E-pistle 2009/07 – Politics, Religion & Whisk(e)y in America

By David Wankel, USA

Unless you have been hiding out in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan for the past few months (and even then you have probably heard)  you know that we Americans in our rather odd and less democratic than we would ever admit way, have elected a new President, have elected what almost amounts to a “super majority” in the houses of Congress and passed new Amendments to several State Constitutions that in essence remove from a small minority rights that are otherwise enjoyed by the vast majority of citizens.  For the past two years we have been endlessly debating the qualities, or lack thereof, of the candidates.  In the end it came down to the old guy and the hot chick or the black kid and his running mate (who was he again?).

And the winner is???????  Does it really matter?  Well, if you are now screaming at your computer screen “YES!!!” you are probably in one of the many countries of the world that have been alienated by the policies of the past administration.  If you now continue to sit by calmly reading thinking to yourself “well of course it does,” you probably live in the United States where the excitement and joy of election night paled in comparison to the celebrations around the world that “CHANGE” was coming. The world seems excited about the new President-elect.  He is half African decent if you had not heard (quite a step forward in the post-9/11 flag-waving era) and he has African and Muslim names to boot!  Now that’s progress in America (or at least progressive)!!  So with all this progressive thought and desire for peace, love and general goodwill toward our fellow man, we Americans also found the time to create, in my humble opinion, a travesty. I refer to the passing of three (3) State Constitutional Amendments that eliminate or otherwise prevent same-sex couples from being able to marry like every other person in those States.  One of these States happens to be my home State of California.

California, for those not so familiar with US geography and demography is the most populated State at 36 million people.  It is also the world’s 10th largest economy (if California was its own country it would drop the remaining US to number 4).  It also has a large (I would say largest but with so many homosexual people still in the closet there is no real way of knowing) and very vocal, gay and lesbian (or homosexual) population (in San Francisco you can’t swing a bottle of Napa Valley wine without knocking a few unconscious).  Nevertheless , the same people that gave 61% of its votes to Barak Obama and only 37% to John McCain (yes, there were other candidates – hence the missing 2 percent) voted 52% to 48% to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry.  By the way, they did had the right to marry in California as of July 2008 up until the day after the election.

California, the most progressive State in the entire United States, voted to single-out a minority population and actually remove rights that the Supreme Court of the State ruled that they were entitled to receive(Florida and Arizona did the same thing).   If this were 1961 and these were black people, such a vote would have sparked race-riots and marches on Washington led by enigmatic preachers with amazing abilities to rally and inspire.  But instead, the same people who voted for the black man to be President, voted to discriminate against a minority class of people because they simply do not like what they do in their own bedrooms.  This is what I call a travesty.  It all kind of drives me to drink (single malt only please).

I am a 38 year-old attorney living in generally “red” Orange County (“The OC” for all you TV show enthusiasts [which is not filmed in Orange County by the way – that is Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles that you are seeing]) which is generally conservative and relatively rich.  While I generally practice law in the field of international trade and development, I am also a staunch supporter of personal and human rights.  To me , this vote is infuriating.  While there are already legal challenges to the Amendment and with any luck the State Supreme Court will again determine that the elimination of a minorities’ right that is enjoyed by the majority through a vote of the majority is improper, it still speaks volumes about the lack of personal freedom tolerance in the United States.

Question:  How does the marriage of a same-sex couple affect the marriages of those of us who are traditionally married?  Answer this question and you can join the ranks of the truly enlightened for no argument yet has been able to explain this to me.  Where does such Presidential progress and yet personal intolerance come from?  Look no further than your friendly neighborhood religious sect and very traditional ethnic and racial divides.

Black people in America voted overwhelmingly for the black presidential candidate (almost 98% according to some exit polls) but nearly seventy percent (70%) of these same voters voted to ban same-sex marriages.  Did they forget that it has only been a bit over 40 years since they were drinking out their own water fountains and had to sit at the back of the bus?  Why…..studies say that black Americans have much stronger religious ties than most other racial and ethnic groups and of course religion says that homosexuality is one of the worst kinds of sin.

Hispanics (a huge California demographic) were divided along similar (albeit less decisive on both accounts) lines.  Whites where divided around 50/50 on the marriage ban.  On the religious side of things, between the Mormon Church, the Baptist Churches and the Catholic Churches, $75 million was spent on campaigns to ban same-sex marriages.  The main justification……god says it is wrong.…..oh, and our children might learn that same-sex people can get married and if the children learn it, they will want to do it.   And the people bought it (well 52% in California anyway…..Arizona and Florida nearly two-thirds).

So, you ask, what does this have to do with Malt Maniacs anyway?
Well, it turns out that politics and religion greatly affect many aspects of our lives including one of my favorite sectors, the liquor industry. Americans pride themselves on their democratic ways.  However, most Americans (prior to 2000 about 80%) still do not know that America is not a Presidential democracy.  In reality, America is a representative democracy (Electoral College).  The people do NOT elect the President.  The people instruct their representatives from their States how they wish them to vote.  The representatives can vote as they choose but nearly always (there have been exceptions) vote as the State Voters tell them too, winner take all.  There is a profound difference between a straight democracy and a representative democracy (Just ask George Bush – in 2000, he lost the straight democracy vote but won the Presidency due to the Representative Democracy format).

