For 15 weeks, I meet twice a week with a dozen students to talk about whiskey.
We grind grain and mash grist, ferment it to yield alcohol, practice distillation, and examine bourbons, Scotches and other whiskeys.
They learn a little mixology: The course requires them to distinguish a Manhattan, Sazerac and Old Fashioned.
But after about three weeks, students realize the class is not really about whiskey. Their first clue is discussion of the Big Bang and origins of atoms. We move onto molecules, the evolution of the human race and the rise of agriculture.
It’s the history portion that usually leaves the deepest mark. But it’s not the facts that students take away; it’s the dialogue skills that are developed and the perspectives they afford.
The conversation starts with a simple question: Are things getting better or worse?
Most believe things have never been worse.
Whiskey tells a different story.
Choose the woe: immigration. Religious intolerance. The influence of special-interest groups in politics. Failures in equity and inclusion across race, gender or sexuality. Unacceptable forms of protest.
The elections of 1928 pitted Wets against Drys, urban against rural, Protestants against Catholics. The Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith was accused of being an agent of the pope. During that same era, discussions of whether the Republican platform should openly denounce the Ku Klux Klan went largely unresolved.
Whiskey tells us the story of two of the greatest political machines of our history, the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The former zealously influenced elections to put Drys in office. The latter focused more broadly but was willing to target children with the most frightening of propaganda.
The roots of Prohibition reach back almost 100 years from its formal start in 1920.
Alcohol-influenced abuse of wives and children (for whom little legal protection was available) offered women of the mid-1800s an opportunity for public voice as protectors of the home. They exercised “acceptable” protest in the form of public prayer.
Students find the hatchet Carrie Nation employed to be less acceptable decades later.
Before long, the discussion turns to “What makes a protest acceptable?”
How much consideration is given to that question when a player briefly kneels?
How much is a knee-jerk response because the protester is interfering with the desire to escape the troubles of the day or because the timing of the act makes most of us uncomfortable?
Isn’t that what a protest is supposed to do, after all — interfere?
How does kneeling compare to tarring-and-feathering during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 or to the disruption of transportation systems for extended periods occurring today?
The goal of the discussions is not to change opinions.
Indeed, opinions rarely change. However, judgment is markedly tempered through the dialogue. Students find that mutual understanding and respectful disagreement can coexist.
We can talk clinically about how alcohol impairs and the escalation of its effects as it washes through the different domains of the brain.
Knowing both the mathematics of alcohol equivalency and the body’s delayed metabolic response provides useful and strategic information, without sounding like the propaganda students saw employed by the temperance movement.
The mystery of “average consumption” is revealed. Self-reporting suggests that drinking habits and motives change and that consumption might also decrease.
The course can even help a student get a job.
Whiskey knowledge can provide an “in” during social situations. Many drink whiskey but don’t know much about the legislated definitions of a Scotch or bourbon, nor can they readily match a palate preference to a geographical style of the spirit. In addition, angst over a current event can be dissected (and defused) with parallels to historic precedent.
A former student, the first woman to work for the start-up company she had joined, said she broke the gender barrier by knowing whiskey. The group found a common language.
“Whiskey” gives interviewees something to talk about in terms of their college academic experience in a way that “organic chemistry,” regrettably, does not.
The class is more than the science and history of the spirit. At its best, it provides a road map for navigating the kind of polarizing conversations we’re all having now — without being driven to drink.
Eric Simanek is an organic chemist at Texas Christian University. He teaches Whiskey: Science and History to students of all disciplines and enjoys a wee nip every now and then, too.