A Journalistic Primer on Whiskey

This 1904 story, published in Yorkville, South Carolina but reprinted from the New York Sun, sets out whiskey facts for the average reader so he (or she) would better understand the developing dispute in Washington concerning the proper definition of whiskey. Here was the premise as stated in the paper:

… the unenlightened average man, who knows nothing about the merits of the dispute, who meekly deposits the price and takes what the barkeeper hands out, stands in bewilderment, for by drinking of it he knows not the difference between rye and Bourbon, straight and rectified…

The article does a pretty good job, even by today’s standards, of explaining what’s what in a fairly technical area after all. I’d quibble with the implication that good blending should exclude neutral spirits. That was too strict a test, as indeed President Taft’s decision showed some years later (allowing whisky to include any distillate from grain). Also, the piece didn’t account for the fact that some distillers age the neutral element which makes  a difference to the final character.

In other words, requiring that blends be composed of all-straight whiskeys is too onerous, much as great results can flow from that practice. Indeed Beeretseq has always maintained that all straight and single malt whiskeys, except I suppose for single-barrel whisky, is a blend, in the sense that barrels are mingled which are drawn from different parts of the warehouse or different warehouses, and often different years. Each barrel can show a fair degree of difference from another even when the yeast and mashbill is the same.

And then there are regional and annual changes in grains, or weather impacting the barrels. And the stave matrix in each barrel is never identical to that in the other barrels. Etc.

But anyway that issue aside, the 1904 article is a good primer, even today, in that it doesn’t support blindly any one type – it all comes down to quality, to what’s in the glass.

It must have taken some fortitude for a newspaper in the south, in 1904, to print this kind of article, with Prohibition’s breath hot on the doorways of editors’ offices. Almost all if not all of South Carolina must have been dry by then, too. York county, on the northern border of the state, had a Scots-Irish background though, so liquor interest probably continued despite pressure by  temperance advocates. And there was an ostensible justification: to enable readers to follow a developing story in Congress.

Despite the clarity the article afforded, it’s a fair bet that even most who read it, let alone the great numbers who never saw it, remained in the dark about whiskey and its different types. No doubt even today albeit the odd article appears in the general media to the effect of the one from 113 years ago, most imbibers have no inkling of what whiskey really is or how the types differ both within, and between, the great whiskey nations.