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16 July 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 11:59am

Why America turned to the nectar of cowboys

Cowboys may have been the architects of the American myth but a cowboy without his shot of whiskey would scarce merit his gun.

By Nina Caplan

Where the Wild West began depended on when you were asking, but Kentucky is pretty far east, and officially joined the Union in 1792 (before which it was part of Virginia), so its claims to frontier chic have long been shaky. Adventurers make good drinkers but bad distillers, so those who stayed put on this fertile patch got to corner the market in bourbon. Cowboys may have been the architects of the American myth but a cowboy without his shot of whiskey would scarce merit his gun. In fact, the very idea of a “shot” comes from a time when ammunition was traded for liquid that gave a man the courage to use it.

Bourbon, these days, is frequently lovely stuff, but back when someone figured out that you could distil the corn that grew so well in the Midwest (which was probably about an hour after supplies of more conventional spirits ran out) it likely tasted foul and did you measurable harm. The rules that dictate minimum 51 per cent corn and ageing in charred new oak barrels are fairly modern; but bourbon itself is almost as old as white America. According to Reid Mitenbuler’s Bourbon Empire, Captain George Thorpe of Virginia was the enterprising progenitor, some time before he was killed by Native Americans in 1622. Actually, Thorpe sounds a fairly enlightened fellow, but given the depredations his firewater later inflicted on a race whose name for corn was maize, meaning “that which sustains us”, perhaps his murder was a form of pre-emptive justice.

Because corn is an American staple, Mitenbuler calls bourbon the American spirit – a status ratified by Congress in 1964, for whatever that’s worth. Certainly it buoyed those longago frontiersmen, fuelling their explorations (and, doubtless, their battles) and enabling those who settled to convert their excess crop into a saleable product that didn’t rot. George Washington, a leading Virginia landowner under the British, was the biggest distiller in the nation he helped create; a fact conveniently forgotten by America after his distillery burned down a decade after his death. (Its ruins were excavated between 1999 and 2006 and it is now a working museum.) In 1794 the father of the revolution was also the target of a very American uprising when he tried to tax whiskey to pay for that war.

He had yet to realise that America viewed its freedom as the God-given right of every freeborn man to go to hell in his own way. These days, that right includes women and the descendants of slaves, too, though I don’t know if you can call that progress.

In a way, bourbon was a replacement for God. A spirit named for royalty became a sop for the loneliness that invariably follows the dethroning of authority. Mitenbuler quotes the English novelist Frances Trollope, who visited America in the 1820s. Americans “live and die without hearing or uttering the dreadful words ‘God save the King’ ”, she wrote, but their graves occupy lonely spots in the forest where “the wind that whispers through the boughs will be their only requiem”.

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In other words, she worried that neither deity nor monarch would be saved. Surely, on civilisation’s far frontier, encroached on by hostile natives, wild beasts and savage adventurers, many strong men would have been driven to drink by the fear that God had not survived the ousting of His earthly representative – a development that profit-loving bourbon purveyors might also have found comforting.

A century later, God did triumph, and the result was Prohibition – surely a better argument for Mammon than even the Devil could devise.

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