We seem to be in a golden age of books about spirits. Fascinating and well-written books about rum, vodka, gin, whisky, and other spirits abound, and to that fine list can now be added journalist Reid Mitenbuler‘s Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.
Bourbon Empire is a meticulously-researched and entertainingly-written book, which tells the complete story of bourbon from the early immigrants and distillers through to today’s craft distillery boom.
One of its great virtues is Mitenbuler’s even-handed approach. While he clearly knows and is on friendly terms with many of the big distillers, he doesn’t let that prevent him from revealing some truths they would perhaps the public rather did not know. At the same time, when commercial decisions have to be made which may not be in the best interests of the consumer, the author tries to see things from all sides. ‘You can see why they would do that,’ is a viewpoint he frequently takes.
It’s Mitenbuler’s belief that the story of bourbon is the story of the USA, and it’s a theme he returns to again and again. The early bourbon makers were the first immigrants, who brought their European distilling and brewing knowledge with them. Not that what they produced was anything like the smooth spirit we know today.
Many of the better-known brands have been a triumph of marketing over content, and some of today’s brands are as economical with the truth as the average politician. Anyone can stick an old-fashioned name and a sepia print on a bourbon label. It doesn’t mean, as Mitenbuler points out more than once, that there is any real connection between the image and the liquid. Brands implying centuries of history have, in some cases, only been around for a few decades.
Nor is the author fooled by the price on the product. The most expensive bourbon is not necessarily the best, and cheap bourbon isn’t always the worst. Price is a guideline but is certainly not infallible.
One of the joys of the book is that the world of distilling has always been populated with larger-than-life characters. Who can resist tales of the eccentric early immigrants, or the charlatans and villains who prospered during Prohibition – that being one of the best and funniest sections of the book.
You don’t need to be a bourbon drinker to savor Bourbon Empire, though the more you know your bourbon, the more you’ll get out of it. You might find yourself changing your drinking habits, too.