- - Monday, May 25, 2015



By Reid Mitenbuler

Viking, $27.95, 310 pages

Perhaps it’s something in the water: The National Archives has an ongoing exhibit, “Spirited Republic,” celebrating America’s love affair with drink. And last week this newspaper reported skullduggery in Kentucky where whiskey has been burgled by the barrel and one brand of local hooch fetches $2,000 a bottle. Now comes a book to champion bourbon alone. Perhaps we’re getting over the hangover of Prohibition, and it’s OK to enjoy drinking again, “responsibly,” of course.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this reviewer hastens to declare that he likes bourbon. Let me count the ways: neat, on the rocks, in cocktails, lacing “coffee royal” beside a campfire . So it follows that he should benefit from reading a book about this sublime beverage.

Indeed, there is much to learn in “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey”: That to be bourbon, a whiskey must be made mostly from corn. That bourbon does not ipso facto come from Kentucky; it can come from anywhere in America so long as it’s at least 51 percent corn liquor, and has been aged in charred new oak barrels, which process instills bourbon’s unique olfactory spectrum of aromatics and flavors. That virtually all the old gents pictured on new brands of bourbon bottles are frauds, the inventions of slick marketers, the new millennium’s snake oil salesmen.

Another thing: Back in 1964 the Congress of these United States, by an official act, declared that bourbon is “a distinctive product of the United States,” enabling some of its noisier advocates to call it the national drink, “America’s Native Spirit.” A generation later, a senator from the great state of Kentucky (of course) sponsored a bill to establish “National Bourbon Heritage Month.” (Sen. Jim Bunning is better remembered as a Major Leaguer who pitched both a perfect game and a perfect inning: nine strikes to three batters.)

As the reader might infer, the author is something of an iconoclast. Reid Mitenbuler writes that Mr. Bunning’s resolution linked bourbon with such noble notions as “family heritage, tradition and deep-rooted legacy,” yet he suggests the driving force behind the proposal was not high-minded patriotism but a lobby, and the ultimate force behind the lobby was filthy lucre. Indeed, one of the author’s engaging themes is the perennial importance of the profit motive in both the evolution of bourbons and the raveling of American history. This is, in part, because of his conceit that America’s history is reflected in the history of spirits.

Bringing historical insights to the bar (as it were) he illuminates our first political crisis, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. History primers used to say simplistically that the uprising occurred because farmers found it harder to transport their crops of grain in dry bulk than in liquid form. Mr. Mitenbuler adds crucial nuance: Liquor didn’t spoil like grain; barrels were easier to handle than bales; bourbon was pricier by weight than barley, and booze was used as a medium of exchange, i.e., money, in those days when specie was scarce.

Mr. Mitenbuler sees the Whiskey Rebellion as a battleground for two rival politicians’ socio-economic visions of America: Thomas Jefferson, whose yeoman farmer was also the backwoods distiller simply trying to feed his family, and Alexander Hamilton whose tax on whiskey would finance the central bank and central government he so aristocratically favored. The author goes on to argue that “Like no other American product, bourbon embodies capitalism [which] has nonetheless shaped our political and cultural life” as much as it shaped business. “The term ‘brand name’ entered the American lexicon as distillers began differentiating themselves by branding their names onto the ends of whiskey barrels.”

Further, the “craft whiskey boom” of recent years has hatched 500 new distilleries, he reports, to compete with a hundred established ones. Yet today 95 percent of the nation’s whiskey comes from 13 plants, which in turn are owned by just eight companies. Bourbon, evidently, is the bastard spawn of Madison Avenue out of Wall Street. And as much the trollop of congressional favoritism as any pet that had a tax policy caressed in her favor.

Many of the antique-looking brands for sale today were conceived later than the drinker old enough to buy his first bottle. And yet monopolies aside, the myriad labels are very different from one another thanks to the makers’ skills at mixing different grains in the 49 percent that isn’t corn, in blending different stocks, in aging them at different temperatures for different periods, in adding different flavoring agents, in deciphering their chemistry and concocting their alchemy.

Mr. Mitenbuler chooses to cover considerable ground: historical, mythological, political, economic, social, biochemical, alcoholic. Nevertheless, (and much as this reviewer savors bourbon), just as imbibing the spirit is best done in moderation, so too are writing and reading about it.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes about American culture and at cocktail time often drinks bourbon, neat.

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