Sunlight, sunset, sunrise… Glowing, smoldering, sparkling… There are many ways to express in words the light that seems to emanate outward from within a glass of whiskey.
That this light would appear to emerge from the liquid itself, radiating through the glass as from a lantern, gives whiskey an unworldly quality. It’s a kind of visual poetry, spoken in the enigmatic language of color and light. Words like “amber” and “russet” and “honey” all hope to capture this poetry. But as always, words pale next to the experience itself:
In the light of a whiskey glass, memories and other stories materialize like spirits, further revealing themselves in the evocative waves of aroma and layers of flavor. In the whiskey’s sudden heat, excitement sparks and we laugh and howl. In its soothing warmth, we lean backward and forward in time, reflecting on the past or imagining the future.
Whiskey’s innate sensorial qualities are key to why nostalgia can be such a strong aspect of the whiskey experience. Distillery marketing departments are certainly aware of this, often summoning nostalgia for the past with their bottles and labels:
Recognizing this longtime prevailing trend, many newer distilleries quite consciously make a break from the nostalgic approach. With more contemporary packaging they aim to convey their unique flavor profiles, distinct from the presiding Kentucky, Tennessee or Indiana traditions, while also signaling a welcome to potential new whiskey fans who might feel excluded by the dominant southern “good ol’ boy” and “refined gentleman” imagery.
This dichotomy of approaches embodies an interesting dialogue between nostalgia/past and outward-looking/present/future, the way things were and the way things are and might one day be.
By the way: It took me a long time to settle on “outward-looking” as an antonym for “nostalgia.” Various thesauric sources offered alternatives that often framed the opposite of nostalgia as a negative—e.g. “unambitious,” “cynical,” even “bored.” But then Power Thesaurus offered a greater spectrum of perspectives, both positively and negatively inclined, from “apprehension” to “forethought.”
This wide range of interpretations as to nostalgia’s counter-balance indicates something about nostalgia’s own complex meaning(s). “Outward-looking”—an antonym not actually on any list I found—struck me as most germane to my own prevailing understanding of nostalgia: A generally inward-looking process of reflection by which we linger amidst our own personal memories and the feelings they evoke, whether connected to an event, object, person, experience, era or what have you. In a nostalgic state, we hone in on ourselves and on something familiar, as opposed looking outward to reflect on others or to imagine into being anything unprecedented.
Traditionally, whiskey marketing has projected these notions of looking in and back, particularly by reveling in the comfort of bygone times. But as more and more new players in the industry acknowledge how those past eras don’t always conjure fond memories or associations for everyone, that emphasis is gradually opening up.
It is easy to slip into the binary of nostalgia as harmless, thoughtful, and good versus nostalgia as harmful, ignorant, and bad. The challenge of selecting an antonym for “nostalgia” highlights its complexity. In whiskey, complexity is generally considered a good thing, something one can both enjoy and consider, without being obligated to do either or both. Perhaps nostalgia itself is likewise something worth not only enjoying but also considering.
A Brief History of Nostalgia
The word “nostalgia” combines two Greek words—nostos, meaning return, and algos, meaning pain. So at its origin, “nostalgia” referred to affliction brought about by a desire to go back to a former place.
Under that meaning, the term first appeared in a 1688 medical study, by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, to describe symptoms experienced by Swiss soldiers serving abroad, including anxiety, eating disorders, heart palpitations, insomnia, and bouts of weeping, all in response to homesickness.
Around that same time, another Swiss physician, J.J. Scheuchzer, proposed that nostalgia in Swiss soldiers was less of a mental condition and more neurological, resulting from how the drastically lower altitudes in the countries where soldiers were stationed impacted their bodies, leaving them physically, not psychologically, ill.
By the 19th century, the view of nostalgia as a form of melancholic depression dominated. By the 20th, as international migration increased exponentially, nostalgia also became associated with immigrants who sought to preserve their cultural languages and rituals as a means of coping with the stress of living in a new, unfamiliar country.
But by the late 20th century, nostalgia began to make an associative turn away from unpleasant experiences like homesickness and overwhelm toward more positive affiliations with sentimentality, especially for childhood and other fond memories. Nostalgia was no longer limited to matters of place but also of time.
