Good Times With Good Friends Despite the Piss-Poor Alcohol: A Reminiscence

Good Times With Good Friends Despite the Piss-Poor Alcohol: A Reminiscence

When you reminisce about your personal drinking history, it undoubtedly includes fond memories of enjoying those first drinks with good friends. Those were good times with good friends no matter the drink of choice, right?

Well, thank the Lord for good times, good friends, and short-term memory because if you really think about it, maybe those first drinks consumed during your teens and early twenties weren’t all that great….  

I mean, most folks in their teens and early 20s just can’t afford quality spirits and top-end craft beer. If you’re a typical Southern boy (or girl), cheap beer and rotgut booze were your go-to drinks of choice when you first discovered that booze upped the game of enjoying good times with good friends.

Of course, now that you’re an “adult,” you only drink the finest of spirits and best craft beers, right? As a member of the Southern Drinking Club, your current tastes in alcohol bespeak of the distinction appropriate for our refined Southern culture. The very thought of those early drinking experiences must make your stomach turn or some such. How, given the time spent praying to the porcelain gods and/or battling the next morning’s bottle-flu, did we ever drink that stuff?

But let’s return to those blissful days of our youth anyway and contemplate our earliest drinks of choice.


Probably for a good reason….

OK, so I’ll lead the charge by describing my own earliest dalliances with the refined spirits (ahem, “rotgut” and piss brew) that initially charted my own appreciation for drinking, Southern-style or otherwise.

You could almost treat this as a drinking game of sorts. Yep, you’ve got to chug down a shot of your current favorite for every one of the following not-so-fine libations you are personally familiar with.

Oops—that’s right, we are now mature connoisseurs of fine spirits and craft beer and no longer stoop to such bawdry nonsense as “drinking games.”

My bad.

Moving on, before you join me on my spirit-filled journey, I must confess that my Southern heritage for drinking purposes is somewhat compromised. While I am definitely Southern born—Great State of North Carolina, thank you very much—I am the product of a Southern father and Yankee mother (yeah, that nuptial bliss didn’t last). As such, I spent a few of my formative early drinking years in (gasp!) Massachusetts. But hey, it expanded my nascent experiences with alcohol which in turn helped me eventually better acquire a taste for top-shelf alcohol and beers of distinction.

As an aside, I should also note that I aged through the various state legal drinking age limits right before they were raised from 18 to 21. Thus, I found it easy to procure alcohol at an early age. Heck, I was buying booze with ease at age 16 with or without my fake ID (note to anyone under 21 reading this: the penalties for my youthful transgressions are way stiffer today than they were when I was nabbed—ahem, I mean, “got away” with them).

Also, please note this disclaimer: The following blog describes inane activities conducted by professionals afflicted with delayed-progression-through-adolescence syndrome. The publisher of this blog warns readers not to engage in or try to recreate any of these activities and will not be held responsible for any damages incurred should this warning be ignored.           

OK, then, without further ado, I present you with my initial forays into enjoying good times with good friends with…well, piss-poor alcohol.   

Haffenreffer Private Stock

While Budweiser was the beer of choice during my teen years, Haffenreffer became a go-to one weekend when my Massachusetts buddies and I wanted to up our fun quotient. Known as “Green Death” because of its distinctive green bottle and robust alcohol content, high school seniors claimed that no one could get through a whole six-pack without calling earl.

Hah! Upon hearing that, my merry band of freshman and sophomores set out to prove them wrong. A Saturday night, four six-packs of the Green Death, and—appropriately enough—Ye Olde Burial Ground as our drinking spot, and we were set.

However, it quickly became apparent that Haffenreffer was a different breed than Budweiser, as we were all feeling especially goofy halfway through the second bottle. By the third bottle, typical adolescent restlessness had kicked in, so we started wrestling and beating the hell out of each other. While this was relatively normal behavior for us at that time, the Haffenreffer upped the aggressive factor by several notches. This led to a broken tooth and far more bruises, scratches, and ripped clothes than usual, though with no lingering hard feelings.  

Bottle four represented the beginning of the end. We were sitting around in a circle licking our respective wounds when Blotto suddenly turned to the side and violently spewed out chunks on top of the final resting place of some poor dude who’d passed on some 200 years prior. Naturally, we relocated, and Blotto crawled over to a cleaner spot to rest and recuperate.   

Nickles was the next one to go down, but he managed to verbally warn us—“I’m gonna puke”—and made his way to some nearby bushes where he could offer his absolutions in private. T-Bone and I lasted another half bottle or so, but I’m not sure which one of us gacked first. Needless to say, but none of us made it to number six.

