Contradictions: On Drinking in the South

ELIZABETH PEARCE (this article was published in December 2010)

Neat with a Twist explores drinking and the culture that surrounds it. Click the logo for the archives.

Neat with a Twist explores drinking and the culture that surrounds it. Click the logo for the archives.

Drinking in the South is an action rife with contradiction. As the home of bourbon, the Mint Julep and the Sazerac¸ not to mention that hospitality for which we are so famous, when confronted with a bleak day, we bask in the warm glow cast by a friendly drink. But there are many folks in the South who see booze as nothing more than a source of affliction to good society and to the soul. Mississippi Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. enumerated these two camps best in 1952, when he was called upon to address the State Legislature, during its debate about whether to legalize the sale of liquor in Mississippi. Here is his speech in its entirety.

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Soggy’s speech was not merely a deft piece of rhetoric. It embodied Mississippi’s liquor laws at the time. After Prohibition was repealed, states had the right to create their own liquor laws. Mississippi was the last state to repeal Prohibition, but that doesn’t mean no one was drinking. The state instead managed to find a way to tax black market whiskey. So, as the saying of the time went, “The drys had their law, the wets had their whiskey and the state had its money.”

One Mississippi resident remembers that during this time in his boyhood town of Vicksburg, bars were open in broad daylight on the city’s main street. There were several package stores that sold bonded but illegal whiskey, paying tax on every half pint of Jim Beam that left the store in a brown paper bag. This situation was true across Mississippi and to a certain extent remains true across the South, where there are blue laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol in general, or liquor specifically.

February 13, 1922. Washington, D.C. "Unidentified woman." Holding a "tipping cane" also known as a "cane flask" during Prohibition.

February 13, 1922. Washington, D.C. “Unidentified woman.” Holding a “tipping cane” also known as a “cane flask” during Prohibition.

I grew up in Covington, LA, where there were no such laws limiting the sale of one particular kind of booze, but then attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for my undergraduate degree. I still remember arguing with the owner of the Albertson’s grocery store, when one Sunday, I tried to buy a bottle of wine for a dinner party. Wine and liquor were forbidden purchases on Sunday; beer, however, was up for grabs. I didn’t want to drink beer with my pasta dinner and asked why the wine was forbidden and not the beer? Was it because of Jesus, because if I recalled correctly, he turned water into wine, not Coors Light. Of course, I got nowhere in my arguments. Instead, I got in my car and headed across the river, where the laws were less stringent.

And that is what almost all people do: ignore the laws or work around them. Because when it comes to drinking, nothing is going to stop you, especially if you are Southern. A few nights ago, I was seated next to two well-respected bartenders and asked them what makes Southern drinkers different from other drinkers. The first answer they both agreed on? Southerners drink more.

How to explain this? How to explain a populace that makes illegal the very thing we love to drink, the very thing we distill tens of thousands of gallons of across our region? Or to be even more succinct, how to explain a region that is home to Jack Daniels, one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country, a company that is situated in a dry county, which makes illegal one of the highest source of its tax revenue?

You can’t. Unless you do what Soggy did, which was to ultimately embrace the two irreconcilable sides of this argument. Liquor can lead to some terrible things: cirrhosis, poverty, abuse, death. It can also lead to wonderful things: comfort, friendship, camaraderie, oblivion. These conflicting attributes are ever present in every drink, just as the conflicting components of the South mingle together throughout the region: racism, hospitality, suspicion, generosity, violence and love. I would love to find a way to eliminate the evil and keep only the good parts in all aspects of life. One cannot do it with liquor, but I do wonder if our ease in accepting these many contradictions, and drinking them more than anybody else, keeps us from finding ways to eliminate the bad in the other parts of our lives and our towns. I’ll ponder on that, over a drink.



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