With this history of positive and negative associations, the natural link between nostalgia and whiskey becomes all the more apparent. Whiskey is ultimately a toxin that can nevertheless have positive effects when used in moderation. In this way, whiskey is like any number of medicines, and indeed has a long history of being prescribed as such. Nostalgia can have a similar medicinal impact when used to lighten heavy thoughts or feelings. Yet both whiskey and nostalgia are also medicines people can overdose, causing themselves greater harm.
Staying with nostalgia for the moment, let’s look at some examples of its use and abuse.
Temporary Stress Relief – In times of stress, shifting attention to fond memories can relieve the pressure. This can take the form of reminiscing with old friends, watching favorite movies, listening to music we associate with a positive past era or event in our life.
Defining a Sense of Self – Our entwined senses of identity and of purpose are very much shaped by our accumulated experiences. When we lose touch with our sense of self, recalling those past positive experiences and accomplishments that connect to our values and our aspirations can remind us of who we are or strive to be.
Strengthening a Sense of Connection – If time or distance has weakened our sense of connection to friends and family, we can re-fortify that connection by recounting fond memories we share, revisiting places we once enjoyed together, or other similar means of returning to the past when we felt the strong connection we’ve lost and now crave.
Anxiety and Depression – In times when we’re feeling badly about our life, fixating on the fond past can reinforce a sense of our present as somehow inescapably unhappy, leading us to believe we might never feel happy again.
Guilt and Regret – Similarly, ruminating on past times or experiences we consider to be ideal can reinforce an idea that the present fails to compare. Left unchecked, this comparison can get out of balance, leaving our inner scales tipped toward the negative, reinforcing a sense that our present life does not meet the standards set by our past.
Power and Manipulation – Nostalgia is a classic go-to tool authoritarians use to control people. Dark-haired raspy-voiced Adolph Hitler commissioning artwork depicting beautiful blond Germans with sky-blue eyes. Brutish Joseph Stalin’s endless murals of hearty Russian farmers harvesting wheat like they were marching home victorious from battle. Far more subtly but no less purposefully, American politicians like Newt Gingrich pointing to Norman Rockwell paintings as chronicles of a better time—a good deal of Rockwell’s most familiar work being, tellingly, commercial advertising paid for by the Coca-Cola company and featuring cherubic White people. All these and other propaganda campaigns use the power of nostalgia to induce amnesia and reduce vision, flooding gaps of memory and sight with heart-swelling joy for some ideal way of life that never actually existed. Life is complex and unpredictable by nature. Nostalgia, whether for good or ill, simplifies.
Sun(and other)light In a Glass
As a conduit for nostalgia, whiskey can likewise be used and abused. But first let’s look at how whiskey conjures what it does.
The How of Whiskey
Color – From pale straw to a midnight fire on the horizon, the range of yellows and oranges a whiskey can glow with is infinite. Bourbon specifically is often referred to as being brown in color. But really it’s a russet orange of some variation. That inherent warmth, whether sunny or smoldering, is a whiskey’s first welcome. The color is always cozy, yet always shifting like fire and sunlight—elemental forces as potentially dangerous as they are life affirming. As an elemental force, the color of whiskey has the power to tap even our unconscious associations, memories, moods… One look and a journey has begun.
Aroma – It’s been determined that our sense of smell is where our deepest, most primal memories live. As human-made technologies have advanced over the millennia, by the 21st Century our sense of sight has been prioritized over all others. Smell has arguably been put last on the list, though it as arguably remains ancient in its wisdom. The way a mother can recognize the scent of her own baby’s head. The way a subtle whiff of cardamom can sweep us back in time and across geography before our consciousness understands when or where we’ve been transported. In an instant, a single aroma can conjure hopes or nightmares, induce sighs of happiness or even heaves of vomiting. Our body responds to scent at once, leaving our mind scrambling to catch up. The “lesser” animals with their ultra-keen noses must find whiskey overwhelming!
