Colson: A case for whisky as the foundation of America |

Colson: A case for whisky as the foundation of America

with John Colson


That’s my drink, and I spell it without the “e” because I’m a Scotch drinker in the main, and that’s how they spell it across the pond and in a couple of other locales (in America, it’s “whiskey”).

And yes, I am aware that I am writing at the time of year when Champagne is the drink of choice — New Year’s Eve was just the other day — though I should admit right here that not a drop of the bubbly crossed my lips on that much ballyhooed night. The closest I got was a couple of shots of tequila, as I have found through hard experience that mixing the grape and the grain is not good for me. Or for those around me. And I started the night with a Scotch.

Anyways, I just finished a book about the kind of whisky that helped to build these United States, and I’ve got to say, it was so entertaining I may have to reconsider my affiliation.

The book, titled “Mountain Spirits,” is about the makers of illicit whisky, primarily the variety known as “corn squeezin’s,” an industry that got its start before the U.S. was even created, and was deemed a mainstay for survival all along the frontier and beyond.

The tome belonged to my late, lamented sister, who though she lived in Madison, Wisconsin, was a bourbon drinker all of her adult life (and a little before that, even). But her main reason for having the book probably had as much to do with her love of history as of a good sip.

A case in point was the inclusion, near the back of the book, of a clipping from the Jan. 16, 2008 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal — or, as we nicknamed it, the “state urinal,” for its non-progressive editorial stance. Though, to be fair, we had an equally derisive nickname for the other, much more progressive daily newspaper in Madison, officially named The Capitol Times but rechristened by even those who read it and liked it as The Crap Times.

Regardless, the clipping related how Wisconsin, and Madison in particular, “hated” the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition act ratified in 1919 that forced drinkers underground in their quest for something to wet their whistle.

From Fraternity Row at the University of Wisconsin to the rowdy town of Hurley in the far north of the state, according to a report by a federal investigator in 1929, Wisconsin was “a Gibraltar of the wets — sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor.”

But, back to the book.

Author Joseph Earl Dabney, writing in 1974, reported that moonshining was still (pun intended) an active but rapidly declining segment of the national economy, but most particularly in the South, which is where Dabney is from and which is the focal point of his investigation into moonshiners and the work they have done since the 1600s in this country.

In fact, though, his book offers up the justifiable proposition that whisky, starting very early in the life of the British colonies from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania and on down the eastern seaboard, contributed far more than simply the substance with which to get blind drunk.

Rather, it was a foundational cornerstone of the economy from an early date, providing an easy way for farmers to harvest their corn and other grain crops, convert them to a cash crop much easier to transport and sell than the grain itself, and make enough money to survive in the harsh conditions of the frontier.

Because that is where moonshine was to be found, in the frontier regions, whether they were just inland from the Atlantic coast in the early days of colonial settlement, or in the mountainous terrain of the Appalachian Mountains as the colonists began the westward march that overthrew the indigenous cultures of the Native American tribes and set the stage for creation of a new nation.

Dabney is unabashedly full of admiration for the hardscrabble stock of whisky makers, mostly descended from Scotch-Irish immigrants who brought their moonshining skills over the water with them and immediately set up shop in the New World.

And he seems relatively critical of the federal government’s attempts, starting in the middle 1800s, to regulate and tax the product coming out of hundreds of thousands of stills across the land, which the moonshiners themselves considered to be unjustifiable meddling in their God-given right to make whisky and, where possible, to make money from the endeavor.

He does, however, have more than one kind word for the government agents sent to enforce the liquor taxes and to destroy illegal stills wherever they were found.

All in all, it’s a fine little book, still available online (as is its subsequent companion edition, “More Mountain Spirits”).

And it offers an object lesson about the independent spirit that helped to build this nation we now inhabit, whatever one thinks about how things have turned out.