Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Jim Beam for President

Jim Beam Republican and Democrat Whiskey Decanters, circa 1968

Jim Beam Whiskey Decanters, circa 1968 (internet photo, although I do own a set of these)

Up until a few years ago the county I live in was dry, meaning no alcohol sales of any kind were allowed. Kentucky may be the center of the bourbon universe, but we are also the buckle of the Bible Belt and there are antiquated laws like this in effect throughout the state. It has only been in the last year that the city of Lexington began allowing liquor stores to open on Sunday (sales in restaurants having been ok’d years ago).

Thus it has always been for those of us living in Georgetown – if we wanted to buy alcohol we had to drive across the county line. Conveniently, a couple of enterprising entrepreneurs had long ago realized that in spite of Georgetown being the home to a well known Baptist College, there was still demand for accessible liquor sales to its inhabitants. They had built independently of each other on opposite sides of the two lane highway leading out of town, mere yards from the county line, a pair of liquor stores. First Chance, Last Chance Liquors is so named because it is your first opportunity to buy alcohol leaving Scott County, and the last chance you have when returning. West Liquors was so named, I suppose, because it is located on the west side of the same highway. As you might imagine, both stores do very good business. Such will certainly be the case this Tuesday evening around six o’clock. The law in much of Kentucky states that liquor sales are prohibited on Election Day while the polls are open, meaning no alcohol purchases while voting is taking place. The laws original intention was to discourage vote buying, but it’s questionable whether it ever had any real effect. Even in the old days, candidates were smart enough to stockpile everything from liquor to food to women in a quest to win or influence elections. In rural Kentucky, rival political candidates would set up camps on opposite ends of town, inviting in anyone whose vote they felt could be influenced (i.e. bought) by what they had to offer. Such men were called floaters, and as there were no secret ballots in use at the time, it was a fairly simple matter to follow them to the polling place and ensure they cast their vote along the lines which it had been purchased. One such race in 1876, between W.N Smoot and R. Harper for sheriff, is detailed in J.A. Richards A History of Bath County, Kentucky (1961).

Each candidate in most of the precincts in the county, with the help of his supporters built what has been called “bull pens” or a log stockade, sometimes using a barn for the purpose. These pens were supplied with cots and beds, a plentiful supply of food, including burgoo, and a stock of whiskey in open barrels with tin cups at hand. Cooks to serve them and guards to prevent them from escaping were also provided. When all of these arrangements were made at great expense about two weeks before the election, the friends of the candidates went about their precincts and gathered up as many floaters as they could persuade and herded them into these bull pens where they had beds, plenty of good food and whiskey, and here they kept them in a stupor, under guard, until the day of the election. During this interval many attempts were made by one side to steal the floaters held by the other in these “bull pens”, and many serious encounters between the guards and these raiders occurred. Though there were some wounded, fortunately no one was slain. On the day of the election each side voted his floaters, some being voted in as many as three and four precincts, as there were no registration requirements. It is said that both sides paid as high as $100 a vote. Though Smoot emerged victorious by a small majority, the net result was the election left both candidates financial wrecks.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably mentioned that I’m descended from the Smoot family on my father’s side. But hey, at least our candidate won.

So it was that the ban of liquor sales on election day was eventually introduced and intended to rectify situations such as these. Since everyone with a craving to fulfill knows that they will have to stock up on Monday of election week, I question how successful the law has ever been. The total net effect from my standpoint is creating a massive traffic jam at the Fayette / Scott county line starting about 5:30pm on election eve. Cars encircle both liquor stores, wrap down the side streets, are parked on the shoulder, and generally create havoc on the primary two lane road between Lexington and Georgetown. When the polls close and the doors and drive through windows open, it must be like Christmas for the store owners. You would think they were giving away water in the middle of the desert. Such it is every year, and it’s a scene which will no doubt be repeated Tuesday night. So whether you prefer Jim Beam or your “good Buddy Weiser” as the song says, the fact is that our great country allows you to choose. And elections are, after all, about choice. Anyway, after a presidential campaign that lasted close to two years, I think we can all use a drink. But remember that with the freedom to choice comes a certain amount of responsibility. So please, whatever you do, refrain from purchasing any Tennessee whiskey on election eve. This is after all, Kentucky, and we do have standards to uphold.

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