Interestingly, I sampled Haffenreffer again shortly before the brand was discontinued in 2013. I didn’t finish the bottle and can’t say that its discontinuation represents a significant loss to the brewing world.     

Boone’s Farm 

Cut to a hot summer day in Carolina with good friends, a slow-flowing river, and a rope swing. To notch up the good times’ quotient, we tasked Beetle Baily with securing our beer. Not sure how the Beetle ended up with the task, but he failed miserably. When he showed up at the swimming hole on his bike, he pulled three bottles of Boone’s Farm apple wine out of his knapsack rather than our expected beer. As I recall, there was a long moment’s silence, followed quickly by a verbal beating.

Given these politically correct times, I will not repeat much of the verbal thrashing Beetle received, but let’s just say that it primarily referenced his gender and sexual orientation. Those of you who are not easily offended or of the politically correct ilk can easily imagine precisely what sentiments were expressed.

His only defense was that he couldn’t carry much beer in his knapsack and that Boone’s Farm was the perfect drink for a “stinkin’ hot day.” There was talk of stringing him up on the rope swing, but we calmed down, made the best of it, and somehow managed to quaff down that cloying excuse for wine.

That evening I experienced my first-ever wine headache—piercing pain in the frontal lobes—though dehydration and excess sun probably contributed.

As for Boone’s Farm, it hasn’t passed through these lips since . . . and never will.  

Bacardi 151

Picture a beautiful star-filled night sky, a frozen, snow-covered river, three teenage boys, and a bottle of Bacardi 151. Way too frigging cold to drink beer, but we wanted a little something to drink during our cross-country skiing expedition down the Concord River. Nickles came up with the “perfect” solution. As he explained, everyone knows that rum warms you up, so a high-powered 151 proof rum should add twice the heat. Thus, we ended up with Bacardi 151 for our midnight journey, and it did warm us up. . . at least in our minds.

We didn’t get hammered during our trip but definitely got quite silly. The exercise helped keep us warm in those sub-zero degree temperatures, but we convinced ourselves that it was the 151. Feeling so warm, we soon turned to outcompete each other as to who was the warmest. Layers of clothing started coming off and, at some point, we all found ourselves bare chested. Naturally, we each held to our claims of being warm, and it became a competition of endurance—or just idiocy. I don’t recall who broke first, but I believe we lasted about an hour, fortified by periodic hits of 151, which certainly felt warm as it slid down our respective gullets.

I haven’t had 151 since, but must admit that Bacardi was my rum of choice through college, primarily in rum and Coke formation. Blech—talk about sweet-on-sweet! I no longer drink the stuff, even if it’s the only rum available.  

Pepe Lopez

If you haven’t tried tequila yet, I highly recommend that you avoid this particular brand, which is the rotgut of tequilas. Heck, it doesn’t even taste like tequila and, as I recall, has a flavor more akin to acetone infused with burnt rubber.

It’s also the drink that— I’m not proud to say—caused my first black-out. It could have caused far worse but, fortunately, I ended up with a designated driver.

It’s not much of a story, but picture 50 or so high school kids partying at a remote reservoir. There’s a keg, car stereos competing to blast out the “best” music, and seniors celebrating their impending graduation with their own special libations. My small gang had brought several bottles of Pepe, and while we initially started with occasional salt-rimmed shots and lemon, by dark we were chugging it straight from the bottle. By 10:30, we were all pretty much blotto, and by 11:00, I was no longer feeling good and it was time to go home. Most of my other friends had gone their separate ways, and it was down to me and Nickles, who was also pickled and a younger kid we called DoubleT, who wasn’t much of a drinker. Drinking just didn’t agree with him and he didn’t find the thought of me driving us home to be agreeable either. So, he insisted that I let him drive. And, despite his lack of a driver’s license, I did.

Good thing, cause I don’t recall much from that drive home. I do know that I passed out on the back seat, but I don’t remember waking up and opening the door so that I could blow chunks out onto the Massachusetts turnpike rather than in my car. DoubleT rousted Nickles from his own slumber just in time to pull me back into the car; claimed the next day that I was within seconds of tumbling out onto the highway. Don’t know about all that, but I sure did have to contend with a mess in my backseat.

Old Mill Stream

This was my bourbon of choice through university, though certainly not a “choice” bourbon. Pretty much the cheapest bourbon in the ABC store, Old Mill Stream was the perfect low-budget option to cover all those important university social needs, that is excepting those involving entertainment of the fairer sex. Women tend to have far better taste (and sense) than men, and the few times it was offered up as a cocktail, it was promptly rejected after just one sip.

