Book Review: Greek Whisky!

BampilisGreek

Bampilis, Tryfon. 2013. Greek Whisky. The Globalization of a Global Commodity. Oxford: Berghahn.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

As a culinary historian who has made several culinary history trips to Greek venues, I looked forward to learning more about the consumption of alcohol as a dimension of Greek food habits and cuisine. Greek Whisky is not the book to gain such knowledge, because whisky, in contrast to indigenous Greek alcoholic beverages including wines, beers, and ouzo, is consumed mostly in social situations without food, in modernizing, Western-gazing venues that intentionally compare and contrast with traditional food and beverage settings. The goal of this volume is to describe “the social life of whisky” as a commodity, whose importation, marketing, representation in the Greek media, and inter-individual ritualistic consumption, has made whisky drinking (occasionally throwing) a Greek symbol of modernity, masculinity, and symbolic break with the past. Whiskey signifies expensive, imported European spirits, primarily Scotch, which tie the Greeks who spend heavily to imbibe them to the rest of Western Europe and symbolic “modernity”. To craft his argument, the author adopts a historical and “performances of consumption in relation to style”-based ethnographic analysis, which “follows the whisky” along historical food chains and media representation and into the drinking halls where he did his research.

Two detailed ethnographic components focus in on the primary site for whisky introduction, which is Athens, and compare whisky consumption styles there with drinking venues on the Island of Skyros in the North Aegean, which is his mother’s original home. This secondary site, which has been transformed from a farming, shepherding, laboring, and merchant economy to a tourist venue, offers in depth ethnographic analysis of changing gender, kinship, age-related, and occupational categories. All of which, Bampilis argues, are expressed through drinking styles, by which principally males distinguish and separate themselves from the formerly matriarchal culture, where females controlled property and household purse strings. He draws a convincing dichotomy between traditional domestic (meza) and non-traditional outside (ekso) values, respectively expressed through different styles of social drinking and spirits-sharing situations through which individuals literally perform and construct their modern as opposed to traditional identities. In Athens, discriminating drinkers further differentiate themselves through their very expensive tastes in single-malt scotches, and occasionally, “‘out of control’ mentality materialized in scotch” which the author finds representative of “excessive unproductive mentality” (p.149), with devastating economic consequences for the individuals and those who rely on their financial contributions. The ethnography spans the decades after World War II, up through and including the current economic downturn and nation-wide financial disaster.

Food anthropology or other food-studies courses might adopt individual chapters for different pedagogical ends. The preface and introduction provide a detailed synopsis of all major symbolic, exchange, and reflexive anthropological and sociological literature on globalization. This exhaustive social-science and philosophical theoretical framework connecting social, economic, and cultural globalization and localization, might be overwhelming for undergraduates, but provide a comprehensive “crib” for Ph.D. or possibly masters students. Chapters 2 and 3, which offer a detailed evidence base tying together the importation and marketing history with the distinctive, ritualized, consumption patterns surrounding imported spirits, might be useful in communications courses, especially as the reference points in these comprehensive business, advertising, and cinema media histories of Scotch, come copiously and effectively illustrated. The comparative ethnographies in chapters 4 and especially 5, the Skyrian case study, are valuable in their own right. A productive class discussion point throughout might be whether the author needed to ground so many paragraphs in post-modern jargon to make his overall points about localization of global commodities, and what continual reference to symbolic performance of social styles rather than identities, adds to the interpretation.

The volume has been produced without careful copy-editing or a glossary of Greek terms. These are serious omissions that the series editors should take care to correct in subsequent publications. 

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Filed under anthropology, culture, foodways, Greece, whiskey, whisky

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