Whisky & Culture

A Walker on the wild side

Jefferson Chase kicks off a new feature looking at whisky in literature. Step forward Walker Percy, as we salute you …
By Jefferson Chase
American writer Walker Percy is not so renowned outside his native land, but he should be ensconced in the heart of bourbon lovers worldwide. A doctor of medicine as well as a writer of fiction, the Southerner achieved fame with his first novel The Moviegoer (1960), and won the National Book Award in 1962. Before his death in 1990, Percy published a number of novels and collections of essays. Among the latter is a charming 1975 piece entitled simply Bourbon, which should be mandatory reading for any fan of Southern sippin’ whiskey. But Percy is hardly a connoisseur, as he himself admits:“I can hardly tell one Bourbon from another, unless the other one is very bad. Some bad Bourbons are even more memorable than good ones… I recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 Bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over the period of a hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: ‘Where are the women?’”Who hasn’t had a night like this? That’s what cheap hooch is for.For Percy, bourbon drinking is an aesthetic experience independent of demonstrations of connoisseurship and inebriation:
“But, as between these evils [alcoholism, cirrhosis, oesophageal haemorrhage, cancer of the palate] and the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking, that is, the use of Bourbon to warm the heart, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic … The joy of Bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of C2H5OH on the cortex but 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 – aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.”To illustrate his distinction, Percy contrasts the connoisseur Clifton Webb sipping a 1959 Mouton Rothschild at Cap d’Antibes and the aesthete William Faulkner downing fifths of George Dickel in exhaustion after having completed Absalom, Absalom! Rounding things off on just the right note is Walker Percy’s recipe for the perfect mint julep …“Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water. Next very quickly … crush your ice, actually powder it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass … with Bourbon, the older the better and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.”Walker Percy’s Bourbon was published in Signposts in a Strange Land by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1991.