Why Justified is the Greatest Whiskey Show of All Time

While whiskey appears in many movies and TV shows, some make it more than prop, embedding it within the culture of the characters to reinforce key ideas. No show has done this better than “Justified.” From the first episode, which premiered on FX on March 16, 2010, to the last, characters are frequently shown with a whiskey in hand, their drink choices reflecting their lifestyle, class, or attitude. Over six seasons and 78 episodes, it established itself as the preeminent show for whiskey lovers.

Set in Kentucky, “Justified”—based on the Elmore Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole”—had an ingrained way of featuring a dram. “Liquor is not a throwaway in the show,” David Blass, the show’s production designer, tells Whisky Advocate. “It binds everyone together.”

Walton Goggins, who played the whiskey-loving criminal Boyd Crowder and enjoys a whiskey himself, agrees. “Whatever bottle you pulled out, with whoever you were having a conversation with, signaled to the audience and signaled to the other person in the story how you felt about them, how comfortable were you with them, if you wanted something from them. And I had never really seen that done before,” he says.

“Justified” follows Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a trigger-happy U.S. Marshal who has been assigned to the Lexington, Kentucky office. Professional and personal matters often draw him down to Harlan, his humble hometown a few hours away. While there, he reconnects with a number of criminals and characters, chief among them Boyd Crowder.

Two men speak to each other at a bar.

Boyd (left) and Raylan (right) face off frequently throughout “Justified,” sometimes in a bar like they do here in Season 2, but most always with a glass of whiskey present. (Photo from Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the series premiere, also named “Fire in the Hole,” the two men reminisce upon their days mining coal together. The reunion, like many conversations and celebrations throughout “Justified,” calls for a drink. “Well, should we just do us a shot of Jim Beam? Just for old times’ sake?” Boyd asks. Here and throughout the first season, bourbons like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey are used to establish the blue-collar ethic shared by the folks of Harlan County. By contrast, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), the Chief Deputy Marshal in Lexington, keeps a bottle of Blanton’s in his office, setting up a series-long device of using whiskey to depict class and socio-economic differences.

“We really got more into the class structure of Kentucky and this whole idea that depending where you were, things were very different,” Blass says. “What would a Marshal who’s sitting behind his desk drink versus someone who is a hairdresser in Harlan County?”

Character Choices

After the first season, the writers took a trip to Harlan, which was a dry county until 2019, and encountered a different local libation: moonshine. By season 2, the show’s main antagonist, Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), is using a homemade apple pie moonshine to greet her guests and occasionally poison them. “I make it 180 proof,” she says in “The Moonshine War.” “I cut it with cider, apple juice, cinnamon, and vanilla.”

With Mags, “Justified” begins to intertwine whiskey, or in this case ’shine, with character identity. “That was kind of a linchpin,” Blass says of expanding the use of whiskey on-screen. “We’re not branding a show. It was more about the nuance.”

Just as the sturdy, homemade moonshine embodied Mags, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), the season 3 villain, gets his own whiskey avatar. “Would you be so kind as to offer me a bourbon? Pappy Van Winkle,” he says, entering a windowless Harlan dive in “The Devil You Know.” Boyd is quick to call him a carpetbagger and the name fits the well-dressed Detroit mobster who goes around ordering Pappy. “Not really getting it but also not caring—I think that was more in tune with his character,” Blass says. “Just because you’re the suit-wearing guy in Kentucky, you don’t always get what you want.” Quarles is an outsider from the beginning, right down to the whiskey he drinks.

For other characters, like Boyd, there is a slower and more fitting progression of taste. When he finally pulls out a bottle of Pappy, in “The Hunt,” it’s one that he swiped from his father—who himself had swiped the case—and hidden under the floorboards in a faraway cabin. Boyd shows an appreciation for the high-end bourbon, squirrelling it away for a special occasion. “They’re very grateful for the things that they do have and they’re grateful when they’re introduced to things that are beyond their reach,” Goggins says of the people of Harlan County. “I know that that’s certainly who I am as a person and I wanted that to be a part of Boyd’s experience.”

Boyd more frequently drinks a different Buffalo Trace-made whiskey. “Cousin Johnnie, pour us a shot of that Elmer T!” he says in “Coalition,” and as we’ll later learn, his “usual” means four fingers. As Boyd accrues criminal capital, including his own bar, his tastes begin shift upward. Simultaneously, he begins a romantic relationship with Ava (Joelle Carter). For Boyd, switching from Wild Turkey to Elmer T. Lee signifies a change in both economic status and personal development.

