The uses of adversity

Bourbon, a product of hardship, is today a refuge for the soul

Human ingenuity is never more manifest than in times of hardship, as is abundantly proved by food. All the most lasting culinary achievements are the products of dearth, in which people have had to impart flavour to some staple crop such as rice, millet, durum wheat or potatoes, with only a few scant ingredients to help them. Think of Marmite - an inspired response to wartime deprivation, the flavour of which percolates to the roots of human virtue. Then there is chutney, harissa, HP Sauce and ketchup; pesto, nuoc nam (fish sauce), tapenade and Parmesan - designed to rescue the dullest dish, though applied in the tiny quantities that penury affords.

This ingenuity has been manifest, too, in the world of drink. Deprived of grapes and other sources of sweetness, with only rye and barley to provide their sugars, the ingenious Celts began mashing, malting, distilling and casking, eventually hitting on the drink that Sir Walter Scott, relishing the sound of a word in which we hear the flames and fumes of the distillery, calls by its Gaelic name of uisgeah. Transported to America, the Scots and Irish hit on a further refinement, which was to store it in casks that had been burned on the inside. Charcoal absorbs unwanted gases, and also projects a dark mysterious flavour, like big black eyebrows on a clear young face. Thus was created Bourbon, product of those years of hardship when beer was too weak, wine too rare, and rum unobtainable.

Bourbon has become a part of the settled, middle-class culture whose icon is "real America", and whose spectra run from deer hunting to river baptism, from William Faulkner to Kurt Vonnegut, and from a six o'clock start at the office to anguish at sunset on the crew-cut lawn. It is a refuge for the American soul, to be understood not as a drink but as a "shot", injected through the mouth into the stomach. In this consensual society, negotiations can be measured in terms of the shots necessary to accomplish them. Most business deals are two-shot affairs; but those who know the deep loneliness of America will be familiar with the four-shot or five-shot collisions from which the human atoms bounce off along new paths of exploration, always cheerful, always alone.

Praising Bourbon in Esquire magazine, the American writer Walker Percy wrote that it reduces the anomie of the modern world. But the four-shot and five-shot encounters with women that he describes show another aspect of the "real America": not so much anomie as an emotional dearth. This dearth has produced its own ingenious invention: the cocktail, in which Bourbon is stirred with kitsch ingredients and addressed to the female palate. And it works: those suburban marriages are renewed on the lawn each afternoon, as he takes a shot and she a sip, and the anguish slips back into the shadows.