Wheat, Whiskey and Women

Whiskey doesn’t seem like an agricultural product. But as we celebrate (or pray for) the rebirth of nature on Tu B’Shvat it’s good to bear in mind that what the Irish call “the brown” comes from fields of waving grain.

Or maybe we had made that link, but just forgot because, you know, too much whiskey.

This is the season for remembering though. And brown is the key to remembering feminism this season, especially for those participating in Daf Yomi — the daily reading of a page of the Talmud. And that’s not only because it dulls the harshness of this tractate of the Talmud that deals with trial by ordeal (of women) for adultery.

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As artist Jacqueline Nicholls shows in her Draw Yomi work, women — mere property of their husbands — are assumed guilty in Mishnah Sotah. From the barley the priest offers as sacrifice for the “bestial” wife to the topless testimony she must offer, stripped of dignity, Sotah is a revenge fantasy that men take out on women because they are ashamed of their own sexual desires.

It’s clearly time for a peaceful drink and whiskey is the perfect shot for Tu B’Shvat; when women drink it, they show their ability to choose and to show they aren’t bound to the old categories. By drinking together, men and women redeem the injustice of the bitter waters of the Sotah ordeal and unite in understanding of one another’s full agency.

So it is to these amber shots from Erin that we turn to overcome our sexist teachings. Drinking changes the drinker, although it’s not just the consumption of whiskey that transforms: Making whiskey also acts like alchemy. It transmutes grains of barley from base animal fodder, as per the Talmud (Mishnah Sotah 2:1), into timeless golden nectar.

Here are three Irish whiskies. Often used to aid forgetting, these ones will help us embrace equality and remember the green shoots of barley that will eventually bring us whiskey in the 2020s.

Americans drink, by far, more Jameson than any other Irish whiskey (regular blend is about $25). The total amount is enough, in fact, that if divided differently, American adults could each have two shots every year. And, thanks to the traditions of Irish whiskey — using both malted and non-malted barley and triple distillation — it goes down nice and smooth.

This whiskey lacks the complexity of Scotch and it’s not tough and sweet like bourbon, but it has the wan, yellow purity of sun in late winter. Tens of millions of Americans have been wrong before, but they are right to love Jameson.

Tu B’Shvat — the new year for the trees — is the biblical agricultural festival that medieval kabbalists turned into a symbol of personal transformation. At this season, they celebrated the renewal of the mystical tree of life, which links heaven and earth, male and female.

To help us activate our connection to the divine and our inner selves, I recommend a drop of Green Spot (about $40; $70 for the supposedly tastier Yellow Spot). Its clean vanilla overtones are an invitation to purity, but not in a vainglorious, sanctimonious way. In an inclusive warm way. Perhaps borrow the Japanese sake tradition and pour a spot in your neighbor’s glass.

Clontarf 1014 (about $30 for either the blend or the single malt) is named after a battle a millennium ago in which Brian Boru, the king of Ireland, defeated an army of Vikings. We drink this reasonably priced bottle — recommended enthusiastically by novelist, Forward contributor and Scotch-denying Austin Ratner — to conquer the figurative Vikings of our own evil inclinations.

Ironically Clontarf is a mild whiskey. With sweet honey tones and a grounded sense to it, it’s the ideal whiskey to follow Sotah with the “bitter waters” of its medicine and its profoundly misogynistic worldview.

Dan Friedman is the managing editor and whiskey correspondent of the Forward.

Thanks to Jacqueline Nicholls for some inspired musings about the connections between Sotah, Tu B’Shvat and whiskey. She may or may not have been sampling the goods at the time.

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