A woman holds up a glass of whiskey while talking to two law enforcement officials

With Mags Bennett (center), “Justified” began to ascribe certain whiskey brands or drink choices to characters, as the Harlan matriarch shows throughout Season 2 with her homemade apple pie moonshine. (Photo from Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo)

“He starts looking for a way to be a better person,” Blass says. “Whether that’s having a better taste for whiskey, or he gets the ability to buy better things and realize he can appreciate better things.” Boyd’s growth as a man runs parallel to his growth as a whiskey drinker, so that by the time he’s tasting Pappy, the viewer can credibly believe his whiskey journey. “It was over the course of this whole show through the consumption of alcohol, through the consumption of whiskey, that he came to terms with exactly who he was,” Goggins adds. “And he knew who he was. And every conversation that he had—whether it be with rich folks or poor folks, whether lucky folks or unlucky folks—whiskey was always a part of that.”

A Lasting Legacy

Since the show ended, whiskey has likewise become a greater part of Goggins’s life. In 2016, he even entered the spirits business, teaming up with longtime friend and former cameraman Matthew Alper to open Mulholland Distilling, which produces vodka, gin, and American whiskey. (Check out the Spring 2021 issue of Whisky Advocate for more from Goggins about his whiskey pursuits.)

Watching “Justified,” it’s clear that Boyd is the most seasoned whiskey drinker of the bunch. He has a natural way of not only ordering a whiskey but of holding a glass and pouring a shot. It is almost as if the glass is an extension of Boyd’s own hand, and Goggins’s experience with spirits played a part. “I have certainly made drinks for people for a very long time and I do know how to hold a whiskey glass,” Goggins says, though he adds, “But still, Boyd’s not Walton, Boyd’s not me.”

Walton Goggins on how ‘Justified’ Shaped His Love For Whiskey

Still, Boyd personifies the use of whiskey on the show. It is a prop for the actor but also a reflection of the character’s station in life, aspirations, feelings, and more. “Whereas Quarles was more showing off with the Pappy Van Winkle, I think Boyd actually learned to appreciate this higher level of product and realize ‘I’m worthy of this,’” Blass says. “Whereas Raylan just didn’t care. He’s like, yeah I’m gonna have a glass of whiskey and whatever.” That all of these characters can have such nuanced and contrasting relationships with whiskey is a testament to the source material, and the execution by all who participated in the show. Cowboys hats are off to the people who made “Justified” not just a fantastic show, but a rich whiskey text as well.

The Best Whiskey Episodes of Justified

Whiskey flows throughout the six seasons of “Justified,” but these are the episodes, moments, and quotes that stand out most.

In season 1, viewers are introduced to Raylan, Boyd, Arlo, Ava and others through the whiskey they drink, usually blue-collar brands like Wild Turkey and Jim Beam. The show isn’t very serialized at this point, though in “Blowback,” Raylan solves a problem with bourbon and in “The Hammer,” Judge Reardon (Stephen Root) says, as philosophy, “I’m not the type to stare at the ice in my glass.”

Season 1, Episode 1: “Fire in the Hole”
It takes only six minutes into the pilot episode for someone to be offered a drink, and Raylan makes his preferred mode of consumption known when Ava offers him mixers, including Diet Coca-Cola, RC Cola, and Dr. Pepper. “Just ice,” Raylan says. The episode concludes with the first of many Boyd and Raylan showdowns, accompanied, of course, by whiskey.

Season 1, Episode 12: “Fathers and Sons”
Ava tells Winona (Natalie Zea) she likes her coffee “with a little bourbon,” and Raylan reaches for Art’s bottle of Blanton’s after a flare up with Arlo. “That’s enough,” Art says as Raylan goes to pour a second glass. “And that’s my bottle and I’m not going to let you drink it all because your daddy didn’t hug you when you were little.” The episode ends with Raylan and Arlo reconciling over “two Kentuckys,” which in this case is Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit.

For the second season, pour a glass of apple pie moonshine as you spend time with Mags and the rest of the Bennett gang. In this season, the show really begins to embrace spirits as a mark of culture and heritage, as Mags uses her 180 proof ’shine as a calling card. At one point, speaking at a town hall meeting in defense of her fellow Harlan residents, she declares, “We have our own way of living … our own liquor!”

Two men discuss business in a bar's back office.

Over the course of the show, Boyd (left) builds his criminal enterprise and graduates to better bourbon in the process, opting for Elmer T. Lee most often, as he does here in Season 6. (Photo from Everett Collection)

Season 2, Episode 3: “The I of the Storm”
We learn the price of a pour of whiskey in Harlan County ($3.25), but this episode is really a showcase for Goggins, who holds his whiskey glass up to his head and moves it slowly, like a conductor leading an orchestra. When a fellow coal miner asks Boyd where to find a drink in a dry county, the career criminal says, “No offense but I prefer to drink alone.” The way he handles his glass, it’s clear that the whiskey is company enough.

Season 2, Episode 4: “ For Blood or Money”
When Raylan visits the well-off Emmitt Arnett (Steven Flynn), it’s no coincidence that the Dixie Mafia-affiliated businessman drinks Pappy Van Winkle. What’s strange is the way he chooses to drink it: mixed with coffee. “Frankfort’s own,” he says. “This particular concoction is a private single barrel made especially for me. Takes the edge off those bitter beans.” By episode’s end, the team of Marshals share some Blanton’s after a tough case.

