October 18, 2011 – Jack Daniels & Ginger Ale
“What’s more, he no longer saw his own life as a path, but as a highway: a line that led from one point to another, from the rank of captain to the rank of general, from the role of wife to the role of widow. Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that had to be overcome by even greater speed.” – Milan Kundera, Immortality
I read these words last Tuesday night, all 6’3’’ of my frame folded into the middle seat on a Southwest flight headed to El Paso, Texas. It was sometime after 8:00 pm, and after a day full of meetings in preparation for the opening of Crave Dessert Bar & Lounge, I was off to the place of my birth to attend my Grandmother’s funeral. To my left, a businesswoman who had waited to engage her burrito until she had found her seat on the plane. To my right, a businessman whose head was buried in the back of the seat in front of him. I thanked my good fortune that neither of these people looked incredibly chatty. I wasn’t in a talking kind of mood.
The drive to the airport had been a hellish experience, traffic during rush hour at its normal standstill pace. I had been duped by a mousey airport employee who was standing at the entrance to the security lines telling everyone who entered that there was a new and much quicker security line at the other end of the airport. Buying it, I walked to where she pointed, only to discover that this new line seemed to be a training ground for TSA employees. The guy manning the baggage x-ray screen had another gentleman looking over his shoulder and was asking questions as if every piece of underwear might be a national threat. An hour later I was on my way to the gate, frantically running. I was nearly the last person to board the plane. Hence the middle seat.
So far, the everyday pace of life really hadn’t let my Grandmother’s passing set in. When my father called to tell me that she had been rushed to the ICU and that they had found a massive tumor in her chest, we were all understandably concerned. I wanted to give her a call, but my dad said it would probably be best to wait until she was out of intensive care. Two days later, between spoonfuls of yogurt, she said to my Uncle Ken, “Well, I finally have something growing inside of me more terrible than you.” Get ’em G’ma.
Everyone back home figured she’d be back to her normal routine of daily soap operas and chocolate milk by the end of the weekend. So I proceeded with life as usual. I’d call when she was out of the hospital, feeling better and in a talking mood. I had plenty of time and a shitload of work ahead of me. The week went by in a flash. Then on Thursday, I was told I would never get to make that call.
With the cabin doors sealed, the flight attendants gave their mandatory safety spiel and our plane was finally up in the air. Fifteen minutes later, in-flight beverage service began. With the world far below me, I tried to take a moment for myself, blocking out the chaos of the day behind me. But the respite was short lived and thoughts of my grandmother flooded in. Me, the asshole grandson, never got to tell her goodbye. I needed a drink, and I needed one fast.
As an educated drinking culture, we rightfully focus our attention on boutique spirits, snubbing our nose at the Grey Gooses and Crown Royals of the world because…well, we know better. The bigger brands are mass-produced, often over-priced (ahem…Patron) and are often of lesser quality than those made by a guy with a big beard and overalls in his tiny warehouse off of I-70 (and yes Todd Leopold…I’m looking at you). It’s a beautiful thing to support local producers, men and women who you know, respect, and can throw your support behind. But sometimes in life, like being on a Southwest flight headed for a funeral in Texas, you just need a drink, and your options are rather limited.
I ordered a Jack Daniels & Ginger Ale, my guilty pleasure drink when I’m squished in the middle seat of a Boeing 737. It’s light, refreshing, and those little plastic cups they pour everything in really don’t leave a whole lot of room for the ginger ale. It’s like drinking whiskey straight, but the lady stuffing her face with burrito isn’t going to think you’re an alcoholic.
Most of us know the story of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, so I’ll be as brief as possible here. As steeped in American history as Apple Pie and Tim Tebow, Jack Daniel’s has been produced in Lynchburg, Tennessee since 1875. A Sour Mash whiskey, Jack Daniel’s is made by using a portion of an older mash to start the fermentation of a newer mash. As much as Jack is hyped by the inclusion of the “sour mash” label, nearly all Bourbon is made by this sour mash process. Distillers use a sour mash to ensure that many of the yeasts and bacteria are consistent from mash to mash. It’s not just something they do in Tennessee. It’s pretty much industry standard.
