war on the rocks

Books on Booze: Bourbon Empire

April 5, 2016

In January of 1891, an actor named Francis Wilson paid an admiring visit to Walt Whitman at his house in Camden, New Jersey. The next day, Wilson sent Whitman a bottle of Old Crow whiskey with a note stating: “I am assured that it is the best of its kind and the very best of anything is not too good for Walt Whitman.”

In 1962, the Old Crow Distillery Company ran an advertisement inspired by Wilson’s gift. Looking remarkably like Karl Marx, Walt Whitman sits behind a wooden writing desk with three books neatly piled nearby and the unwrapped bottle of Old Crow at hand. In a decorating touch foreshadowing Kim Jong Il, there are no fewer than three portraits of Whitman resting upon the bookshelf behind him. His primly dressed maid approaches, thoughtfully carrying a whiskey glass, with a knowing smile across her lips. The message is clear: If Old Crow was Whitman’s drink of choice, why isn’t it yours?

Yet it’s all a lie. Although he enjoyed meeting Francis Wilson (“…I liked him, he has his points.”), Whitman was less impressed with the whiskey itself. Speaking to a friend, Whitman sneered, “But that is the stuff the world now seems to want — the absinthe, burning, burning — the strong liquors.” In fact, Whitman shunned whiskey in favor of Burgundy and Champagne.

Marketing ploys are nothing new in American history. Yet the whiskey companies share a seemingly unique desire to fabricate foundational myths and root their brands in American history. Bombay Sapphire does not claim its gin originated at the Battle of Hastings. Veuve Clicquot does not link its founding to Charlemagne. Why then do consumers of American whiskey demand such tales?

In Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of American Whiskey, Reid Mitenbuler tries to make sense of the whiskey industry’s contradictory and complicated history. In addition to providing a brief bourbon-centric lesson on American history, Mitenbuler introduces the reader to a cast of intriguing (and occasionally flawed) individuals responsible for the growth and evolution of the whiskey industry. Mitenbuler’s research is exhaustive, and his wide-ranging curiosity makes Bourbon Empire a pleasure to read.

“Bourbon drinkers crave tradition,” writes Mitenbuler. “They want their whiskey brands to at least seem like they’ve been around for a long time.” As such, distillers play fast and loose with history. On its website, Michter’s boasts of “…a historical legacy tracing back to the founding of America’s first whiskey company in 1753.” Likewise, Bulleit bills itself as a “frontier whiskey.” Yet neither company existed until the Clinton administration and, as Mitenbuler informs us, “frontier whiskey” frequently tasted of formaldehyde. Unaware or at least unmoved by these unreliable claims, consumers continue to seek out both of these popular brands.

Bourbon Empire goes to great lengths to explain whiskey’s unique role in American history. Perhaps it is no wonder that whiskey, not beer or wine, tugs at our collective cultural heartstrings. Whiskey enables us to play out the fantasy of our “rugged individualism.” Even the iconography on a whiskey bottle (buffalo, horses, wild game, a cowboy) reinforces this message. Every image evokes the open space of the frontier and the freedom to carve a place out of the wilderness, even if that “wilderness” is simply a bar in Bushwick. Ordering a whiskey becomes the act of a simple Everyman representing the essence of America. It’s what a Tom Hanks character would order at the bar.

Mitenbuler suggests whiskey’s resurgence in popularity is in response to an increasingly complex world and the frequently contradictory demands on our time. In our minds at least, whiskey speaks to a simpler time. Of course, there was nothing “simple” about living on the frontier in the 18th century, and a contemporary distiller most likely has a degree in chemical engineering, but Americans are always willing to suspend disbelief. We demand a good story, authenticity be damned.

In the end, Bourbon Empire suggests stripping the entire experience to an essential question: Is the whiskey any good? If so, then whether the distiller embellishes its history is irrelevant. If the whiskey tastes good, then the false claims that abound within the industry are simply grist for the mill. Read Bourbon Empire and entertain your friends at the bar with the real history of your favorite whiskey. Whether the drink of choice is the ubiquitous Maker’s Mark or bourbon distilled in a Brooklyn brownstone by a bearded gent in a flannel shirt, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s good, pour a glass neat or on the rocks, and enjoy a touch of America, contradictions and all.

 

Matthew D. Plunkett is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. When not trying new brands of whiskey, he is at work on a book about the Boston Whaler. Follow him on Twitter: @mdplunkett