Lots of good times with good friends with the Old Mill Stream, and just the mention of its name today will immediately evoke laughter from my old college buddies. Lots of good stories, too, but I think I’ll keep those between my friends and me.

Old Milwaukee and Milwaukee’s Best


The cheap Budweiser alternatives for broke college students, my friends and I drank these brands by the truckload. Naturally, we’d drink Bud (and even fancier beers on occasion) when not feeling so broke, but because these other brews were almost always half-price compared to Bud, they became staples.

No specific stories to tell, as these brews were always within reach, but not sure how we put up with such crappy beer. Tried one not too long ago and marveled at how insipid the flavor was—carbonated yeasty water, and hard water, at that.  



Not sure why I never ran across this one during my university days, but I only needed to experience it once to know that once was enough. Shortly after graduating, I met up with a friend in Washington, DC, who took me to a Jägermeister happy hour. The shots flowed freely, and the digestif’s 56 herbs, spices, and other ingredients worked their magic to give me one of the absolute worst cases of bottle-flu ever.

Appropriate Options 

Well, kids, those were the alcoholic drinks that launched my appreciation for fine spirits and top-end beers. It’s a wonder that they didn’t serve to make me never drink again. 

If you’re starting to gain an appreciation for alcohol, I’d suggest starting with the good stuff, if possible. In no particular order, some of my personal favorites include:

  • Lagavulin (Scotch)
  • Maker’s Mark (Bourbon)
  • Patron Anejo (Tequila)
  • The Botanist Islay Dry (Gin)
  • Mount Gay XO (Rum)
  • Ketel One (Vodka)
  • Too many craft beers to name (off the shelf, though, I’ll take a Sam Adams)

And remember, drink responsibly. Trust me, nothing ruins the joys of alcohol like a raging case of bottle-flu, a black-out, having to explain yourself to John Law, or dealing with a pissed-off wife or girlfriend who is upset over your alcohol-induced, juvenile behavior.

—Originally not published by The Southern Drinking Club. Publisher loved it, but I guess it was a bit too much for his readers.  

Consider the Humble Barrel, Instrumental in Crafting Your Whiskey of Choice

Consider the Humble Barrel, Instrumental in Crafting Your Whiskey of Choice

Even though George Thorogood is Yankee-born, we’d likely accept him as an honorary Southerner due to two songs that speak to our Southern culture. When George growls out “one bourbon, one Scotch, one beer,” or croons about staying home with “just me and my pal Johnny Walker and his brothers Black and Red,” he almost sounds Southern. He’s also waxing poetic about the alcoholic beverages most closely aligned with our Southern heritage. In particular, whiskey and, more specifically, bourbon. Beer is undoubtedly beloved, but bourbon (and its Tennessee offshoot) is to the South what coffee (and cocaine) is to Columbia. As for Scotch, it’s essentially the direct ascendant of bourbon and thus holds a distinguished, yet amorphous, position within the South’s drinking heritage annals. To put this another way, them that don’t favor bourbon tend to savor Scotch.

No matter what your whiskey of choice—bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Tennessee—they all share something in common. That is, the bulk of their existence entails curing in a wooden barrel to help each attain the unique characteristics and flavors that will make it your whiskey of choice.

If your choice is Jim Beam Original, it spent four years in a new charred-oak barrel prior to bottling. If your choice is a bit more highfalutin, with perhaps a taste for Pappy Van Winkle (no relation to “Rip”), then your liquid gold spent 15, 20, or 23 years in a barrel before you shelled out big bucks for that fifth of a gallon bottle. If you’re into fine Scotch and perhaps favor Lagavulin, the distillery offers varieties that have been barrel-aged anywhere from eight to 37 years.

Bottom line is that you probably give little thought to the long life your favorite whiskey enjoyed before you and your buddies settle into a bottle during poker night or some other good-times-with-good-friends event. Of course, we here at the Southern Drinking Club like to educate and entertain our fans, so please read on to learn more about how vital barreling is to your favorite whiskey. Heck, you might never look at the humble barrel the same way again.

A Little Historical Perspective   

Even absent barreling, whiskey proved to be a hit with consumers back when its precursor was first distilled by European Christian churches sometime in the Dark-Age years of 500-1000 AD. While initially distilled as, ahem, “medicine,” its intoxicating popularity had spurred huge demand throughout Europe by the onset of the Renaissance. In fact, the name “whiskey” evolved from the Celtic “usquebaugh” and Gaelic “usige beatha,” which were translations of the Latin “aqua vitae,” which literally means “water of life.” Whiskey’s first appearance in written history comes to us from the 1405 “Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise,” which included reference to a clan head dying from excessive consumption of aqua vitae while celebrating Christmas—any sense of irony apparently lost in the translation.  