Americans also pride themselves on being the land of the free; where freedom rings; where a man is free to do as he pleases as long as he doesn’t hurt his fellow man…….that is unless you are gay and want to get married……or you want to have a dram of your favorite Single Malt Scotch and you live in a region or county that is Dry (amongst many, many other things that are far too numerous to go into in this Epistle). You may notice from some of the other articles on this site that one of the biggest and most popular whisky distilleries in the United States, Jack Daniel’s, is actually located in a “dry” county. Dry counties are those counties within a particular State that do not allow the sale of alcohol or alcoholic beverages.  There are some counties which are partially dry (referred to commonly as “moist”) where some establishments such as golf courses or specially licensed dealers may sell pre-made beverages on-site.  Some counties allow for sale of beverages at a State owned liquorist but not in bars and some vice-versa.  Where do these odd legal distinctions come from?

Many of these dry and moist counties are the remnants of the Prohibition era of the 1920s through 1933 when all alcohol was banned by Constitutional Amendment to the United States Constitution.  When the Prohibition Amendment was repealed in 1933, the States were allowed to limit alcohol locally and retain the ban if they so desired, and many did.  States like Utah created laws that controlled the State as a whole.  Others allowed the Counties within the State to make their own rules.  The result is a confusing and often contradictory mix of rules from town to town across the ten percent (10%) of America that is “dry.”

By way of example, of Texas’ 254 counties, 74 are completely “dry” and many of the rest are moist.
The patchwork of laws can be confusing, even to residents. In some counties, only 4 percent beer is legal. In others, beverages that are 14 percent or less alcohol are legal. In some “dry” areas, you can get a mixed drink by paying to join a “private club,” and in some “wet” areas you still need a club membership to get liquor-by-the-drink.  This demonstrates how variable the alcohol laws can be, even within small geographic areas. Move from Fort Worth to Arlington and you’ll be surprised that you can buy beer but not wine at the grocery store.  Move to Grand Prairie and you can’t even find beer there, but you can buy alcoholic drinks at restaurants in both towns. Then move to Burleson, which has alcohol sales in the Tarrant County portion of the city but not in the Johnson County side of town.

Where did all of this come from?  Prohibition began for the most part, and still exists for the most part, due to religious fundamentalists.  The same groups that would keep same-sex couples from getting married would also tell you that your enjoyment of a dram of whisky is a sin in their eyes (which is also in the eyes of their god).  Now, I don’t claim that all religious people feel the same or otherwise vote the same.  Clearly that is not the case.  But what I do find is that peoples of a strong religious background in America tend to lean way toward a conservative right.    Yes, yes, yes… I know –  not ALL lean that way especially considering we have 360 million people to consider.  But then I am generalizing aren’t I.

California is fortunately decidedly “WET” and I like it that way.  However, travel through the Southern Bible-Belt of the country and you will likely run into at least confusion as to whether you can have a beer, wine, or whisky with your meal.  I studied law for three years in North -West Ohio where the local laws allowed for general sales of alcohol at grocery stores ….. so long as the ABV was 20% or less.  This made for an interesting drink when I first purchased what appeared to be a normal bottle of Bacardi rum.  As I found out rather quickly, the bottle was reduced from 40% to 20% by the bottler specifically for these “moist” areas.  During my college days I traveled to Utah to go snow-skiing and we brought our beer and booze with us because the laws made for limited access to the real thing.

While California may be open to enjoyment of a good dram (thank goodness), it is by no means a whisky heaven.  I recently received a copy of the “Whisky Bars of the World” published by Whisky Magazine (in association with Macallan).  I eagerly turned to the USA section to find many a listing of name, phone number and web address, but oddly no city listing.  As I have mentioned, the United States covers the better part of an entire continent with huge geographical regions, and many other distinctive locales.  However, the editors of this publication failed to even describe in which part of the continent a particular establishment might be located.  In order to find a local establishment, one must reverse-engineer the information or otherwise visit each site (there are over 200 listed for the USA).

I was curious if any of the bars listed were local to me.  Nearly impossible to tell, mostly because reverse-engineering takes so long.  Turns out that California has very few solid whisky bars.  When compared with New York or Washington D.C., California doesn’t even exist in the whisky bar world.  This makes me sad as I am a huge fan and I would frequent an establishment that offered a wide and diverse selection of Single Malts.

What to do?  How about make my own?  As an attorney I am exposed to many different kinds of business opportunities including the formation of drinking establishments.  About six years ago a client invited me to participate in a night-club venture here in orange County and I accepted.  I became the general counsel and a minority owner in a pool (snooker) hall/night-club that for the past six years has enjoyed varying levels of success (or lack thereof).  Martinis had become all the rage for a period and lately I see a trend toward higher-end beverages.  The demand for high-end Tequilas, rums, vodkas and single malts has risen dramatically at our small establishment.  Recently, the majority ownership and I have ventured out to purchase, re-model and re-brand an Irish Pub in Pasadena, California (famous for the New Year’s Day Rose Parade and the American football Rose Bowl).  One of the goals we have set is to make this establishment a solid and enduring Single Malt Bar.  The SMSW trend is moving West and we intend to offer a wide range of SMSW and we hope to garner a wider audience for the joys of dramming on the West Coast.  The East Coast has always been home to many great whisky establishments.  We hope that we can add one solid performer to the vast and diverse West Coast.  We also plan to offer many a tasting and learning session and Malt Maniacs will be one of the main topics of discussion. Same-sex couples (married or not) will be welcomed with open arms.  Religious extremists can stay at home.

Through my experiences at the pub and in my continuing quest to find fine whisky bars in the West, I will report from time to time on the happenings here in the States and in the great State of California.  I am sure this will spark some good solid debate on Facebook and I look forward to a lively discussion.