Taste – Intimately entwined with our sense of smell, our sense of taste likewise understands what we’re experiencing before our mind can find the words. Taste, which also connects with touch, is a particularly sensual invitation to our curiosity. So long as what we’re tasting is pleasing, good memories are soon to follow—of family or holiday traditions, gatherings with good friends, encounters with cultures new to us, that first dinner date who turned out to be The One…
Alcohol – Innumerable studies and a good many books go to great lengths to explain the science and impact of alcohol. Often these writings amount to propaganda for or against this natural substance. It’s a toxic molecular compound that in moderate amounts can help us by killing off destructive microbes and bacteria. Alcohol can sanitize our kitchen counters or our mouths and guts. It can also strip the paint off those same counters and erode our bodies from the inside out. But in terms of alcohol’s relationship to our sense of nostalgia, its immediate effects on our bodies—as a relaxant and disinhibiter—can open the floodgates to the fond past. The less immediate effects can then darken the waters, so, moderation helps to keep us at the sunny point of nostalgia and not slip into the dark and dangerous swamp.
By now I think whiskey’s uses have been explored, yes? It looks good, smells good and tastes good. In moderation, it feels good, can serve as medicine (Hot Toddy for your common cold, anyone?), and the sensual appreciation of it can even serve as a meditation. It’s a conversation starter, a memory evoker, a story prompter. It’s “truth serum,” which is not always a good thing, though in principle one might argue the truth is generally good if not always welcomed. And whiskey is a great curiosity tickler—a gateway to places, people, and cultures outside one’s own, a time machine to histories long since past, a crystal ball for imagining the future.
Whiskey’s abuses have been inferred by now as well. It’s toxic, making demands on every organ in our body. Consumed in excess over a prolonged period, it can rewire our physiological and mental patterns, impacting our bodily and emotional health, even contributing toward cancers or debilitating depression. Abusing alcohol can ruin relationships, cost a person their job, or lead them to injure others. I can’t imagine these examples, or any others I could name, are news to anyone reading this. And certainly anyone who takes up whiskey as a serious pursuit understands it is a joy and a pleasure that comes with real risks that must be considered.
A final thought on whiskey and nostalgia. In addition to all the above, there is the debate over whether whiskey is better now or then—meaning back then, in the past, anytime before the whiskey boom of the last decade or so.
It’s the same debate music fans might have about their favorite bands. No arena concert can possibly compare to their days playing pubs! Or Broadway Musical fans referencing “The Golden Years” of the mid-Twentieth Century, lamenting the mega-musicals of the 1980s and 1990s and the nasal-toned pop-musicals of the 2000s.
But for some people, nothing will top that first rock concert in a massive arena, and that feeling of being one with thousands of strangers brought together by music. For some, the onslaught of spectacle in that mega-musical made them love the musical theater forever, and no future variations on the genre will ever compare to those fond firsts.
More broadly, was life better “back in the day” than it is now? This question seems in constant rotation. I’ve come to wonder what real use or purpose it has. It’s certainly a messier question than yes/no. “Progress” as a holy good, for example, is a complicated belief—cue essay on the climate change debates. And there would not be so much energy behind current Social Justice movements if the past were fair, equitable, and just for everyone. If a person believes the past was better, I can’t help but guess they don’t like having to face the present and would rather continue on through life as children do, less encumbered by worldly awareness. Whiskey demonstrates the only thing that’s real is the whiskey in your glass right now. You can’t drink the past. Yet the past can leave its mark, whether for good or ill.
So was Four Roses Bourbon better in 1972 than it is in 2022? Maybe, if that’s the first time you tried it. Is a 52-year-old scotch that went into the barrel over half a century ago inherently better than a 12-year-old scotch barreled just over a decade ago? Maybe so, if you were born 52 years ago and you’re using that scotch to celebrate. Someone who turned 21 a dozen years ago might favor that 12-year scotch, because it was the first they’d had, and the start of a journey. How do we know when whiskey is the best?
By pouring a glass! We can never know what of ourselves we might find refracted in a whiskey’s enigmatic light…!
Nostalgia, from cowbells to the meaning of life – scholarly article published by The British Psychological Society, 2008
A new view of an old emotion, or how science is saving nostalgia – article published by The Conversation, 2013.
Those Happy Golden Years: Coping with Memories That Bring More Pain Than Peace – medically-reviewed article on nostalgic depression published on Healthline.com, 2021.
Nostalgia Isn’t Always a Good Thing – article from Good Housekeeping, 2021.