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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Whiskey

Will a bottle by the keyboard make you a better writer? And just how acceptable is taking a slug from a hip flask? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Whiskey! Does everyone have a snifter in their pockets? Should we all be spending thousands on it to get rich? Fill a pint glass with the stuff and let’s get started.

Lie #1: Grown-Ups Are Wandering Around With Hip Flasks in Their Pockets

Pop culture of the 1980s and 1990s gave off the impression that walking around with a hip flask of whiskey in your pockets was just what grown-ups did. Like Ms. Krabappel and Principal Skinner in the “Do The Bartman” video, everyone was a few seconds away from a gulp-and-shudder.

As an adult, though… no? On a special occasion like a wedding, a party or a big silly day out, sure, but someone carrying a hip flask around day-to-day as part of their wallet-phone-keys check? That’s kind of weird. It doesn’t scream “fun party person” so much as “tragic alcoholic.” Turning up to a job interview with a flask peeking out of your jacket, for instance, is probably a bad idea. “I wouldn’t mention it, but I’d find it weird,” says Mat, operations manager at a London-based tech company who regularly interviews job applicants. “It’s not a neutral thing to be carrying is it? And I’d worry if a candidate didn’t recognize that enough to leave the old sippin’ whiskey at home.”

As for Skinner and Krabappel, well, depending on what state Springfield is in, they could be breaking the law. In Virginia, for instance, they’d be committing a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“When I first started teaching 15 years ago in a middle-class area, teachers often went for a drink at lunchtime on a Friday,” says Allan, a teacher in London. “If I did that now, where alcohol is a taboo for most of the kids I teach, it could land me in hot water. If I was caught drinking from a hip flask during school, I’d imagine it would be immediate disciplinary action, probably dismissal. Current teaching standards clearly state that teachers must ‘demonstrate consistently the positive attitudes, values and behavior which are expected of pupils,’ and drinking at school would fall foul of this.”

Flasks have a long and storied history, and were once common enough to have a legal defense named after them — the ‘hip flask defense’ is a way of trying to get out of a drunk-driving charge after an accident by claiming you were so shaken by the crash that you immediately drank a bunch of booze, so even though you were sober when it happened, you register on the breathalyzer as being full of drink. However, other than a few state exceptions, having a flask in the car is illegal, as it counts as an open alcohol container. 

There’s just a big difference between, say, offering your best friend a bit of Dutch courage on his big day, or sharing a drink with a comrade stuck in a foxhole knowing you might not see tomorrow, and drinking hard liquor at a school event because you hate your job, then driving home.

Lie #2: “I Love Scotch Whiskey!”

No such thing. If it’s American or Irish, it’s “whiskey,” with an e, but from most other places it’s “whisky,” without one. Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky, Tennessee whiskey. The word started in Gaelic, uisge beatha (which translates as “water of life”), and slightly different translations — due to the different forms of Gaelic used in Ireland and Scotland — led to the discrepancy. (There was also a really convoluted, hard-to-follow ongoing argument about whether a blend of a single malt and grain whisky could be called “whisky” at all, which may have contributed to the e being adopted.)

It’s a pleasing word to say, though, and never said better than by Andy Samberg’s Rod Kimble in Hot Rod, the greatest film ever made.

Whiskey (with the e) is also part of the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, also known as the NATO phonetic alphabet. W is the only letter to have an alcoholic drink representing it — Charlie is sometimes used as a slang term for cocaine, and you can get drunk playing Golf, or in a Hotel, or in India or Quebec, so maybe this is a dumb road to go down — although B, now represented by Bravo, was once set to be Beer. 

As a result of its use by the military, it now shows up in expressions like “whiskey tango foxtrot” (meaning “what the fuck”), “whiskey Pete” (referring to white phosphorous) and “whiskey delta,” meaning “weak dick,” an expression of dismissal and/or invitation to fisticuffs.

Lie #3: Wanna Write Good? Get on the Sauce!

There’s a certain romance to the idea of a writer taking occasional slugs from a whiskey bottle as they type their masterpiece. A lot of the world’s most celebrated writers have (or had) a love for the booze — William Faulkner claimed the tools he needed for his trade were paper, tobacco, food and whiskey, while Raymond Chandler insisted there was no such thing as bad whiskey. Ernest Hemingway was on a quart of whiskey a day, Stephen King has no recollection of writing Cujo, Carson McCullers began her day with a morning beer and Edgar Allan Poe used to drink absinthe mixed with brandy, the loose fucking cannon.

