One Tuesday after a company meeting at the American Conservatory Theater, I opted to walk home along Geary Street. The meeting had been held in the basement bar of the theater’s Geary Street venue. No drinks were served. Such a waste of a bar! My walking home may have been as much a want for exercise as it was a closed-bar-induced desire to go “dusty” hunting—strolling from one corner store to the next, checking the shelves for old whiskeys of interest.
Geary Street cuts straight through the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s few remaining ungentrified neighborhoods (for now). The Tenderloin is romanticized in San Francisco lore, though its reality is not at all romantic. Many people living there suffer poverty, live hard lives, and die painful deaths.
Near Geary and Polk Street I stepped around an unconscious White man, red-faced with drink and lying prone on the sidewalk, to poke my head into a very unassuming, cramped convenience store. Its two narrow aisles were crowded with local customers—Black, Brown, White—hanging out and chatting noisily with the staff, almost like a neighborhood bar.
Looking high up on the wall of shelves behind the counter, my eye caught sight of an old bottling of Elijah Craig Small Batch from 2015, when distillery Heaven Hill had briefly moved the 12-year age statement to the back label of the bottle before cutting it entirely in 2016. These old bottlings are prized items now, and here there were three of them—each with a thick grey shawl of dust draped almost elegantly over its rounded shoulders. I asked the man behind the counter how much they sold for. He had to climb up onto his counter to reach one. Thirty-five dollars, tax and all. I took all three.
A tiny old Black woman, thin as a rail, was standing next to me throughout this transaction. She had a dollar in one hand and a cane in the other. She’d been asking another employee of the store to buy a shot of whatever was open—an illegal exchange but this is the Tenderloin. (And now I was realizing folks weren’t merely hanging out as if this were a neighborhood bar!) “I’ll have a shot of what he’s buying,” she said, eyeing me wearily as I paid for my unicorns. “No no,” said the man helping her. “How about this?” And he reached for something Irish and low on the shelf.
As I left the store and continued my way up Geary Street toward Van Ness Avenue, I felt acutely aware of the privilege I had to (1) know a bourbon unicorn when I see one, and (2) have the money in my bank account to splurge on three of them.
Bourbon once had the reputation of being the sauce of skid row drunks. And when not that, it was at best that stuff your grandfather drank. But today it’s all the rage and there are people who don’t know a thing about it who pay hundreds of dollars for bottles they read about at Men’s Journal online that are scarce by design, regardless of whether the given bottle tastes any better or worse than a $15 bottom-shelfer or a $35 forgotten dusty. The tangle of class and con-artist ironies at work in the world of whiskey is nowhere more clearly unraveled than in a Tenderloin bar masquerading as a convenience store, where one person buys a single shot for a dollar and another buys three rare bottles for $35 each that sell now in closed Facebook groups for even $80 apiece.
This is America: money, inequity, and booze. A poor person on the corner of Polk and Geary streets might be arrested for public intoxication, or even merely for standing on a street corner while Black. And a wealthy White tech bro might stumble drunkenly around the chic corner of Hayes and Gough and not raise an eyebrow. A woman on Turk Street might get busted for selling stolen liquor out of her grocery cart. But anyone with internet access might sell innumerable bottles of expensive whiskey in the online secondary “grey market” (a softened term for what is essentially a digital open-air black market) and most likely not be risking anything worse than the inconvenience of Facebook’s periodic purges of groups that “violate Facebook community standards.”
I am very privileged to enjoy this hobby. It’s a strange hobby—the exploration of a tasty toxin that has the potential embedded in its molecular structure to become addictive and ruin lives. I did not come to drink it in an effort to numb myself from the brutality of the world. I am much luckier than some.
Looking into a glass of russet-orange Kentucky bourbon, or hay-yellow Speyside scotch, or burnt-amber Canadian rye, one can see the “history in a bottle” whiskey has often been described to be. The phrase refers to the fact that, once bottled, whiskey stops aging as it had done while in the barrel. Time is corked until the bottle is uncorked. A bourbon tightly bottled in 1918 would taste the same opened in 1919 as it would if opened a century later in 2019.
But there is more to whiskey history than a poetic idea about stopping time and some interesting facts of chemistry. Susan Cheever, in her book, Drinking In America: Our Secret History, chronicles the role whiskey and other alcohol have played in so many major American events—the American Revolution, slavery, Alexander Hamilton’s precedent-setting tax policies, the systematic genocide of Native Americans, the conception and passing of the first consumer protection laws, Prohibition and its massive impact on so many aspects of American society, McCarthy’s witch hunts, the Kennedy Assassination… The political and social history of America is awash with booze, for better and for worse.
And what do we do with that fact? Drink less? Drink more? Drink differently?
One small and personal response I’ve come up with is this blog, with its intent to explore a whiskey journey over time, in social or other contexts beyond the confines of the bottles themselves. Another response is sharing whiskey with friends, curating flights aimed to transport them in some manner and to prompt engaged conversations that travel beyond the flight. My explorations of whiskey have taken me everywhere from Geary Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in 2019, to the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower. Whiskey has led me into a tangle of issues—economics and racism, depression and mental illness, the chicken and egg of law and crime. And philosophical concerns like objectivity versus subjectivity, work ethics, the nature of morality, the role of pleasure and of pain in life, how we might get to know people who are not like us and accept them as such.
Like theater, whiskey becomes the starting point for a journey toward greater things. And like theater, whiskey becomes a metaphor for realities we must contend with. Whiskey’s own built-in conflict, that it can compel both pleasure and despair in teetering measure, is not unlike theater’s comedy/tragedy scale whereon the full scope of the human experience might be measured.
Or, like theater, one can opt to take whiskey less seriously and just drink it. That’s likely enough for many folks. It’s indeed the rare mainstream commercial theater production—easily swallowed by design—that makes a dent in terms of compelling people toward thinking differently about the world. And, really, how many bottles of whiskey have ever led anyone to rethink their social or political perceptions?
And yet we also know a single performance can leave someone questioning what they thought they understood—something entire governments often seem incapable of doing. So also might a Friday pour open a person up to sharing what’s deeply true for them.
Too grand for a simple thing like whiskey?
I don’t think so. There must be reasons why whiskey has held such a stronghold on the American psyche. It can’t only be because it’s addictive. There’s also how it’s made—a meticulous process that is at once a practical craft and a mysterious art. There’s its history built on flamboyant lies and devastating truths. There is the material reality of it in contrast to the intangible mystique of it. There is the incalculable pleasure and pain it has caused. Whiskey is a veritable drama unto itself, a catalogue of stories as seemingly varied as the Greek canon or Shakespeare’s complete works, only far less lofty and distant. It’s just earth, water, wood, grain, yeast, and time.
So, with a tumbler of bourbon gradually opening up in one hand, and awareness gradually—I hope—opening up in the other, this journey continues…