A tormented Allan tells us that the pain is still there on this honest self-examination. This was one of five tracks on Set You Free that were produced by Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage The Elephant, Little Big Town, The Wallflowers). Allan admitted to Billboard magazine having some butterflies when going into the studio with the versatile and mysterious producer. "I felt like I was making my album in the basement of a college kid's house with no money," he said. "He works out of his house, and all the tracks were bleeding into each other. I thought 'What are we doing in here? My manager called me, and asked me what I thought. I said I had no idea. It wasn't until the third day until I realized that he does it like nobody else. He's like a mad scientist and is very creative. He forced me to play, and I hadn't played on any of my tracks. He just keeps shoving things at you. He gets you out of your comfort zone. I'd definitely work with him again, but it was like nothing I have ever done."
Cole Degges of Cole Deggs & the Lonesome originally wrote the song when he was working on the band's 2007 eponymous album. "Whiskey" wasn't included on the final tracklisting, and was lost in the shuffle as Degges bombarded the label with potential material. "I was writing so much at the time that I would take six new songs a week and play them for my A&R staff," he recalled. "It was one of those songs that maybe didn't quite fit in, didn't go with what we were going with on the record. Then you wake up one morning and find out one of your favorite artists is cutting it."
The song went through a metamorphosis to reach its end state. Degges traveled to Nashville's Belle Meade neighborhood to write at the home of songwriter Jim Daddario (Collin Raye's "Love Remains"), whose frequent co-writer, Greg Barnhill (Trisha Yearwood's "Walkaway Joe") was there as well. As the day unfolded, the three songsmiths found themselves in a discussion about addiction and began considering how alcohol is actually a symptom for some underlying issue. "We all kind of agreed that the root of the problem, when they can fix that, would take care of a lot of stuff," recalled Barnhill. "We used a girl as the catalyst for that, and we just started writing a song. It was the truth—it ain't the whiskey that's killing me, it's the thing that's causing it."
The trio used the opening line to identify a 12-step setting—"I stood there in the middle of the church of the broken people"—and basically worked from the first line to the last, the entire story taking shape with a surprising ease. "I was playing chords and rocking out on [Daddario's grand] piano, because that's my main instrument," said Degges. "Next thing you know, two hours later we have this song."
The song laid around for several years until a new publisher decided to pitch it to the A&R department at Universal Music Group, which immediately identified it as a potential Gary Allan song. Allan played it on acoustic guitar periodically in concert, and it always got a major response when he pulled it out, so he decided to record it for Set You Free.
Jay Joyce insisted Allan play the guitars on "Whiskey," the first time he's done that in the studio. That's Allan playing the lonesome acoustic guitar at the start of the song, as well as the angst-filled solo, using a Big Muff pedal that was particularly popular among alt-rock acts during the 1990s.
"I brought my guitars in, plugged in and turned it up as loud as it would go," said Allan.
"I created a monster, because he just started blazing," added Joyce. "The walls were throbbing, and it went on for hours like that. I was toast for the rest of the day—couldn't hear anything."
The song provides a special moment in Allan's live shows. "I love heart-wrenching songs and songs that really make you think; they're my favorites," he said. "It's a 12-step song, but it's so poignant. I've been playing that one live by myself. We take a break in the show, and I just play that acoustically. We've been doing that one forever, way before we cut it. It's just a great song. I wish I wrote that one."
The black-and-white video features the lamenting singer numbing his pain with a near-constant drink in his hand, paired with a narrative about a loss of love. The clip was shot at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville. "It was a lot of fun to shoot. We shot it in Nashville, and I believe if the story is right, the building was like a Confederate hospital. It's really cool," said Allan. "It's a church now, and it's got like artist lofts above it. I was able to get the band in there."