In season 3, with the appearance of out-of-town gangster Robert Quarles, there are many mentions of Pappy Van Winkle. “Would you be so kind as to offer me a bourbon? Pappy Van Winkle,” he says, rather presumptuously. His affinity for the top-shelf whiskey underscores the lack of familiarity he has with the town and people of Harlan.

Season 3, Episode 4: “The Devil You Know”
Quarles tries to pass off his taste for Pappy onto one of Boyd’s henchmen, saying, “Can I get you a coffee or a bourbon or anything? I am particular to the bourbon. I love that shit. We don’t get it in Detroit.” In this episode, we also learn that Boyd’s bar has 17 different kinds of bourbon although only five or so are ever mentioned by name.

The race is on in season 4 to find Drew Thompson and catch Theo Tonin (Adam Arkin), and you know Art has a special bottle waiting in his office for once they’re captured. Whiskey in “Justified” so often brings people together, whether they’re commiserating or celebrating, and as Art pursues the case of his career, there’s a little bit of both.

Season 4, Episode 2: “Where’s Waldo?”
The Marshals finally get their taste of some Van Winkle whiskey as Art receives a bottle as a gift from a fellow Deputy Marshal. “That’s a $200 bottle of bourbon, Art,” the giver says. “I intend to enjoy every drop of it,” Art replies. While Art, Raylan, and Tim are on a stakeout, Raylan references the whiskey. “You know what we should have done? We should have brought a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.” He’s teasing his boss but also illustrating what a rare whiskey it is for them to enjoy.

A woman stands behind a bar with a glass of whiskey.

Ava turns to whiskey in times of distress, which is often for her, especially as the Marshals close in on her and Boyd in Season 6. (Photo from Everett Collection)

Season 4, Episode 7: “Money Trap”
Boyd attends a fancy party, and is quickly provoked by one guest for his lower-class standing. “What are you drinking, sir?” Boyd asks the man. “Some of Jimmy Russell’s finest,” the guest replies. “Well, Rare Breed or Reserve?” Boys answers. “You know your Wild Turkey,” the man says, to which Boyd replies, “Well us folk down on the mountain, we gotta wash the taste of dung out of our mouth with something.” It is a classic example of Boyd demonstrating more cunning and composure than anyone wants to give him credit for.

In season 5, with the Crowe family in town, chaos ensues, but that means plenty of opportunities to drink. There’s a fun Kansas City-based episode that features lots of whiskey, and a great standoff between Boyd and Daryl Crowe, Jr. (Michael Rapaport) that begins with them discussing Boyd’s preference in whiskey.

Season 5, Episode 5: “Shot All to Hell”
Boyd has an all-timer showdown with Daryl in which they discuss Boyd’s affinity for Elmer T. Lee. “Mmm, that’s a good strong drink,” Daryl says. “One of my favorites,” Boyd answers. “Most people are too cheap to pour a true double anymore.” Boyd comes off as a total badass in this scene, proving that his reputation as both a whiskey drinker and a formidable foe is well-deserved.” Later, Art, Raylan, and assistant U.S. attorney Vasquez (Rick Gomez) sip some celebratory Pappy in Art’s office.

Season 5, Episode 9: “Wrong Roads”
A Kansas City detour has its fair share of whiskey but it’s noteworthy how the show makes subtle distinctions between consumption here and in Harlan. DEA agent Miller (Eric Roberts) drinks from a flask, something no one else in the show does, and when a member of the KC mob makes his way to Boyd’s bar, he asks for a Maker’s Mark by name, the first mention of that whiskey up to this point. There are additional whiskey moments throughout the episode and even a few creative shots and cuts involving it.

Raylan and the Marshals go after Boyd with full force in season 6, even though the other villain, Avery Markham (Sam Elliott), isn’t a bourbon drinker. Nevertheless, there are several occasions to sip, like when Raylan brings the recovering Art a bottle of Blanton’s, his established favorite.

Season 6, Episode 1: “Fate’s Right Hand”
In Mexico, Raylan explains his taste for bourbon instead of tequila. “Now bourbon is easy to understand—tastes like a warm summer day,” he says. Later, Raylan and Art have their own whiskey-related exchange when Raylan brings a bottle of Blanton’s to his recovering boss. “I don’t suppose that’s doctor-recommended,” Art says. “Civil war doctor maybe. You want to abstain? I’ll drink in your honor,” Raylan responds. Art eventually indulges, saying, “I know you didn’t just come to visit me and jeopardize my convalescence with some high-class bourbon.”

Season 6, Episode 7: “The Hunt”
Boyd brings Ava up to his cabin and pulls a bottle of Pappy from underneath the floor boards. “This is one of the last surviving bottles of the Pappy Van Winkle warehouse fire of ’95. Only three cases left untouched,” he says. “My daddy pilfered one of those cases and I in turn may have pilfered one bottle from that one case.” Upon tasting, he exclaims, “Mmm, goddamn, that’s like drinking silk!”

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