- Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity by Tryfon Bampilis
Following World War II, and especially after the 1970s, whisky became widely used in Greek society; it supplanted locally-produced drinks in various contexts of sociability and entertainment. Tryfon Bampilis draws attention to this important cultural shift and sets out to describe, analyze, and interpret it. The writer combines an historical perspective and a synchronic ethnographic approach to examine his subject from a variety of perspectives that include: a) the strategies of the importing companies and the organization of the market of alcoholic beverages; b) the meanings surrounding whisky in the Greek popular cinema of the 1950s and the 1960s and in the advertisements of the 1980s and the 1990s; c) the close association of whisky with the laiko branch of popular music and night entertainment; and d) the contemporary uses and meanings of whisky in different ethnographic contexts in Athens and on the island of Skyros.
Greek Whisky can be seen as belonging in the series of books that through their focus on the social history of a specific commodity describe and unravel important historical, political, and cultural processes. Bampilis has constructed a complex methodological strategy and attacks his subject with a sophisticated theory that draws from the anthropology of consumption and material culture, the current problematic of the local and the global, and the study of popular culture. Bampilis shows the gradual dissemination of the consumption of whisky in the 1950s and the 1960s and its association through the most powerful media of the time with modernity, cosmopolitanism, superior foreign influence, Americanization (which had both positive and negative connotations at the time), upward mobility, and high status. Whisky became, in other words, the drink adopted by the upcoming middle strata in their effort to forget the miserable (usually rural) past and to exhibit their new wealth, status, and subjectivity.
Bampilis identifies the peak period of whisky consumption with the emergence of consumerism in the 1980s and the 1990s and focuses on the popular culture of the period and especially on the genres of laiko, skyladiko, and ellinadiko music and night entertainment. Whisky, he asserts, has played a central material and symbolic role in the construction of the musical meaning and the nightclub practices of these genres. In this context, as well as in other milieux (such as the circle of card players on Skyros), whisky is associated with a hedonistic and emancipated lifestyle, an anti-domestic mentality, and an excessive form of entertainment. [End Page 443]
A symbolic good like whisky offers an interesting, and especially revealing, vantage point for viewing Greek culture. Bampilis identifies some of the most relevant contexts for studying whisky and explores some of the most important cultural processes that gave it its special place in Greek imaginary and consumption. One cannot always agree with his interpretations, and there are some historical weaknesses, but there is no doubt that the book offers an illuminating analysis of the cultural dynamics that made Scotch whisky the national drink of Greece. I think, for example, that the adoption of whisky should be understood within the socio-political situation and the kind of authoritarian modernity that prevailed during the first postwar decades. The abandonment of local drinks and their replacement by a Western drink is an expression of a cultural environment that was characterized by the emphasis on change, mobility, and growth, the radical devaluation of traditional culture, and the keen and often unquestioning adoption of modern ideas, technologies, and products. Moreover, between the cinematic meanings of whisky in the earlier period and its connotations in bouzoukia and other similar contexts, there isn’t so much an opposition as an evolution and a transformation. Whisky in bouzoukia can be seen as a negation of modernity but also as an embracement of it, a denial of modern discipline but also a form of individualist hedonism.
Greek Whisky is an important contribution to Greek ethnography. The book focuses on an important and thought-provoking issue and explores...