Beer and Loathing, Part I: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Hunter S. Thompson’s Legacy

Hunter S. Thompson (photo: Lynn Goldsmith/Rex Features)

“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”

–Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

If that name either means nothing to you, or at best, only rings the slightest of  bells (yet you can’t quite place it), congratulations. You are still among the certifiably sane, and weirdness has passed you by or has only merely touched your life, not taken root like some damned tumor, rotting away at your insides and unraveling your precious sanity.

But, if that name is near and dear to your heart, then I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but there are only two conceivable explanations: 1) You are some sort of crazed freak, a drug-addled fiend roaming the streets armed to the teeth, on a savage journey desperate to find the very nerve of the American Dream. Or, more likely, it’s 2) You’ve been repeatedly assaulted with subliminal pop culture references, and much like Neo sought out Morpheus in The Matrix, you found yourself looking for him and learning all about his bizarre world.

Then one day, there he was. And before you knew it, you were taking his pills (though, his came in quite a few more colors than the clichéd red and blue), and he showed you just how twisted the rabbit hole truly could be. Face facts, you’re among the doomed, and the screwheads are closing in fast. That tingling creeping up your spine? Perfectly natural in this scenario, I’m afraid. You’re simply getting The Fear…

Rum Diary-Johnny Depp
Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in ‘The Rum Diary’ (© FilmDistrict)

Thompson’s story is a strange one in virtually every way imaginable. He was predominantly, until his death by his own hand in 2005, simply a journalist specializing in sports and politics. But that’s where the simplicity ends. He’s considered the father of “Gonzo Journalism,” a form of writing that’s based in roughly 10-20% factual events, the rest being a completely depraved and thoroughly entertaining fabrication that injects the author into the midst of the action, and usually under the influence of at least one or (many) more mind-altering substances.

He was the right man for his time and place, championing “Freak Power,” excessive drug and alcohol consumption, freedom from the tyranny of the Batman to his Joker, Richard M. Nixon, guns and explosives, and the joys of a hedonistic lifestyle. It’s no surprise that he became a counter-culture icon. But a pop culture icon as well? Now, that’s a bit strange, don’t you think? Actually, it’s not. But it did take a much longer and even stranger trip to get there.

When people talk about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, does anyone still rave about what a unique and nuanced performance Christian Bale gave as the titular hero? No, they don’t. Posthumous or not, it’s Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker that still haunts and captivates audiences to this day. And why is that? Because we love a good charismatic villain, that’s why. And that’s exactly what Thompson was to half the nation.

Thompson with one of this favorite things (photo: Michael Ochs Archives)

But then there was the other half, the half that identified with him, those who couldn’t see him as a villain. But what character archetype do we love more than the moustache-twirling villain? You guessed it… the anti-hero! And that’s exactly what he became to the rest of us. A modern-day outlaw, filled with true grit and wielding an IBM Selectric typewriter instead of a six-gun, determined to undermine the establishment and tell us the truth, or at least his truth (be it fabrication, hallucination, or what have you), no matter the cost. He was a rock star, rebel, and guru to the masses that didn’t fit in with Big Brother’s idea of what American society should be.

So naturally, like any other freak, they concocted a brand for him and paraded him around on radio, television, and virtually any form of media that would have him. They bought the rights to his works, and set out to bring Gonzo to the silver screen. This is the way that a counter-culture icon makes that uneasy transition to pop culture celebrity.

In fact, by this point, the laundry list of Thompson’s works that have been officially adapted or ripped off, or even just characters that have been clearly inspired by him, reads like the famous passage describing the epic drug collection in the quote from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas that I start off this post with:

Spider Jerusalem from Vertigo Comics’ ‘Transmetropolitan’ (© DC/Vertigo Comics)

His influence has even infiltrated the most holy and revered of family entertainment, Disney, as there’s no denying that at least a good portion of the performance by Johnny Depp, Thompson’s über-famous pal, in the Pirates of the Caribbean quadrilogy , was based on the author’s quirky mannerisms. Like it or not, Hunter S. Thompson’s twisted legacy, through pop culture, has permeated our everyday lives and consciousness.

With all the unlikely bits and baubles sporting Thompson’s name or likeness – and given the good doctor’s penchant for intoxication of one kind or another – it should come to no surprise that one of the products that most effectively capitalize off his image and legacy (and quite authentically, at that) is… a beer.

In Part II of this post, I will dive deeper into the heart of the Thompsonian dream by way of a certain little beer with a big bite that started out as a microbrewery in Aspen, Colorado and went on to conquer the world in the name of Gonzoism.


About Patrick Renfrow

Patrick Renfrow
Patrick Renfrow has no literary training whatsoever. In fact, if he manages to string more than three coherent words together, he deems it "prose". But as a rabid gamer and self-proclaimed pop culture savant, he has found a home among kindred souls on Pop Mythology.


  1. was just chatting with Daniel. I’m from Louisville, born and raised. trust me, you neeeeeever hear HST’s name. never…except in the Highlands and the Cherokee Triangle, hunter’s neighborhood. which is such, such a shame to me. i honestly contend as an Eng Lit major that Hunter Stockton Thompson was one of the finest writers of the 20th century…no exaggeration. yet here, where he grew up…the guy doesn’t exist to most people. come on! one of the century’s greatest literary geniuses! and yeah, i think it’s because of the point you made: anti-heroes only attract a certain demographic, which is what they did with his “brand,” his “alter-ego,” Raoul Duke, the narrator from FaLiLV. people wanted THAT behavior, and not the reportedly sweet gentleman who would welcome you into his home if you could talk sports or politics. shaaaaame shame shame. not having someone like HST in pop culture, that he remains even an obscure name to some Literature graduates: SHAME.

    • Patrick Renfrow

      And that is a wretched shame indeed. I know that Hunter both wrestled with and reveled in the “Raoul Duke” persona. He stated in more than one interview that upon being invited to speak somewhere, he never really knew who they were wanting, him or Duke. And as the myths surrounding him grew and the creations began to overshadow the creator (especially in the instance of Doonesberry’s popular “Uncle Duke”), Hunter seemed to be in a race to catch up with his own legend. And that’s when, for a time, things got REALLY weird…

      “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

    • I completely agree with you Anthony and would add that he was an important, but marginalized political and societal thinker as well. I attended a lecture that HST gave in Berkeley a number of years ago and I was impressed by many of his political ideas, which seemed to be at the same time revolutionary and workable, and certainly a great deal more coherent than something stemming from “a man in the depths of an ether binge.”

    • Gotta agree, A. People don’t give him his due credit as an extraordinarily incisive and insightful commentator – in both politics AND sports. Political and sports journalists typically agree, though: HST was one of the best, no matter what ink he decided to dip his pen in. But, gotta bring up Patrick’s point again: people didn’t want (DON’T want) to give him that credit, seeing as how he was a drug-addled madman.

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