This week, I watched in horror as a city I find quite lovely became ground zero for a display of some of humanity’s worst impulses. Hatred, prejudice and violence were on full display. It was disgusting.
Like many others, I found solace in messages from friends and family – some of which arrived via social media. And I watched as some of those same messages spurred angry outbursts from others.
One outburst caught my attention. The outburst was directed via email (shared on Twitter) to Mark Gillespie – host of the popular WhiskyCast podcast – and informed Mark that he shouldn’t comment on politics and should “stay in his lane” of talking about whisk/y or else he would lose half of his audience.
Setting aside the fact that standing up for human decency should be within everyone’s “lane” – I found this particular outburst troubling for intellectual as well as moral, ethical and philosophical reasons. So at the risk of adding fuel to the fire, let me make at least one thing clear.
Alcohol and politics are now, and as far as I can tell always have been, inextricably linked. Here are a few notable examples – offered in chronological order.
- Ever wonder why Irish Whiskey makes use of unmalted barley? Politics. In 1785 the English Crown put a heavy tax on malt – and the use of unmalted barley was an effort to avoid the tax. And why did the Crown put such a high tax on malt? Politics again. The Brits had bills to pay, what with having recently lost 13 colonies to independence and being at nearly continuous war with France.
- Ever wonder what was the first domestic product taxed by the United States federal government? In 1971 Congress passed the Whiskey Excise Act which imposed a tax on distilled spirits made in the United States. Why did Congress decide to do this? Politics. The fledgling federal government had borrowed about $54 million to fight the revolutionary war and needed revenue to pay back its creditors.
- What do you suppose was the first armed insurrection in the newly formed United States? Go back to your high school history textbook and look in the index for the phrase “Whiskey Rebellion.” That Whiskey Excise Act didn’t go over so well in Western Pennsylvania – that’s Politics for you.
- Ever wonder why we have state-by-state regulation of alcohol in this country? Politics. With the repeal of prohibition in 1933 the federal government relinquished to the states the power to control the distribution of alcohol within their borders. By virtue of the nature of our Constitution (which was itself the result of political activities), the federal government only has certain enumerated powers. We might have a very different alcohol regulatory system today if the federal government had the ability to control this market.
- Ever wonder why bourbon isn’t bourbon unless it was aged in new, charred American oak barrels? Politics. At the time the Federal Alcohol Administration Act was passed in 1935 lobbying by a very strong Cooper’s Union, coupled with the support of a senator from the timber-rich state of Arkansas, meant that the word “new” got inserted into the definition. If you can’t re-use a barrel, then you’ve got to buy new timber every time, and you’re probably going to need a cooper to assemble it for you as well.
- Moving to the present day, curious about the cause of bourbon producers most recent sleepless nights? Our administration is considering levying new steel tariffs. One likely result? An increase in tariffs on US spirits being imported into the European Union. Politics again, I’m afraid.
I could go on, but I suspect you get the point. Politics and Hooch have been linked for as long as anyone can remember – not just here at home but abroad as well. In fact, there are even studies to suggest that you can fairly accurately determine someone’s political views by their favorite tipple. [Note: For the record, my favorite brand isn’t on the linked chart.]
Keep at it, Mark. You’re well within your lane.