Blood & Whiskey
By Peter Krass
Wiley, 288 pp., $24.95
By Jacob Sullum
Tarcher/Penguin, 352 pp., $14.95 (paper)
ack Daniel's Old No. 7 burns like a love gone wrong. It's not the mellowest sip around or the most complex, but let's face it: Everybody knows Jack. Located, ironically enough, in the dry town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniel's is a brand name to be reckoned with.
Blood & Whiskey, Peter Krass' exhaustively researched biography of Jasper "Jack" Daniel, tells the Dickensian tale of a poor but tenacious farm boy who was orphaned during the Civil War and taken in by a whiskey-making, Yankee-fighting, straight-shooting preacher-man. Jack, being Scotch-Irish and partial to the occasional jug of corn liquor, learned and grew to love the art of making sour mash. Through wit, guile, and audacity, Jack and his heirs built a whiskey empire.
Entertaining by fits and starts (charcoal filtering takes away the hangover? who knew?), Blood & Whiskey sometimes bogs down in questionable Confederate apologia. Krass is at his best when he leaves biography behind entirely and looks at the rich role firewater has played throughout American history. Consider:
One barrel of Missouri water,
Two gallons of raw alcohol,
Two ounces of strychnine to make them crazy,
Three twists of 'backer to make them sick cause Injuns won't think it's good unless it makes them sick.
This recipe for "Indian whiskey" also included soap and red pepper. It was cooked over sagebrush and sold to the "redskins" by white settlers. Paints a vivid image of how the West was really won, doesn't it?
In his love letter to all things dark, intoxicating, and morally debatable, Krass quotes Robert E. Lee: "I like [liquor]; I always did, and that is the reason I never use it." He also offers this from Abraham Lincoln: "The making of liquor is regarded as an honorable livelihood. If people are injured from its use, the injury arises not from the use of a bad thing, but the abuse of a very good thing."
Now go back and read these quotes again substituting the word "drugs" for the word "liquor." Here you have the two opposing viewpoints debated in Jacob Sullum's Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use.
Sullum debunks druggie stereotypes. (Turns out most have jobs.) He empirically proves that our drug laws are hypocritical. (Hey, booze is just as bad, and it's legal.) He busts myths about drug-induced craziness. (Who you calling crazy, crazy?) And he says a lot of things most people born after 1950 already know or at least strongly suspect.
The Pennsylvania Alcohol Control Board distributes promotional literature reminding parents it's illegal to give their children liquor if they are under 21. To this Sullum, appalled by what he sees as an intrusion, says, "It's hardly reasonable to expect people to suddenly know how to drink responsibly when they turn 21 if they've had no experience with alcohol till then." And what reasonable person can argue?
Sullum uses solid data, simple logic, and clever anecdotes to skewer the topsy-turvy logic of America's contradictory drug laws. Saying Yes refutes the notion that one may drink responsibly but drug-users are necessarily high and looking for trouble 24/7. Sullum's response to the complaints of modern-day prohibitionists: Hell no I don't want a stoned surgeon, but I don't want a drunk one either. In many ways it's an all-or-nothing challenge to conventional wisdom.
Sullum does occasionally make a stoner's rhetorical slip. After arguing that the average user, like the average drinker, is more often than not a perfectly responsible person with a perfectly normal life, he quotes retired General Joseph Franks, who said, "If we [combat soldiers in Vietnam] got into any trouble -- say an evening attack on a perimeter -- the marijuana smokers were much more alert than the drinkers."
So, according to Saying Yes, weed is better than booze if you're on the battlefield? Abraham Lincoln might not agree. In Blood & Whiskey, the Great Emancipator wishes out loud that he could send all his generals a bottle of whatever it was Grant was drinking.
Both Krass' and Sullum's books prove that prohibition is costly and counterproductive. Where there's a serious demand for "vice," there will always be a steady supply.