The market-driven manhood evident in these investigations goes to show the constructedness of any identity, but particularly that of the white southern man. To effectively approach Bourbon’s function in the contemporary American South, however, it is critical to do so within a theoretical framework that lets us understand the methods by which masculine power exerts and sustains itself. R. W. Connell, in his seminal book Masculinities, articulates just such a framework, the notion of “hegemonic masculinity.” Connell posits that there is no such thing as an objective masculinity, universal and innate, observable in men as a whole. Instead, masculinities are constructed through relations of gender, sexuality, race, and class and are located in specific intersections of place, time, and culture. Although there is no singular masculinity to which all men subscribe, particular “hegemonic masculinities” will emerge within a particular social environment, exerting various forms of power over subordinate and marginalized expressions of gender, in the ultimate aim of sustaining patriarchy. Although I do not seek to chart a comprehensive cultural analysis of the white southern man, I do assert that in today’s South the gentleman and good old boy, or their performed approximations, are exalted. Although the masculinities projected by Maker’s Mark and Early Times vary in their articulations of class, they share a preoccupation with whiteness, history, and homosociality, and an implicit antagonism toward women, people of color, and homosexuality, antagonisms echoed throughout the lingering southern social order.20
That anyone can drink Bourbon calls into question the notion, articulated outright by Early Times, that it is every ounce a man’s whisky. Is it?
Of course, Bourbon alone is in no way responsible for contouring the landscape of today’s South, but it is one of many vital and tangible tools in this landscape’s maintenance—and, hopefully, its alteration. Each brand has invested significant effort in shaping its identity, but none is so narrow in its articulation that it explicitly discourages consumption by any who are willing to buy bottles. This reality leads to slippages and fissures between the layers of race, class, gender, geography, and sexuality built into these branded identities and leads ultimately to points of entry for those not privileged by these identity markers. True, the gentleman and the good old boy persist as ideals for many in the South, but even these are open to interpretation, contestation, and play. That anyone can drink Bourbon calls into question the notion, articulated outright by Early Times, that it is every ounce a man’s whisky. Is it?
Bourbon’s Political Turn
To set the stage for Bourbon’s political potential, I start at a seemingly unlikely place: the social phenomenon of “icing.” For those unfamiliar, icing is a ritual made briefly but wildly popular around 2010, whereby an individual (usually male, often called “Bro”) “ices” another (also often called Bro) by revealing a Smirnoff Ice lemon-flavored alcoholic beverage anywhere in the visual field of the person (Bro) being iced. Bro ices Bro. Upon said icing, the icee must lower to his knee and consume the entire beverage, to the great pleasure and cheer of all present. The practice, which allegedly got its start in and around southern social fraternities, went on to enjoy significant celebrity, a dedicated website (brosicingbros.com, now defunct), various offshoots (hoes icing bros, hoes misting hoes), and a New York Times article. Though most see this ritual as good-natured, harmless, binge-drinking fun, it does not take much creativity to understand its gendered symbolism, or its implications. A man forces another man to kneel publicly, insert an object into his mouth and consume its sweet contents, while others hoot and holler. Imitations of fellatio, intimations of fruitiness; what a fun party! The power and the play in icing come in its ridicule of (and distance from) men who perform real fellatio and exhibit real “fruitiness.” The particular resonance of Smirnoff Ice in the practice lies in the common understanding that it is a “girly” drink, in the category of those sweet malt beverages colloquially and disturbingly known as “bitch beer.” By casting gay sex and sweet beverages to the realm of the ridiculous, icing elevates heterosexuality and the consumption of unsweet beverages to the realm of the sublime.21
Besides sharing demographic practitioners, Bourbon-drinking and icing are intimately related, as both are performative, consumptive social practices that subtly but significantly shape the ways we conceive of ourselves and of others. There are, however, important differences. The performance in icing is more obvious, more spectacular; it is staged and almost always features a knowing audience. Bourbon drinking is subtler, but is also therefore more insidious, more ingrained, more pervasive; it conveys information subconsciously. Icing is also novel. Though some men (and women) are undoubtedly still icing each other somewhere, the popularity of the practice left us about as quickly as it came. Bourbon, meanwhile, perseveres, gaining cultural clout and market share. Finally, Bourbon is more sacred. It has been written indelibly into the history of the white masculine South, by Percy, Faulkner, and our fathers, through advertising and through our consumption, for centuries. That history, conversely, has been written into Bourbon, and it is that history that we perform, consciously or not, when we drink it.
Returning to Connell’s notion of hegemonic masculinity, we can see the importance of culture in considerations of power. Connell’s work draws from that of Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, whose notion of hegemony extends traditional Marxist considerations of power into the realm of the cultural. Hegemony is an especially productive frame for a study of identity and consumption because it conceives of power as intricate and interwoven, incorporating not only political thought and economic materialism, but also mundane choices and behaviors as they relate to personal and collective identity. Culture, and specifically the culture of Bourbon-drinking, thus becomes an important site to ground explorations of power in the South.22
In a region steeped in the history of its own tumultuous past, a past that placed Bourbon-drinking (not to mention land-owning and voting) in the domain of the white southern man, Bourbon becomes a politically charged substance. As opposed to the lightness and frivolity of Smirnoff Ice, the very lightness (read: weakness, gayness, girliness) mocked and derided in icing, Bourbon is decidedly heavy, serious. The weight and gravity of Bourbon register both symbolically through the drink’s historical legacy and sensuously through its bite—that burn that makes learning to drink whiskey hard work and separates the proverbial men from the boys (and girls, and queers). When a straight white southern man sidles up to a bar for a Bourbon, he is—whether consciously or not—asserting cultural, physical, and material power. When someone of a different background does the same, this person is—whether consciously or not—challenging that very same history and their exclusion from its positions of privilege.