Every Ounce a Man's Whiskey? Bourbon in the White Masculine South

By McKeithan, Sean S. | Southern Cultures, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Every Ounce a Man's Whiskey? Bourbon in the White Masculine South


McKeithan, Sean S., Southern Cultures


It is about the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking in general and in particular of knocking it back neat ... The joy of Bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of [C.sub.2][H.sub.5]OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime.--Walker Percy, "Bourbon" (1)

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In a 1975 essay bluntly and beautifully titled "Bourbon," Walker Percy asserts that "The pleasure of knocking back Bourbon lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship." For Percy, it is Bourbon's aesthetic condition rather than its chemical composition that makes the drink so distinctly appealing. "Knocking it back neat" serves a transportive function, immersing the Bourbon drinker in the rich cultural imagery of the American South: woody, sunny, and romantic. The hot bite of the Bourbon sensuously connects the body of the drinker to nation, region, and locale, enjoining his experience with those of imagined, historical bodies, soaking up space and place in the slow burn of what appears an endless southern summertime. For Percy, a southern doctor, author, philosopher, and social critic, Bourbon drinking serves as an existential, even religious, act which connects the drinker to an imagined history, an act which ultimately provides an "evocation of time and memory and of the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world." (2)

Like Percy, I am a drinker of Bourbon. Although I (and no doubt Percy as well) appreciate both its chemical and symbolic capacities, I am primarily concerned with the symbolic, its aesthetic relation to issues of personal and cultural identity. Percy's personal history with Bourbon began as a child in the Prohibition Twenties in his family's Birmingham basement, as he watched his father age his own product in a charcoal barrel. The personal narrative he recounts in his essay binds Bourbon consumption to episodes of heterosexuality, homosociality, and UNC football games. My personal history with Bourbon begins much later, in the suburban 2000s, at the parties of Virginia Beach schoolmates whose parents were out of town.

At this point, my interests in men like Evan Williams, Jim Beam, and Kentucky Gentleman were primarily physical, corporeal, chemical. I privileged their bodily, pharmacological capabilities over their symbolic and welcomed their presence in my stilted, surreptitious social life with the same wide arms, open mouth, and ready chaser as any gin, vodka, or creme de menthe that we could prize from our parents' liquor cabinets. I trace the first stirrings of my symbolic appreciation of Bourbon to my second romantic relationship in college, with a white southern man who preferred it to any other liquor. During the time we spent together, I sensed something decidedly self-conscious in his choice of drink and began to conceive of it as a sort of play, a means of both challenging and asserting his place within a specific narrative of white southern masculinity, in which he was at once bound by his North Carolina lineage and excluded by his sexuality.

Back then I did not articulate his liquor choice in the same historical, theoretical terms that I do now, but I did see it as somehow ironic, an act that called into question some unspoken rules of who can drink what. In my time with this man, I began drinking Bourbon as a matter of choice and of taste, although at first I rather disliked the way it tasted. I drank Bourbon in a spirit of transgression that I could not pin down but felt that, in so doing, I took some nebulous stand against the heterosexist assumption that women and queer men drank from glasses that came with umbrellas, instead of only with ice. As I looked around me, at the fraternity parties I inevitably attended, the dorm rooms in which I inevitably found myself, and the bars into which I inevitably snuck, I realized that the self-consciousness I saw in his consumption was present in everyone's. …

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