond of both Scotch, American and Japanese whisky. The Scotch whisky he commonly drinks in the novels, Macallan 1962, is now quite rare and retails for anywhere between £3,000 and £12,000 per bottle.

     Distilleries were opening and re-opening across Scotland (the Irish whisky industry was tiny by comparison) in the 1970s to meet export demand, but with fewer owners and global investments the bubble burst and almost 30 distilleries closed in the 1980s and 90s. The Scotch-sipping author and the bourbon-slamming protagonist stepped back for a new breed of postmodern literary stars, more likely to have a pale film of dust on the tip of their nose than their cabinet of single malt bottles.

     In 1987, a Professor of Psychiatry with a PhD in English, Nancy J Andreasen studied a select group from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and found that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of non-writers. Do writers have a greater predilection for alcohol misuse, and does a fondness for the hard stuff see distilled spirits creep into prose more than say, a light beer or a white wine spritzer? Ten years before Andreasen’s study, Ronald Fieve had noted in his book Moodswings, that individuals are creative despite their disorders, rather than because of them. That is perhaps where we can find parallels with the history of whisky, especially its availability in legal and illegal form, and the culture and profile of authors of the time.