When I mentioned to a friend Reid Mitenbuler’s Bourbon Empire is my favorite history of bourbon, I got a raised eyebrow in response. You’ve read more than one?
Well, there’s King’s County Distillery Guide to Moonshining, which is a nice guide to production processes and the contemporary landscape of the American spirits business, but doesn’t have the narrative flow that I wanted it to. Max Watman’s Chasing the White Dog is thrilling and does a great job with illegal alcohol from the Whiskey Rebellion on through the present day, but doesn’t talk all that much about the stuff that we actually drink. And of course there are David Wondrich’s books Imbibe and Punch, which are excellent general histories of drinking culture.
Last year brought us a candidate in the form of Dane Hucklebridge’s Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. It’s informative enough, but the writing style is somewhat annoying and the perspective too boosterish to really provide objective value.
If you want to know your American whiskey history, Mitenbuler’s book is the one to read. Anyone else would have begin the story with the Whiskey Rebellion, but he goes to the 20th century. Yes, he starts with the 1964 lobbying triumph in which Congress was persuaded to pass a law defining bourbon as distinctly American. Why does this matter? Well, it kept foreign manufacturers from elbowing their way into the category, undercutting prices. (Then he goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion. You can’t skip it entirely).
Later on, he explains that the wide availability of 12-year-old bourbon resulted from a combination of poor demand forecasting, excellent lobbying, and tax-deferment policies which allowed distillers to age their stocks longer before having to pay taxes on them. It is a testament to Mitenbuler’s talent that he can explain industrial tax policy in a way that makes it seem like a fascinating tale of liquor-soaked intrigue.
What Mitenbuler does that’s particularly good here is root his history in the conflict between Thomas Jefferson’s and Alexander Hamilton’s conceptions of the American economy – should it be centered on yeoman farmers and small producers, or an industrial powerhouse with capital and leverage? In other words, he has written a history of bourbon which gives the reader a window into the overall development of American industry and society. It’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever seen for the fact that liquor and many other American industries are dominated by a handful of large producers, all marketing themselves as small-time humble craftsmen with homespun wisdom.