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Baseball and Bourbon 5 min read

Baseball and Bourbon

Raise a glass to two American traditions on an Opening Day that wasn't meant to be.

By Cary Littlejohn
Baseball and Bourbon Post image

Today was supposed to be Opening Day for Major League Baseball. There’s just something about it, like New Year’s Day, where it stokes excitement and attention and resolutions to watch your beloved team more closely this season, only to have such dedication wither roughly a month later. Coronavirus has taken that away from sports fans, as the MLB joins the rest of the sporting world in seeing its season disrupted.

So in its place, MLB is trying something new: Opening Day at Home, an assortment of 30 games – one victory per team – broadcast across various platforms.

It puts me in mind of how great baseball is to consume via radio broadcast. The pace of play is better suited to audio, as opposed to football’s breakneck pace. There’s something self-orienting about the geographic layout of the diamond: the right angles, the space inhabited by each player in his position, the foul lines, the warning track; we can just picture it in our minds. Baseball has a constant stream of numbers, in the forms of stats, speeds, percentages, distances, batting order, pitch count, but perhaps none more obvious than the reverence for the number 3 and its multiples (3 strikes, 3 outs, 9 innings, 60 feet 6 inches from mound to home plate, 90 feet between bases). The rhythm of a talented play-by-play announcer is friendly and conversational, all the while conveying huge amounts of data through strings of numbers. For all the things that have evolved about the game, it’s the sound – the pop of a fastball in a catcher’s mitt to the unbelievably satisfying crack of a wooden bat – that’s remained the same.

Baseball seasons are so long and games often are indistinguishable from another, especially on the radio, but I remember a specific broadcast from the summer of 1998, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated America with their chase of Roger Maris’s single-season record for most home runs. My family had traveled the roughly three hours from my hometown to Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of the Jack Daniels distillery. I don’t remember much about the tour, except for smelling the sour mash in the giant vat and complaining about the smell. After we’d finished the tour, we picked up a St. Louis Cardinals’ game on the radio, and McGwire hit another home run. I can’t tell you who they were playing nor can I tell you the number of that particular home run. But that memory, and that distinctly American connection of topics, has survived in my mind all these years, and it came rushing back to me today – Opening Day – when I saw a story from the magazine Cosmos.

Photo by Brett Jackson on Unsplash

It turns out, according to a new study, that bourbon can be identified forensically by the complex web-like pattern it leaves behind when it dries on a glass surface. The images, which look remarkably like the inside of a plasma globe that you used to make your hair stand on end as a kid, are the bourbon equivalent of fingerprints, which could prove useful for sniffing out counterfeits.

The researchers first noticed this when observing diluted bourbon drips left to dry on glass surfaces. With remarkable attention to detail – perhaps a mindset that can only be achieved while contemplating an empty whiskey tumbler – they noticed that the web formations that developed as the liquid evaporated appeared to differ depending on the brand.

The contemplation of an empty whiskey tumbler feels apt for the moment, perhaps after a quarantine-induced drink, wondering when you’ll get back to work or kids will get back to school or your stimulus check will arrive from the government.

Read the details here:

Revealed: the truth at the bottom of a bourbon shot | Cosmos

NB: Yes, I’m aware that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, such as Jack Daniels, are technically different categories. Tenn. Code Ann. Section 57-2-106 defines what constitutes Tennessee whiskey, and with the exception of the requirement that it be made in Tennessee and that the distillate must be filtered through maple charcoal (the Lincoln County Process) before aging, the requirements are the same as those for bourbon.  But “Baseball and Tennessee Whiskey” didn’t have quite the same ring to it.

The potential for counterfeits in booze may seem like a nonsensical concern, but it reminded me of a great story from years ago, known at the time as “Pappygate.” This particular scandal wasn’t noteworthy because bottles and bottles of the rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon weren’t what they purported to be; the scandal came from the fact that they were. They’d simply been stolen.

When Franklin County, Kentucky, Sheriff Pat Melton heard news of a theft at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, it barely registered. He had a two-hundred-square-mile county to police, nearly fifty thousand souls. A burgeoning heroin problem had been responsible for twenty overdose deaths over the previous two years. It wasn’t until a local newspaper reporter called the next day, asking for details of the heist, that he pulled the case file.

On Oct. 14, 2013, according to the police report, more than two hundred bottles of one of the world’s most sought-after bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle – valued between $30,000 and $50,000 – were reported missing from the distillery’s inventory.

Melton had been a cop in Franklin County for 22 years – long enough to smell an inside job when he saw one. Nobody just sneaks into an iconic plant like Buffalo Trace and hauls away that much bourbon unless they know people in the facility.

“It’s a simple theft case, completely solvable,” he told the reporter. It would be years before Melton realized how right – and how wrong – he’d actually been.

There’s something distinctly Southern about the story, something more than just its setting in the bourbon country of Kentucky. It’s that the entire scheme was predicated on an informality that seems very much in keeping with the region of my birth, a place where a person’s word is considered good and beyond suspicion. Even when that person is a truck driver hauling gallons and gallons of liquid gold. If ever the phrase “This is why we can’t have nice things,” applied, it’s this true crime tale.

Read the whole story here:

The Greatest Bourbon Ever Stolen | Narratively

Extra Credit

Perhaps MLB’s Opening Day at Home efforts aren’t historical enough for your tastes. Don’t worry; American chronicler Ken Burns asked PBS to stream his epic documentary Baseball for free to help ease the pain.

Watch all nine innings here:

Baseball | PBS

For those of you hung up on the bourbon side of this newsletter, I can’t recommend Neat: The Story of Bourbon more highly. It’s an incredible look into the legacy of America’s spirit. Watch on Youtube or with a Hulu subscription.

While we’re on the topic of booze-based documentaries, Scotch: A Golden Dream is thoroughly charming, due in large part to the personalities (and accents) of the talking heads on screen. It’s included in your Amazon Prime lineup.

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