Of dogs and rye

Nothing goes better with an evening in Virginia than a glass of whiskey, writes Roger Scruton

"If ah git to heav'n, then fust thing ah do is shake that man's han' as invented whiskey."

Only in rural America will you hear a remark like that. I suggest that whiskey was not invented by a single person, but emerged, as Adam Smith would say, by an "invisible hand".

"Well, ah gonna shake that han', too." "Amen," adds the chorus, for we are in Southern Baptist country, and God's ears are pricked. I question whether an interest in whiskey would survive the passage through the pearly gates, to which I receive the sensible reply: "So why did he get us all so innerested in whiskey down here?" God has a lot to answer for in old Virginia.

And answer he does. Sitting on the porch after sundown, listening to the tree frogs trilling and the land frogs squeaking, I remind God to ensure that a cask or two of our local rye is on tap when He meets the neighbours. They're sure gonna need it.

Meanwhile, I raise my glass. For there is no better place to drink whiskey than on a Southern porch at night-time, the warm air bristling with insects, the bats swooping under the eaves, and every now and then the sky tearing like paper as an owl rips past.

Yes, and those tree frogs, or tree toads, as Walt Whitman called them: "a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest" - though the highest what, he did not say. If only it were a little less lonely. And then, behold, in answer to my prayer, Dolly the collie comes bounding up the steps and lays her rag-doll body at my feet.

Dolly's owner, who lives alone in a cabin on the hill, still feeds her. But she stops in to see him only when her stomach complains. Otherwise she is here, asleep on the porch, hunting in the plantation, or dashing across the river in pursuit of raccoons, opossums and deer.

Last week she was sprayed by a skunk, and the acrid smell still lingers. Her flesh is knobbly with ticks, and her matted fur is home to a thousand smaller parasites. Yet her cheerful presence is comforting beyond words, and I fetch some water so that we can drink together.

The sound of the dog's tongue lapping in the bowl reminds me of the ease with which we humans can buy the affection of animals. And that in turn reminds me to count my blessings.

Yes, whiskey is certainly one of them. Its grainy bitterness, its nutty aroma, its long tail of fire like a comet as it hurtles through the dark - all these things have a magic of their own, and they both liven the body and bring it to rest.

As I settle down to enjoy the night, I look at Dolly, and see on her bright piebald face the very same contentment that I feel behind my own. And for a brief moment I am conscious of what I have lost in needing whiskey, not just water, for my peace of mind.