JUST AFTER FIVE O’CLOCK in the morning on April 18, 1906, what came to be known as the San Francisco earthquake trembled down the coast from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and inland as far as Nevada. “Rumors of great disaster from an earthquake in San Francisco, but know nothing of real facts,” President Roosevelt wrote anxiously to the Governor of California, eager for some solid ground to stand upon. There was no reply. In his next message, after the rumors had collapsed into facts, the President struggled to believe them. “It was difficult at first to credit the catastrophe that has befallen San Francisco,” he admitted. Nobody could. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it would be half a century before the science of plate tectonics could explain what had happened, geologically speaking, to shake San Francisco all but off the map. Quite literally, it could not be understood. How could it not be an act of God—or the devil?
This event came to mind this fall, all too poignantly, as fires raged in northern and southern California—and again when my editor at The Wall Street Journal sent me a bottle of the Anchor Distilling Company’s Old Potrero Hotaling’s 11 Year Old Single Malt Rye Whiskey. This rye aged in “three once-used charred-oak barrels” is intended to commemorate the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed, and, on a more heartening note, celebrate the rebirth of the city.
The bottle’s label quotes an exuberant little rhyme, which also appears on a brass plaque on the distiller’s former Jackson Street warehouse, making it probably the most enduring work by its author,
Charles K. Field.
It poked fun at the moralizers who saw the 1906 earthquake and fire as judgment on the city as a modern Sodom:
If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?
A journalist, poet and literary man-about-town, Field was an active member of the Bohemian Club, the men-only arts club founded in 1872 by San Francisco Chronicle reporters, which has counted
William Randolph Hearst
among its members. He had migrated west from Vermont to attend the newly established Stanford University, graduating a decade before the earthquake and becoming a booster and ready mythologizer of the school. According to the legend on label and plaque, Field spontaneously composed the ditty after a night spent at the Berkeley faculty club shortly after the earthquake, as the guest of a professor and fellow Bohemian named
Jerome B. Landfield.
In San Francisco after the earthquake, fire roared through the buckled streets for four days and nights. Lost buildings can be counted, but lost lives, in such a conflagration, only guessed at. For years the estimate stood around 700, but likely it was three or four times that. The disaster stripped the city of its class distinctions and laid bare the shared human suffering. Half a million people, “deprived of all modern conveniences and necessities,” had within a day or two “been relegated to conditions of primitive life,” according to the U.S. Army officer in charge of relief efforts.
In the post-earthquake “Emergency Edition” of Sunset magazine, Field contributed another poem. “The Choice” was far less breezy than his rhyme about the whiskey. It describes “the Fiend” torching San Francisco with his breath, and demanding that its citizens choose between “life or treasure.” They abandon their inanimate possessions in favor of rescuing their pets; in a factual footnote, the editor backed up the poem’s claim that the refugees went out of their way to save “dogs, cats, canary birds, parrots and monkeys.” The poet imbues this act of love with the power to run the terrible film in reverse: Citizens are “unbereaved,” and the city, just weeks after being brought low, is “already uprising.”
really believe the city was destroyed by a vengeful Fiend, as he would have it in the latter poem—or a God with a sense of humor and a taste for single malt, as in the former one? A disaster on such a scale would make anybody superstitious, make it easy to believe in a divine, hidden calculus. Did we deserve this? Either this loss, or this whiskey?
Field was friends with
another Bohemian and a city supervisor, whose father owned the eponymous liquor company, so he likely knew full well that the warehouse was not saved by divine mercy but by the calculations of capital: thousands of barrels; tens of thousands of dollars. Men pumped seawater from a mile away for two full days, then kept going with sewer water. The warehouse survived, and the whiskey didn’t explode to fuel the fire further. Several less well-connected saloon and liquor-store owners had their stocks of booze destroyed by law enforcement, and submitted claims to Congress seeking reimbursement for some 30,000 dollars’ worth of alcohol poured—or perhaps, spirited—away in the name of public safety.
If any part of San Francisco could be called “over frisky,” it was the area around the Hotaling warehouse. This was deep in the Barbary Coast, the notorious port district packed with bars, brothels, opium dens and dance halls. Many of its dives were killed off by the fires, but its seedy allure survived. Cleaned up just enough by those who spied an opportunity, it came roaring back a few months later. (Today the warehouse is home to two private-equity firms, an organic-food startup and an
What remains of all this in the glass? The Hotaling’s 11 Year Old is smooth and sweet, with more of bourbon’s unctuousness than rye’s sting of pepper. Vanilla comes at you in a cloud, but it quickly burns itself out, leaving a little caramel, a little buttery oak. Perhaps a little char, the faintest whiff of burning. Looking for some citrus to balance it, I shook in drops of orange bitters (Angostura, better than Regan’s in this instance), then tried the more complex Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged bitters, aromatic with citrus oil and spice. One of my more adventurous fellow drinkers tried the Bitter Truth Bittermens Xocolatl Mole, which took things in the not-unpleasant direction of molasses cookies.
In the end I liked this whiskey best, aptly enough, in a rough Old Fashioned: light turbinado sugar, water and a slip of tangerine peel muddled with the Fee Brothers bitters and stirred with the rye around a big ball of ice. The fresh citrus cut through the vanilla and smoke and created a drink with a lighter heart. It dispelled, for the moment, any thoughts of disaster—surely the most important thing a good whiskey, like a good story, can do.
is the author of “The Extra Woman: How
Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It” (Liveright).
More in Food & Drink
Can You Capture Nostalgia in a Bottle of Gin?
July 26, 2017