Column Date 2007-06-03

Can bourbon solve America’s oil crisis?

The Japanese are ahead of us again.

In a new plan to make their country energy independent, the government has turned to sake, the Japanese rice wine.

No, they don’t pour sake into their gas tanks. In a pilot program, they have gotten the local farmers in Shinanomachi, 124 miles northwest of Tokyo, to give the government all those millions of rice hulls that are left after the sake has been brewed.

These “sake leftovers” are then turned into ethanol, the fuel of the future, which will eventually help power millions of Japanese cars.

My kudos to the Japanese government for their visionary concept of “sake-based” fuel.

Now it’s time for America to step up to the plate.

I’m sure that American entrepreneurs will soon grasp the obvious: if the Japanese can make ethanol using sake, we can make ethanol from the by-products of bourbon. And vodka. And rum. And wine. And almost anything else we drink that the government taxes.

But first, a warning: do not believe those scientists out there who tell you that all ethanol is the same, no matter where it comes from.

Remember, these are the people who have been telling us that all vodka is chemically the same and therefore must taste the same.

This is simply wrong. All vodka does not taste the same, gentlemen. (I know this from vast personal experience.) Ergo, all ethanol will be slightly different.

And I think today’s sophisticated automobile engines will know what they’re drinking.

Cars in Kentucky, for example, would obviously be tuned to use the by-products of bourbon. And while Kentucky automobiles might start out a bit unsteadily, bourbon-based ethanol will go down smoothly, and keep their cars running happily. (If you prefer high-test, you would have the option of filling up with 7-year-old or 12-year-old bourbon-based ethanol.)

In Vermont, cars would run on ethanol made from Applejack, which would be potent enough to start any engine when it hits thirty-five degrees below zero in January.

Out in California, of course, we can expect the usual arguments over which is the better fuel – ethanol from Cabernet or ethanol from Merlot. And some connoisseurs will drive up to Oregon to fill up with ethanol made from Pinot Noir, claiming that it helps their cars run a little more mellow than vin ordinaire.

Technical questions still have to be answered: would a Ferrari V-12 run more enthusiastically on ethanol from imported grappa? And will the average BMW miss its Jägermeister?

But I think that driving on home-grown American fuel will be like a breath of fresh air.

And no longer will we be held captive to the oil sheiks of the Middle East. (When their oil wells eventually run dry, as they must, it’s amusing to speculate that their cars might have to run on ethanol  -- imported in supertankers from the U.S.A.)

One interesting question remains, however: If you put too much bourbon-based ethanol in your tank, can the police give your car a ticket for DUI?

©2007 Peter Tannen