Ooof, this small batch whiskey tastes like fire and barrel. Best to ask for rocks if someone offers it to you. This young distillery needs more time to perfect its craft. (Not good.) Read more about this spirit at https://www.leopoldbros.com/whiskey
By Kevin R. Kosar
Whiskey, as any enlistee will tell you, is popular among America’s fighting forces. Military installations’ drinks shops (“Class 6” stores) are stocked with a galaxy of intoxicating drinks — beer, spirits, wines — but whiskey is especially popular. And it isn’t just any whiskey — it’s the American-made bourbons, ryes and Tennessee whiskeys that really move off the shelves.
Certainly, the popularity of whiskey among soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can be explained partly as a reflection of American taste in general. Americans purchased more than 30 million cases of American whiskey last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
But for military men and women, whiskey holds an additional appeal beyond its glorious amber color, robust flavor and mood-alleviating powers — it may even be more American than apple pie (which seems to have been invented in England). Whiskey has been with the America’s armed forces since the earliest days of the republic.
“[T]he liquor ration,” wrote historian Robert Hunt, “was an absolute necessity. No military commander of the 18th century would have thought of leading his troops on any mission without planning for this need.” This was an age-old practice in Europe. Drink lifted morale and suppressed fear, and alcohol was widely viewed as medicinal.
Indeed, medical experts had been recommending alcoholic beverages as a cure for mental and physical afflictions since the 15th century. Irish alchemist Richard Stanhurst (1547-1618) extolledwhiskey’s curative properties: “Beying moderatelie taken, it sloweth age; it strengtheneth youthe; it cutteth flueme; it abadoneth melancholie; it relisheth the harte; it lighteneth the mind; it quickeneth the spirites” He recommended it for curing dropsy, resolving kidney stones, intestinal gas cramps, and declared whiskey good for the circulatory system and bones. Alcoholic beverages were thought, often rightly, to be safer than the water available.
These beliefs about drink came with those Europeans who settled America. Whiskey initially was not the most popular drink of the day. Beer, hard apple cider and brandy were more commonly consumed. Rum, meanwhile, was king. There were 140 distilleries belching potent spirits made from molasses harvested in the Caribbean islands.
Come 1800, however, whiskey had ascended as the spirit of choice among troops and much of America. The rise of whiskey was due in great part to the fall of rum as the distilled spirit of choice. The Revolutionary War severely disrupted the importation of the molasses and the production of rum. Prices skyrocketed. Americans also began to disdain rum for being an English and “Olde World” spirit.
Whiskey production, meanwhile, was growing rapidly, and it was a native invention. Settlers had been drinking it since at least 1620, when Virginia farmer George Sloan wrote in a letter, “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drink good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that.” Old World whiskeys mostly were made from barley and wheat. American whiskeys were distilled from rye and corn, the latter of which was particularly abundant. Due to the glut of corn being harvested, whiskey often was fantastically cheap. A farm laborer could buy a gallon of it for a day’s pay….
Sour beer, white lightning from South America, smoked rum, and liqueur made from the sap of a tree in Greece—those were featured in my first installment of “Unusual Drinks.”
But there is more weirdness to come. Oh so much.
Let us begin with another offering from our friends at Stolen Spirits. They purchased 11-year old American whiskey, and added a smoky flavor by pitching charred, chopped barrel staves into it. (It’s a bit like the technique some vintners use to add flavor to their white wines.) The result is a 92 proof brown booze loaded with vanilla and baking spice flavors. Yum.
Wait, you might object, that’s not all that unusual. Well, how about this: barrel-aged gin? Historically, this white spirit has sluiced straight from the still to the bottle. No more. Folks are aging it. Beefeater, producer of the venerable London dry gin, has introduced a few new products in recent years, including Burrough’s Reserve. This 86-proof gin spends time —how much is not clear— in small oak casks that formerly held red and white Bordeaux wines. This imparts a straw color to the spirit and produces a gin that is softer, less piney, and more herbal. Does it work in a martini? Beats me—I sip it neat.
When a small bottle of Underberg digestif (88 proof) landed on my desk, I was unnerved. It looked like a tincture from the late 19th century—an eye-dropper type bottle wrapped in brownish newspaper, with a label boasting herbs from 43 nations. I nearly looked to see if the label claimed it cured dropsy, pleurisy, and priapism. Nope, but it does exclaim: “TO FEEL BRIGHT AND ALERT.” Five minutes after my first tiny sip of this German medicine the bizarre, intense, bitter flavor afflicted my tongue. It was as if I had licked wood that had been stewed in mint, anise, licorice, clove, and who knows what else.
