Monday, May 18, 2015
Book Review: Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler
Whiskey writer Reid Mitenbuler begins his new book, Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey, with an anecdote about a relatively important figure I've never heard of. Captain George Thorpe who settled near Jamestown, Virginia was one of the first Americans believed to have distilled corn way back in seventeenth century. He was a promoter of corn and an advocate of more friendly relations with Native Americans. From that first distillation, Mitenbuler weaves countless fascinating tales through the history of the American whiskey industry. He covers all the major events you've read about in other books but also has many more obscure histories about things like the beginnings of the ice industry and the impact of Jewish immigrants on the whiskey industry (In the 1880s, Mitenbuler writes, Jews comprised 25% of the Louisville whiskey industry while they represented only 3% of the population). Through the years, he traces the tensions between the industry heritage of many small producers (the Jeffersonian model) and the tendency toward consolidation and industrialization (the Hamiltonian model).
Mitenbuler is a good storyteller and an engaging writer who holds your attention with a narrative featuring quirky characters, tales separating history from myth and a good dose of humor. He provides an old recipe for fake whiskey (it involves sugar and bugs), sheds light on the real connection or lack thereof between Old Forester and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest (no real connection but Brown Forman may have played it up during the Civil War centennial to increase sales), tells of a bitter rivalry between whiskey legends E.H. Taylor and George T. Stagg and digs up an old review of a questionable gin that might be my favorite tasting note ever: "having a brief wave of heat as from a match, then a flash of sweetish, pungent, bitter vapor, which seemed to leave all the membranes of the throat covered with a lingering, nauseating mustiness." And people think I'm harsh.
Mitenbuler also has a good sense of the whiskey world today which allows him to focus, often with amusement, on historical parallels with the current industry. For instance, after the repeal prohibition, when most whiskey was very young, distilleries looked for aging shortcuts. Publicker Distillery in Pennsylvania claimed that by using a new "artificial aging" process involving shaking barrels and applying heat, they could "make seventeen year old whiskey in twenty-four hours." Hmm, where have I heard that before? Similarly, consumers in the 1950s complained about standard whiskeys in expensive bottles fetching higher prices as evinced by a New York Times headline "Can't Improve Whiskey, So Distillers Turn to Its Container."
Needless to say, Bourbon Empire is a fun and educational read which will please novices and whiskey geeks alike (despite Mitenbuler's belief that whiskey geeks "find a way to argue everything to death.")
Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey
by Reid Mitenbuler
Viking $19 (Kindle $12)
Thanks to Reid Mitenbuler for sending an advanced copy of the book.