David Cook: Mixing whiskey with tea

David Cook: Mixing whiskey with tea

December 5th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Mark West, leader of the Chattanooga Tea Party, doesn't drink. Not a drop.

Joe Ledbetter does. A whiskey man by nature and trade, Ledbetter's at the center of recent work to amend state laws in order to distill Chattanooga Whiskey (he's a co-founder; the whiskey is currently distilled in Indiana) right here on Main Street.

The two crossed paths at a recent Hamilton County Commission meeting. West, there to tee-total the distillery idea. Ledbetter, and the 100 or so supporters with him, there to argue for it.

That's when West stood up and did something pretty cool.

"I commended them," he said.

What in the George Dickel for?

"They were engaged in something they believed in," West replied.

The 2012 Whiskey Rebellion has been one of the most curious, memorable political struggles in recent years. Shaken -- and stirred -- I was at how many commissioners directly opposed the distillery out of a moral opposition to alcohol.

I appreciate -- and commend -- strong convictions, but it's as if this debate unfolded in a vacuum; craft breweries abound. Soon, you may be able to buy your box of wine alongside your box of Cheerios. Liquor stores every other mile.

But not a whiskey distillery?

(Side note: many whiskey opponents claimed that alcohol kills. What about guns? Would you oppose a handgun manufacturer, too? How about Main Street Bullet Makers?)

But the delicious lesson we ought to be bottling comes from Ledbetter and West. Each oppose the other over alcohol, but have become accidental allies in a far more important struggle.

Defeating apathy. Promoting civic participation. Getting involved. Raising a respectful ruckus. Working together.

"I'd love to sit down with people like Mark West," said Ledbetter. "We both agree that our city and state and country can be better than what it is. Let's go work on that."

Believing American democracy is about eight nails into a nine-nail coffin, West begs, encourages and implores folks to get off the couch and onto the street corner and meeting hall. Do something. Anything.

That's why he praised those whiskey folks. But not without adding a sobering message. It's nearing last call, he said, for America.

"If we want to change the course of the Titanic heading straight for the iceberg, then do something meaningful," he said. "Don't go out and celebrate you've got whiskey on board your Titanic."

Ledbetter agreed.

"If my life's work was bringing a distillery to Chattanooga, it's a wasted life," he said.

Chattanooga Whiskey's been a populist choice from the beginning, distilled with two parts social media (Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter) and three parts grass-roots backing.

Like the tea party.

Ledbetter's now interested in turning that whiskey support into something more just and grand. This, too, is West's vision.

Both are frustrated, in a way, by the popularity of the whiskey support but the silence in the face of more dire issues.

"We couldn't rally 100 people for prayer," said West. "But we sure could rally 100 people for whiskey."

"We can get 100 people to come out for whiskey," said Ledbetter. "But for poor people?"

My theory: a local distillery's a lot easier to grapple with than, say, poverty. The fiscal cliff. Climate change. It's hard to understand these monster issues.

Plus, we're drunk on choices. There are 1,000 boxes in the cereal aisle, 500 unanswered emails and 200 channels on the TV. We're overwhelmed. We're over-overwhelmed.

But a local distillery? That's realistic. Doable. Manageable, for a lunchtime hour's worth of activism.

West, with a nod to the think-globally, act-locally bumper sticker, said solving the local issues in turn solves the national ones.

"If we will all begin to attend to local issues, over time the big issues will be resolved," West said.

Whiskey or not, Ledbetter and West point the way toward common ground. And how to find it. Take their philosophy, distill it here, and let it run all over the streets.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.