After Underberg, I thought I was well girded to taste “death schnapps.” I was wrong. Brennivin is an evil booze. It is only 75 proof but unswallowable — it bombs the mouth with caraway and cumin aromas, and sent me to the sink.
Last, but assuredly not least in the unusual drinks queue this time is…. Beet spirit. Yes, a craft distillery in Pennsylvania has made a 90-proof clear spirit from red beets. I take my hat off to the producer, Boardroom Spirits, this liquor is astonishingly smooth. If you like borscht, well, this is the hooch for you. It oozes beet aroma and flavor. Which is very unusual.
“It’s a beverage that deepens the friendships and strengthens the spines of mountain people from the Appalachians to the Urals. Its producers have been discussed and celebrated in books, movies and reality television for decades. It’s also illegal and producing it without a license can result in jail time.
“The product goes by many names—poteen in Ireland, samogon in Russia, “funeral tomorrow at 2 o’clock” in Tanzania. It’s moonshine, an unaged distilled drink that scores of countries produce as a cheap and often nasty way to get blasted. In “Moonshine: A Global History” (Reaktion, 2017), Kevin R. Kosar, a fellow at the R Street Institute, has produced an amiable little book that delves deeply into the culture and history of this ancient beverage….”
Oh, Pennsylvania. You are wonderful in so many ways. Philadelphia has architectural marvels. Pittsburgh has the endlessly victorious Steelers and Penguins. The Allegheny and Poconos offer gorgeous vistas, and parks like Nockamixon are beatific places to hike and fish. And where else can one find ring bologna?
But your government, well, friends you have a problem. “No taxation without representation” is an age old creed in our nation. Yet, your government has a system that wantonly fleeces anyone who buys drinks.
Despite the 21st century’s arrival, the state maintains a system of government-run drinks shops. Last year, the much-despised Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) was granted flexible pricing by the state legislature. Previously, the PLCB bought drinks from producers at prices determined by a cockamamie formula that produced hefty profits. The new law empowered the government to haggle with drinks-makers for lower prices.
Beverage producers screamed at the prospect that a government monopoly would be empowered to demand low prices or threaten to cut off market access. But the whole package was sold as wonderful for consumers. “It continues to be our intention,” one the PLCB’s board member told legislators last November, “to not broadly increase retail prices on our best-selling items.”
Not one year later, the PLCB announced it was raising prices on 421 products. Its argument for doing so was blunt: legislators demanded PLCB pay $185 million into the state’s budget to cover rising public pension costs and other expenses.
The Philadelphia Inquirer tartly notes:
Though the flexible pricing was expected to generate more tax revenue, the state was also supposed to use its buying power to negotiate lower prices from wholesalers. The state did lower prices on a handful of items last year, but consumers have yet to see any major saving. Especially when compared to prices in New Jersey and Delaware. For example, a bottle of Kendall Jackson chardonnay costs 52 percent more in Pennsylvania (including the 6 percent sales tax) than at the Total Wine stores just over the state line in Delaware.
What a mess.
The state’s elected officials lack the courage to cut costs or raise taxes. Instead of presenting the public with the bill for the goods and services they consume, elected officials are hiding the true cost of government by shifting the burden to consumers of privately produced products. Do alcoholic beverages have anything to do with state pension costs? Nothing, of course.
And make no mistake, these mark-ups are a tax in disguise. Lawmakers delegated their constitutional authority to raise revenues to a bureaucracy, which then packages a tax increase as a mark-up on a consumer good. Which consumers and the state’s hospitality industry only may buy from the state monopoly. And, of course, citizens can’t protest the price increases by voting PLCB authorities out.
A little over two centuries ago, folks living in what became Pennsylvania raised cain when the new government in Washington, D.C. imposed an unprecedented tax on spirits. Perhaps a 21st century whiskey rebellion is overdue, which would demand elected officials end the drinks stealth tax by privatizing drinks sales. Beverages are a product like any other product (food, gas, guns, etc.) If consumers are to be taxed on them, then these taxes should be set by the people’s representatives.
Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010). This column previously appeared at the American Spectator.
I saw this in a bargain bin at Ace Beverage in Washington, DC. Tall-boys with a cause—terrific!
Except that it isn’t. This stuff is contract brewed by Pabst, and it is rough. It is bitter in that Oiels or Red, White, and Blue sort of way, with little malt or other flavors. Even a little salt did.not make it o.k. This was a rare instance where I dumped a brew down the drain. (Rating: Not good.)
Read more about Dog Tag Brewing at DogTagBrewing.org.