When I first started working at Kings County Distillery, in the summer of 2010, I was delighted to find the job provided ample time to read. Whiskey making has its own peculiar rhythm. Each batch begins in a flurry, as one juggles a series of tasks like a line cook, but ends in a hush, with little to do but watch the languorous drip of the stills.
This was in the wobbly-legged days of the company’s infancy, before we moved into the grand old brick paymaster building in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Back then we were based out of a studio space on Meadow Street with wooden floors and five-gallon steel pot stills that had to be emptied, scaldingly, by hand. (This, as our former downstairs neighbors can attest, would prove an unfortunate combination of circumstances.) During that first summer, we worked singly, in nine-hour shifts, so there was a lot of alone time. So, unless one wanted to lose one’s goddamn mind in that little room, one read.
Perhaps it was the environment, but I soon became keenly aware of how an author’s drink of choice could perfume the pages of a novel. Fitzgerald’s very language is redolent of the gin rickey; Kerouac stinks of tequila; Chandler of gimlets; Hemingway of mojitos and red wine; Poe of cognac; Wilde fumes with absinthe; while Burroughs somehow manages to isolate the weird chemical frequencies in a vodka and coke. Anne Sexton drank straight vodka, whereas Sylvia Plath wrote about vodka but mostly drank wine. Carson McCullers was coldblooded, so she drank sherry mixed with hot tea in the morning and straight bourbon at night. Bourbon was also the poison of Sherwood Anderson, Dylan Thomas, Walker Percy, and Ring Lardner. Steinbeck preferred brandy, but when he couldn’t get it during Prohibition, he once appeared at a Stanford–Berkeley football game wearing an overcoat lined with vials of grain alcohol, pilfered from a chemistry lab where he worked.
And then there is Faulkner, the poet laureate of corn whiskey. I read Light in August over the course of about seven shifts that first summer. A significant portion of the book concerns the exploits of a pair of bootleggers—a topic with which Faulkner was familiar, having run boatfuls of illegal whiskey into New Orleans during Prohibition. There are lovely passages describing the act of drinking whiskey, which goes down “cold as molasses” before beginning its slow, warm uncoiling.
Sherwood Anderson recalls that when he first met Faulkner in New Orleans, in 1925, Faulkner showed up wearing an overcoat that “bulged strangely, so much, that at first glance, I thought he must be in some queer way deformed.” Faulkner informed Anderson that he intended to stay for some time in the city, and asked if he could leave some things at Anderson’s house. “His ‘things’ consisted of some six or eight half gallon jars of moon liquor he had brought with him from the country that were stowed in the pockets of the big coat.” For breakfast Faulkner would eat beignets with a glass of corn liquor, and as he wrote, he kept a jug or three under his desk. Hemingway once remarked that in Faulkner he could detect the “boozy courage of corn whiskey.” (He meant it as an insult, but Faulkner likely wouldn’t have taken it as such.)
Kay Boyle wrote in The New Republic in 1938 that there were two Faulkners, “the one who stayed down south and the one who went to war in France and mixed with foreigners and aviators.” The former was elegant, a bit rambly, and “almost ludicrously authentic”; while the latter, inspired by the modernism of Joyce, Eliot, and Stein, was dense, allusive, Guernica-contorted and Guernica-grim, but always (Boyle remarked sharply) “a little awed, a little unsure, provincially aware of the chances he is taking.”
I like to think of these two Faulkners as embodied in his two favorite cocktails: the toddy and the mint julep. The julep is High Faulknerian. Taking in the dense, lush language in his most lauded works—As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom!—is precisely like burying one’s nose in a tangle of fresh mint and sipping a strong bourbon. But the other Faulkner, the one who stayed down south, exemplified by the Snopes trilogy and Sanctuary and Light in August, is more like a cold toddy: light, citrusy, superficially graceful, yet deceptively complex.
Faulkner’s favorite drink is often listed as the julep, which is probably correct: his house in Oxford still displays his beloved metal julep cup. But his old standby was the toddy, which he describes “compounding … with ritualistic care.” It comes in two forms, hot and cold. Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, clearly recalled her uncle making hot toddies and serving them to his ailing children on a silver tray. But unlike today, the cold toddy seems to have been the more popular in Faulkner’s day.
2 ounces of bourbon or white whiskey
4 ounces of water (cold or boiling)
If cold, 1 lemon slice; if hot, 1/2 lemon, both juice + rind
1 teaspoon of sugar
The key to a toddy, according to Faulkner, is that the sugar must be dissolved into a small amount of water before the whiskey is added, otherwise it “lies in a little intact swirl like sand at the bottom of the glass.” (One of Faulkner’s short stories, “An Error in Chemistry,” hinges on this point: a northern murderer, pretending to be a Southern gentleman, mistakenly mixes sugar with “raw whiskey”; the Southerners recognize his faux pas and immediately pounce on him.) Once the sugar is dissolved, the whiskey is poured over it. Top it off, to taste, with the remaining water—preferably “rainwater from a cistern.” Add lemon and serve in a heavy glass tumbler.
Robert Moor is a writer currently living in British Columbia. Read his other work at robertmoor.com. This piece has been adapted from The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How To Make and Drink Whiskey (Abrams). Please feel free to attend the book’s launch party at the Powerhouse Arena on October 23.