While distillation methods on the European continent utilized fermented grapes (AKA “wine”), Scottish and Irish monasteries lacked vineyards and so turned to the distillation of fermenting grain mash. Good thing, because they started producing and perfecting the spirits that we refer to as whiskey today. Whiskey production in Scotland and Ireland got a further boost when King Henry VIII dissolved the kingdom’s monasteries in the late 1530s, which moved whiskey distillation into the public sphere. This created more competition, which spurred efforts by distillers to improve its taste and, at some point, a distiller discovered that letting the potion age in a wooden cask dramatically did just that.

Barrel Aging of Whiskey as a Standard

Thus, barrel aging became the final touch in giving every whiskey its distinct flavor, with curing time dictating the final product’s chemical composition and taste. During the aging process, the whiskey extracts flavors and coloration from the wood. The flavoring is also influenced by other organic chemical reactions relating to evaporation and oxidation. For an added taste sensation, some distillers age their whiskey in barrels that had originally been used to age other spirits, such as sherry, brandy, or wine. 

Barrel aging is such an essential component of whiskey making that governments have long regulated it. According to their respective country production laws, Scotch, Irish, and Canadian (Rye) whiskies must be aged in barrels for a minimum of three years. U.S. laws mandate that bourbon must be aged in “new, charred oak barrels,” though there is no mandated duration. That said, labeling requirements and foreign laws influence the barrel-aging of bourbon. “Straight” bourbon must age for a minimum of two years and display the age if under four years. Additionally, bourbon that ages less than three years cannot be legally referred to or labeled as “whiskey” in Europe. Corn whiskey, a bourbon offshoot typically modeled on moonshine concoctions, is the only whiskey that is often sold without any barrel aging at all.   

Know that the aging process ends with bottling and, unlike with many wines, the whiskey’s taste will not improve or mature over the ensuing years and decades. In short, that 12-year-old bourbon or Scotch will always be a 12-year-old whiskey no matter how many years or decades you store the bottle.

Barrel Making’s Long History

Also known as cooperage, barrel making has been an important business since at least ancient Egyptian times, with a tomb wall painting dating to 2600 BC showing a wooden barrel-like tub being used to measure wheat. Another ancient Egyptian tomb painting shows a similar barrel-like container used to hold grapes. 

Roman historian Pliny the Elder provided some of the first written descriptions of barrel making by reporting that European cooperage originated in Alpine Gaul. His descriptions identified three different kinds of Gallic cooperage, and subsequent historians have determined that the art was heartily adopted by the Romans, as well as most other civilizations that followed. These early wooden barrels were constructed in similar fashion to today’s wooden barrels, with perhaps the most significant difference being that the barrel staves were girded with wooden hoops and/or rope rather than metal hoops. Metal hoop girders, which are much more robust and take up less space, came into widespread use starting in the 1800s.  

As a storage container, barrels have been historically used to hold and transport a wide variety of goods, from food and beverage items to gunpowder to nails and other fittings. They were even used to transport bodies, with British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson being among the most famous people to be so transported—preserved in a barrel of brandy for shipment home after falling during the Battle of Trafalgar. While for more ignoble purposes today, similar storage and transport are practiced by Mexican drug cartels, though they tend to use plastic or steel barrels for such use. 

Beverage Maturing Naturally Came of Age

Given a wooden barrel’s utility in transporting and storing liquids, it was only a matter of time before people discovered that such storage could affect the taste of beverages. Not only does the wood impart compounds such as tannins and vanillin into beverages, but it also stimulates chemical reactions that further influence flavor. Winemakers discovered that some grapes could be fermented in barrels and that different flavors could be created depending upon the type of wooden barrels used for storage and the duration of storage periods. 

Naturally, other spirit makers experimented with different wood types and storage times, which turned barrel aging of spirits into an art of sorts. Today, barrel aging is a crucial component in the production of: 

  • Whiskey
  • Sherry
  • Brandy
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Tabasco sauce
  • Wine
  • Some beer (stouts, in particular)
  • Some tequilas

Without this modern-day barrel aging, cooperage as we know it would likely no longer exist, and wooden barrels would be a relic from the past. 

Barrel Making Numbers

Due to international production and a lack of any centralized cooperage information portal, figuring out how many whiskey barrels are produced every year is a tall order. But we do know that the state of Kentucky, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s bourbon, fills just over two million barrels per year and has about nine million filled barrels currently in storage for aging. 

