State of the Boozin'

A golden age of American drinking

If we're going to be honest, it is not a great time to be an American.

I mean, it's not a terrible time, either. Relative to being an American 100 years ago, we've got it pretty good. And relative to being in a whole lot of other places in 2011, this is still a pretty sweet deal. China and India might have numbers and momentum on their sides, but they've got a ways to go before the standard of living in Bhopal or Chengdu approaches that of, say, Soddy-Daisy.

Still. The recession may be about to double-dip, our unemployment numbers are lingering at European levels but without those nice European safety nets (however threadbare they may be), our political system is rife with corruption and lunatics, poverty rates are rising, and children of the middle class haven't been living better than their parents did since sometime in the Nixon era.

It's enough to drive a nation to drink. Which is what the Gallup folks found last year, when they reported that two-thirds of American adults are self-identified consumers of alcohol—the highest level since 1985, and climbing toward the all-time peak of 71 percent during the malaise years of the late 1970s.

(It's a little shocking to me that a full third of my countrymen claim to be abstainers. Who are these people? But I guess that's mostly a reflection of the dissolute types I tend to socialize with.)

There is, however, some good news in all of this. It might not be a great time to be an American, but it is a very, very good time to be a drinking American. Whether you're a wine sipper or a beer guzzler, a Scotch snob or a cocktail connoisseur, the quantity and quality of alcohol available to you are both at an all-time high.

It started with the Judgment of Paris in 1976, a wine-tasting competition in which California bottles bested French offerings in all categories. The next decade brought the beginnings of the microbrew boom, and then the '90s introduced whole new generations to the art of the mixed drink.

Now we have small-batch bourbons, fancy tequilas, infused vodkas of every conceivable kind, even artisanal moonshine. Wines from France and California, sure, but also Italy and Spain, Germany and South Africa, Argentina and Australia. Absinthe, long the stuff of scandalous rumor, is on the shelf at the local liquor store—and it's good, too. And how about the recent trendiness of St-Germain? Who would've thought that an alpine elderflower liqueur would get a turn in the spotlight?

The revolution has resonated even in Knoxville, though predictably a few years behind our coastal cultural centers. The first article I ever wrote for Metro Pulse was about the planned opening of the city's first microbrewery and brewpub. That was in 1994. The brewpub is still there on Gay Street, after several ownership changes, and still making its own very good beer. Almost any decent bar in town now has at least one microbrew (or quasi-microbrew) on tap. And a growing number of places offer good bourbons beyond the usual Maker's Mark.

There are still things we lack. As this week's cover story suggests, our cocktail culture is just getting up to speed. Restaurant wine lists tend toward the predictable, and are pricey to boot. (For comparison, try any of Asheville's fine wine bars.)

You still can't buy wine in a grocery store. And despite the profusion of taco joints in town, it is hard to find a really good margarita.

But recent history suggests we'll get there. If there's anything Knoxvillians seem open-minded about, it's alcohol.