Something worth considering, though, is how unhappy a lot of these people were. Hemingway killed himself, Chandler tried to and Poe was last seen alive outside an Irish bar wearing someone else’s clothes and babbling incoherently. (Later investigation showed he might not have been drunk, and might in fact have had rabies, but that’s by the by; he wasn’t a well man.)

Their work wasn’t necessarily helped by their drinking, either. Hemingway is frequently quoted as advising people to write drunk and edit sober, but in fact never drank while working. Faulkner mostly wrote sober but would celebrate the completion of a piece of work by going on a days-long drinking binge, which occasionally involved incidents like passing out on a radiator and getting badly burned. Chandler was sober for the most productive years of his career, having been fired from a well-paid job for drunkenness and suicide threats, and in his later sauce-heavy years occasionally reached a point where his writing read like a bad parody of his younger self.

(There is some evidence to suggest a drink or two can be good for creativity due to its inhibition-lowering effects. A study in Chicago found being slightly tipsy to be helpful completing creative tasks, and a casual experiment involving advertising creatives and drink concluded that having a slight buzz led both to better ideas and more of them. Honing those ideas into actual submittable work? Probably best done sober.)

The other thing is, the vast majority of working writers in 2020 work online, producing shorter, fast-turnaround pieces. A novelist in the 1950s could miss a deadline by a few weeks and nobody would care too much, but the world moves faster now. Sure, if you’re a bestselling novelist with a million-dollar advance writing your sixth book from your vacation house in Tahiti, fuck it all, get as drunk as you like, but working at a content farm and turning in a hot take about a Batman trailer three days late because you do your best work when just the right kind of hammered? Probably not a great idea.

Lie #4: “Hey, This Super-Good Whiskey Is Really Cheap!”

If that’s the case, the stuff in the bottle might not match what it says on the outside. Counterfeit whiskey is a very real thing, with fake versions of both mass-market whiskies and valuable rarities out there — at one end of the scale you have cheap booze slapped into replica Johnnie Walker bottles and sold to tourists, and on the other you have detailed forgeries, with one analysis of 55 expensive bottles of rare Scotch concluding 21 of them were fake. The single most expensive shot ever sold, a $10,000 dram of 1878 Macallan single malt, sold in Switzerland in 2018 to author Zhang Wei, turned out to be something else entirely.

“Fakery is certainly an issue, but fortunately for the informed connoisseur, the fakes are usually pretty crappy,” says Sam Simmons, Head of Whisky at Atom Brands. “There is a global community of knowledgeable and friendly whisky folks who are always accessible through various online social media if you need to check a bottle and, as with anything, if the deal seems too good to be genuine, it probably is.” In the Swiss case, it was eagle-eyed whisky nerds spotting issues with the cork that led to fakery being exposed. 

If you’ve spent thousands on a fake, you might be lucky like Zhang and get a refund. And if you’ve spent a few bucks on some sketchy stuff in a foreign airport? Fuck it, right? Mix it with some soda and don’t make any early plans tomorrow.

Lie #5: “This Stuff’s Too Good to Drink”

There’s a huge whiskey collecting market, and bottles change hands for eye-watering prices. A bottle of Macallan 1926 60-year-old single malt sold for $1.83 million in 2019. If you’d partied your way through that on an overexcited Thursday you’d feel like a real a-hole. If you have a nice bottle of the stuff, are you better off keeping it safe somewhere?

The thing is, that Macallan would never have been cheap — only 40 bottles were made back in 1986, and one changed hands for $6,411 that year, so anyone who’s made money off it is much more likely to be a riches-to-more-riches story than one that ever involved rags. 

Should you invest all your hard-earned money in a bottle you reckon will appreciate in value? Maybe, but you’re a wobbly shelf away from heartbreak. “Don’t buy art you wouldn’t put on your wall, an antique chair you wouldn’t sit in or whisky you would never drink,” says Simmons. “Whisky has certainly become a collectable commodity but that’s really only because of scarcity. And why does whisky become scarce? Because it’s delicious. Bottles people can’t keep themselves from consuming only drive up the value of those remaining bottles, so desire to drink has — as it should — a direct correlation to value. So instead, thinking of whisky as an investment that pays when you open it and enjoy it with friends, rather than solely for monetary reward, is probably the safest bet.”