With between 52 and 53 gallons per barrel, that comes out to a production rate of about 106 million gallons of Kentucky bourbon per year and almost a half-billion gallons currently in the maturation stage. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like it would be enough to meet worldwide, let alone Southern, demand. Then again it does add up to about 530 million fifth bottles per year, of which we only need a few dozen per year to sate our local collective tastes.   

After bottling, many of these used Kentucky bourbon barrels will be shipped worldwide for future barrel aging of other spirits such as Scotch. However, this used-barrel market does not satisfy the need for additional barrel-making worldwide due to volumes and the need for barrel wood type variations to produce different flavors. Thus, there are likely more than 100 other barrel-making operations worldwide producing millions of additional barrels to ensure that all our favorite beverages are perfectly aged. 

For example, there are more than 40 cooperages in California that specifically handle that state’s wine production, and likely similar numbers in other major wine-making regions around the world. There are at least a dozen cooperages in Scotland and Ireland, with four major Scotch distilleries having their own on-site barrel-making operations. And India, which is one of the world leaders in whiskey production (who knew?), must have a robust cooperage industry. That said, India reportedly lacks any significant production regulations, and some of what passes for whiskey in that country might not pass the smell test in the rest of the world. Thus, a portion of their non-export “whiskey” may not even undergo aging—Punjabi rotgut, anyone?

How Barrels are Made

Whether for whiskey, wine, or some other beverage, barrel making entails the same process and delivers similar barrels, though sometimes differentiated by size. The 53-gallon charred white oak barrel is standard for bourbon producers, a size that has become the standard with other whiskey producers worldwide. That said, whiskey barrels can be found in sizes ranging from 50 to 60 gallons and, as previously noted, some whiskies are aged in barrels once used for other spirits or wine. Oak is typically the wood of choice, though its treatment with regard to drying, cutting, sanding, and charring can differ in relation to specific flavorings sought. This is most noticeable when comparing a wine barrel with a whiskey barrel, as wine barrels are typically given a much smoother finish inside and out. 

Barrels are made out of staves, hoops, and heads (each end of the barrel). After appropriate treatment, short planks of oak are dowelled together into squares, which are then cut into perfect circles with rounded edges. Longer planks are cut and planed to create a trapezoid cross-section to account for the inside barrel circumference being smaller than the outside. The staves are also cut with a convex curve in the middle section to account for the barrel’s expanding midsection circumference. Between 31 to 33 staves are placed into a temporary steel ring that holds them in place. The managing cooper makes sure that staves are evenly distributed and then applies steam to the wood to make it more pliable, while a machine bends the staves at the other end to create its unique shape. After further treatment, such as charring, is conducted, the nascent barrel is allowed to cool before the heads are inserted into the ends and the temporary rings are replaced by the steel hoops, which are then riveted into place. After a bunghole is drilled, the barrel is tested for leaks and, upon passing inspection, ready to begin working its magic on whiskey curing.      

How’d You Like to Be in a Barrel? 

Climbing into one of today’s standard-size whiskey barrels would prove quite uncomfortable, if not impossible for some of us. A hundred years or so ago, though, when larger-size whiskey barrels were more common, a few folks decided that taking a ride downriver in a barrel might be fun. And not just any river, but the Niagara River, which culminates with its plunge down Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario.

Retired school teacher Annie Edson Taylor took the first-known barrel-ride down Niagara falls in 1901, though apparently more in a bid for retirement money than it was for the joy ride. Lord knows, you’d think a 63-year-old schoolteacher could find a more innovative way to make money, but she was a Yankee (New Yorker, no less) and, as such, probably a touch light in receipt of hereditary common-sense genes. To give her credit, stuffed in that barrel with an improvised mattress and her lucky, heart-shaped pillow, she survived the plunge with just a gash on the head. As a money-making scheme, though, the stunt was a flop as her memoir failed to spur interest from publishers, and the little money she earned from a speaking tour was used to hire private detectives to chase down her wayward manager who had absconded with her famous barrel.

Nineteen years later, the second person to make the attempt in a wooden barrel became the first Niagara thrill seeker to die. Rather than mattress material and a lucky pillow, Englishman Charles Stephens brought along an anvil to provide ballast. Attached to his leg, the anvil burst through the bottom of the barrel during the plunge and took poor Charles with him, leaving only an arm left in the remains of the barrel’s safety harness.    

We’ll close by saying that this just serves up more proof that a barrel is best used for whiskey and other libations. The thought of one containing the equivalent of 265 fifths of Maker’s Mark is far more appealing than considering what a human body—dead or alive—might look like in one.  

Originally Published by The Southern Drinking Club.