What actually is unique to Jack Daniel’s is the company’s charcoal mellowing process, a method in which the finished whiskey is run through sugar maple charcoal mellowing vats: a process that takes around 10 days. The whiskey is then placed in new white oak barrels and allowed to age. Regardless of how big the brand grows, it still claims that they use the same process that Jack did in the 1900s. Just to a significantly larger volume.
One thing we can learn from large-scale production brands such as Jack Daniels and Grey Goose is marketing, branding and packaging. The first thing you think about when you think of Jack is the bottle shape and the label’s color and wording. Great brands have great packaging, and the distinctive square Jack Daniel’s bottle has been in use since the late 1800s. The label, with its distinct “Old No.7” branding is perfect American mythology, with hundreds of stories in circulation as to the meaning behind the name. The company continues to claim that the story behind the number died with Jack Daniel. Whatever the truth, it’s brilliant marketing.
I figured there was a great story or two behind the creation of the Jack & Ginger as well, but the only information I could scrounge up on the topic comes from the era of Prohibition. Ginger ale itself has been around for about as long as Jack Daniel’s, but the dry style of ginger ale we know today didn’t establish itself until it became a useful mixer to pair with alcoholic beverages in the late 1920s and 30s. I can only assume that the Jack & Ginger started making its way into the national diet sometime during this era in the form of a highball, where men and women who could get their hands on the product wanted to make it last.
And when I took that first sip of my Jack & Ginger on that southbound flight, I certainly made it last, closing my eyes and letting relief wash over me. I closed my eyes. I inhaled. I lived through that sip of whiskey.
In that moment I was able to reflect on the woman who babysat me as a toddler in El Paso. I saw the two of us painting ceramic busts of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, whittling the hours away before I’d head off to bed where she would help my parents put presents under the tree. I could taste her spaghetti, a traditional recipe passed down from her mother’s mother, the noodles sticking together in clumps unlike anything I’ve ever been able to duplicate on my own. I laughed as I remember, one evening while playing in the backyard of my grandparents house, I ran as fast as I could towards the house when I saw that she had finally returned from the store. Excited, I didn’t stop to think whether or not the glass door I was running towards was open. I could barely see it in the light, so I just assumed it was. Slamming face first into the door, I hit the ground in a hail of tears. The next morning there were glow in the dark butterfly stickers all over it. They’re still up on that door 27 years later.
The look on my face must have said it all. “Don’t worry about that one,” said the flight attendant, who was apparently still waiting for my credit card. “Thank you,” I replied, looking around at the others in my row who were already sleeping. I put my head into Kundera’s Immortality and continued my journey inward.
As I was chewing the ice at the end of that first drink, I looked down and saw Mr. Businessman slide a piece of paper in front of me. “Just in case you want another one,” he said. I noticed that the piece of paper was a free drink coupon, torn from a ticket those of us who book on Expedia never see. He then returned his head into the back of the seat in front of him before I could say a “Thank You.”
Whether or not he saw the pain that was on my face or overheard my exchange with the flight attendant, I’ll never know. But something inside told him that the gentleman to his left was in need of another Jack & Ginger and luckily for me, he acted on the feeling, playing a role in my life that I’m sure he never intended. And now, as I recall this random act of kindness and force it upon my readers, he has unwittingly contributed to his own immortality. To him, it was just a drink. But I sure as hell needed it.
The next day, after the funeral, a few hours removed from the tribute-filled lunch and some long-overdue family photos, I was seated at an airport bar during my layover in Albuquerque when a visibly distressed female twenty-something sat down and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio.
“Put that on my tab,” I told the bartender.
“You don’t have to do that,” she replied, as she looked me up and down. I could see her distrust in my intentions.
“I know,” I said my eyes going back towards the last few pages of Immortality. “But it really feels like I should.”