The name of bourbon is almost synonymous with America’s spirit-making heritage. It is a drink so intricately woven into the country’s history that traversing it, you would no doubt chance upon the significance of bourbon. And therein lies the crux of Reid Mitenbuler’s new book, Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.
Bourbon has played an undeniably vital role in the development of the American political landscape and, all the while, been an ever evolving industry in its own right. From the vantage of a journalist specialising in the drinking cultures, Reid Mitenbuler unearths various stories of bourbon ranging from the artificiality of the process of becoming an iconic drink to the civil rights movement in the South.
Mitenbuler takes the reader on a historical journey of bourbon, delving into aspects such as the rising popularity of brands through deals with the military to distribute it across commissaries around the globe. An act which, Mitenbuler reckons, is somewhat of a recurrence of the wartime profiteering experienced by the industry during the 1940s. He also goes on to debunk the Kentucky myth of bourbon: that bourbon does not necessarily come from the state of Kentucky, but being an American drink, can come from anywhere in the country as long as it has a 51% corn mash bill.
Speaking of which, Mitenbuler takes into account the uninitiated reader and explains terms like ‘mashbill’ and ‘proving’ in a way that is relatable and easy to grasp. However, what is most noteworthy about Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey is that it takes a break from all the glam and glitter that is conveniently pinned to the reputation of the drink and brings to light the historical facts associated with it. The author explores the origins of the most successful names in the bourbon trade: Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and others, shattering the walls of myths along the way.
This may make the book come across as somewhat of an iconoclast, but it is all in good faith. For example, Mitenbuler, pointing out the origin of bourbon’s popularity, writes about the 1964 Congressional act declaring it as a ‘distinctive product of the United States’. A declaration that sparked a flame amongst the louder section of bourbon advocates who named it the national drink of America. The string of events did not, however, stop there. 43 years after the act, the US Senate passed a bill that would celebrate September 2007 as ‘National Bourbon Heritage Month’.
Having said that, the book does not limit itself to the explorations of the historical facts of bourbon. Mitenbuler also explores the current state of the bourbon industry and reports on the ‘craft whiskey boom’ in the recent years. This new development has seen the rise of 500 new distilleries, yet a majority (95%) of the country’s bourbon flows from only a few plants. The argument of congressional favouritism may prove to be of some significance here.
The author, apart from doing journalistic justice to bourbon, also goes on to inform readers on the patterns in marketing trends. There is much to learn from the advice he has for whiskey aficionados. For instance, he makes a weighted point on the term ‘antique’ recipes. For what it’s worth, Mitenbuler argues that the beginning of whiskey in America was far from spectacular. Being a result of experimenting with fermented crops (whatever was in excess), the whiskey of those days were intensely disguised through addition of aromatic herbs and spices.
The book’s 310 pages of exquisite information on America’s most iconic drink is certainly a journey through the country’s history, socio-political, and economic route. The rest we leave to you, the reader, to conclude.