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In "In the Midst of Alarms" (1894) by Robert Barr, the author is describing a situation, where a man is going from America to Canada to camp in the forest with his friend, and they were being searched at customs department:

“What’s all this tackle?” asked the burly and somewhat red-faced customs officer at Fort Erie.

“This,” said Yates, “is a tent, with the poles and pegs appertaining thereto. These are a number of packages of tobacco, on which I shall doubtless have to pay something into the exchequer of her Majesty. This is a jug used for the holding of liquids. I beg to call your attention to the fact that it is at present empty, which unfortunately prevents me making a libation to the rites of good-fellowship. What my friend has in that valise I don’t know, but I suspect a gambling outfit, and would advise you to search him.”

And in a previous passage, this american man said:

"Besides, the empty jar will save trouble at the customhouse. I don’t suppose Canadian rye is as good as the Kentucky article, but you and I will have to scrub along on it for a while. And, talking of whisky, just press the button once again.”

He seems to make a sarcastic comment, but I can't get its meaning.

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He's saying he can't offer anyone a drink.

Formally, a libation is a religious ritual involving the pouring of liquid (such as alcohol) to appease a god or spirit or as an offering. In a more casual, often humorous, sense, the word can be used to refer to any drink of alcohol. In this case, Yates is (somewhat flippantly) partly combining the two meanings: since his jug of alcohol is empty, he cannot offer the customs officer a drink, not even for the ritual ("rites") of offering a drink to a fellow man.

This is a jug used for the holding of liquids. I beg to call your attention to the fact that it is at present empty, which unfortunately prevents me making a libation to the rites of good-fellowship.

More succinctly, and with less of the flippant formality, this could be rewritten as:

This is my alcohol jug, but it's empty, so I can't offer you a drink.

As Peter Shor notes, the other, more real, consequence of the emptiness of the jug is that he doesn't have to pay any customs duty for his alcohol, as he does for his tobacco. This is not mentioned explicitly, but it's probably the real thing Yates is thinking about while he jokingly refers to being unable to offer a drink.

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  • I think you've missed something ... the emptiness of the liquor jug means that Yates doesn't have to pay any customs duty on it (the way he does on his tobacco). Also, let me point out that an offer of a drink might be taken as a bribe, but this is a moot point since the jug is empty. – Peter Shor Dec 10 '20 at 13:18

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