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Issue 24 - The spirit of adventure

Whisky Magazine Issue 24
July 2002


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The spirit of adventure

Jefferson Chase explores the hard-drinking author Jack London's relationship wiht 'John Barleycorn' both in and out of literature

Jack London is arguably the English language's greatest adventure writer. Born in 1876 in San Francisco, London shipped out to sea on a seal hunting schooner at the age of seventeen, travelled half the globe and wrote a staggering fifty books in last two decades of his life. He was a man who loved the four w's: water, women, windjammers and, of course, whisky. In fact, he loved whisky so much he gave it a nickname:

Wherever life ran free and great, there man drank. Romance and Adventure seemed always to go down the street locked arm in arm with John Barleycorn. To know the two, I must know the third.

London lived up to the challenge he set himself here, in his autobiography John Barleycorn. His drinking exploits were legendary, as numerous memoirs and AA testimonials attest.

Yet London is a more complex author than most of us remember from the abridged novels we read in childhood, and whisky plays an intriguingly ambiguous role in his works. On the surface, the ability to hold one's drink is a measure of one's manliness. However, it can also be a sign of inhumanity. There's no better example of this than Wolf Larsen, the Nietzschean anti-hero and philosophical brute from what many consider to be London's finest work, The Sea-Wolf:

They played for money. They increased the amounts of the bets. They drank whiskey, they drank it neat, and I fetched more. I do not know whether Wolf Larsen cheated or not, – a thing he was thoroughly capable of doing, – but he won steadily ...

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