America’s Whiskey: A History

From big-brand creation myths to the future of the industry.

Bourbon Empire Book

“Don’t believe 90 percent of the tales you read on whiskey bottles,” writes Reid Mitenbuler in “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey” (Viking), referring to the classic American success stories behind the various brands. In “Bourbon Empire,” the Brooklyn-based author traces the history of bourbon back to the distant past, and in the process pulls back the curtain on America’s whiskey industry, which features more than its share of (thoroughly enjoyable) big-brand creation myths.

Consider Evan Williams, which claims that its namesake was Kentucky’s “first distiller” in 1783. Never mind that Mr. Williams didn’t arrive in America until 1784, and when he reached Kentucky, “his neighbors in Louisville thought his whiskey so bad that his distillery was considered a nuisance and he was indicted for selling without a license,” offers Mitenbuler.

Casual drinkers might also be surprised to learn that “modern claims by companies that they are adhering to a strict and ancient ‘family recipe’ … are highly questionable,” says the author, noting that in the early nineteenth century, whiskey “was sold primarily as a bulk commodity and brand names didn’t exist, meaning that consistent flavor as part of a brand’s identity wasn’t an issue.”

Meanwhile, drinkers may be dismayed to find out that of the eight major corporations that control nearly the entire supply of American whiskey, four are headquartered overseas and all sell product to outsiders, who market it under a variety of brand names and mark up the price, part of the reason that price isn’t necessarily a good predictor of quality. And bourbon snobs may be disturbed to hear that master distillers are typically anything-but-impressed with the uber-expensive twenty-year-old bourbons, likening them to “sucking on a pencil.”

In the following interview, Mitenbuler discusses several of the topics addressed in “Bourbon Empire,” including the revival of interest in American whiskey, the industry’s smoke-and-mirrors marketing, and why there isn’t as much craft distilling taking place as whiskey fans might think. 

How did you become interested in bourbon?
It started around 15 years ago, shortly after I graduated college and went into the military. There was a Friday after-work tradition of meeting at the officers’ club for drinks. A lot of politicking went on during those evenings, with commanders getting to know the guys they’d be picking for assignments. I had never been much of a drinker but needed something in my hand, and our choice of drink sends a million messages. I picked bourbon because it was a little different and didn’t seem pretentious; this was long before people started pairing it with cheese and chocolate. I found that I liked it. Then I started geeking out on it.

The reputation of bourbon has improved recently, up from its blue-collar roots.
Well, I’m not sure everybody would agree that the promotion it has received from its blue-collar roots is really an improvement. It just means that it costs more than ever, but that evolution is something I trace in the book. When scotch and bourbon were both getting their respective starts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both were coming from places people considered remote and isolated backwaters. Whiskey was a rough drink—unrefined. The upper classes generally preferred wine or brandy. However, when a phylloxera infestation in the mid-1800s wiped out Europe’s grape crops, the upper classes there needed to find an alternative drink. Many turned to whiskey right around the same time Scotland got an image makeover. It became respectable, gentlemen drank scotch, and liquor barons like Tommy Dewars entered the House of Lords.

And Kentucky never really enjoyed a similar image makeover?
Not really, hence its generally lower status throughout history. Of course, that has nothing to do with the actual product, but this story serves as a reminder that many of our perceptions of quality are all in the mind, based on outside signals of class and status.

But in a way that serves to bourbon’s advantage. People today seem attracted to it because it’s simple and unpretentious.
Yeah, that definitely creates an appeal, at least in the U.S. Of course, it can prevent companies from charging more for it as well, which is an obstacle for them. The book explores some pretty hilarious historical attempts on the part of distillers to upgrade bourbon’s image to cut into luxury markets. Some fell flat, but others worked. For instance, in the mid-twentieth century Jim Beam capitalized on this kind of hillbilly heritage within the U.S., but its overseas advertisements featured people in tuxedoes, tails, and top hats. It translated to profits in overseas markets, even though the product was exactly the same—yet another reminder that, in terms of perceived quality, we all taste with our minds as much as our senses.

So why the revival of interest in American whiskey now, especially bourbon?
I’ve heard many different explanations. Some say it’s because of the skittish economy—hard alcohol offers more bang for the buck. Others say it’s due to the popularity of TV shows like Mad Men and a blossoming of cocktail culture. I think this revival goes deeper than that. Throughout American history, up until the 1970s, whiskey was always one of the most popular drinks in America. So, in a way, it’s simply a return to “normal,” just in a trendier, more voguish way. I also think bourbon is a kind of comfort food right now. Its revival is coming during a time of confusing changes in American life, and bourbon counteracts some of them. Look at our economy—old industries are crumbling and the new ones taking their place have created vast wealth, but inequality is returning to Gilded Age highs. Then there’s technology; social media has connected people in so many ways, but it has also disconnected us, replacing human interaction with the glow of tiny screens. But then you have the great iconography on the labels of bourbon bottles, hearkening back to the past and the frontier. We imagine of that mythic time as simpler, and I think bourbon right now serves a nostalgic function, connecting us back to that. It also tastes pretty good.

It’s funny that you mention bourbon’s heritage and authenticity as reasons for its revival, but you also point out that few of the marketing stories are true.
That’s correct. I’d say you can trust the stories on whiskey bottles about as much as you can trust reports of Elvis sightings. But I love that whiskey is full of goofy contradictions; it keeps the story interesting. People realize that these stories of longstanding heritage are valuable marketing tools. They reaffirm the things we want to believe in. They create a mystique around brands and are the basis for the success of many different companies.

But some companies just make them up?
In many cases, yes. The whiskey you find with brands like Bulleit and Michter’s is typically good, but the marketing stories are basically fairy tales. I mean, Michter’s bottles suggest the brand dates back to 1753, but brands hardly existed back then, and the company is only now finishing construction of its distillery. It’s 2015, not 1753!

Basically, a lot of places buy liquor from one of the few giant corporations that make it very well. I don’t want to pick on any one brand in particular, because it’s the case for many, many, many brands. Sometimes these outfits do a little extra something to the whiskey, but they’re pretty much taking something made by somebody else and labeling it as their own. It’s a hidden side of the industry, and one that has existed since the nineteenth century.

Where can consumers go to get a straight answer on what it is they’re buying?
It’s hard for consumers to know which end is up. It requires a lot of homework. A lot of whiskey coverage in the popular media gets the details wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a listicle or top ten list about whiskey that got its facts totally correct, but perhaps this says more about the new age of Internet journalism than anything else. The industry is dynamic and changing all the time, but by tracing the history of this industry I hope to demystify things for readers.

With whiskey’s enormous surge in popularity, certain brands—like Pappy Van Winkle—fetch prices normally reserved for high-end wine. Is it hype, ingenious marketing, or taste that makes a brand like that stand out from the rest?
All of the above. With Pappy Van Winkle, the label refers to an “Old Van Winkle Distillery,” but no such place exists; its production is contracted out elsewhere. There’s a legal loophole in labeling regulations that allows this, helping create an enchanting mystique—and I love exploring this kind of stuff. I mean, even the name Van Winkle references a fairy tale. In terms of marketing, the symbolism doesn’t get much better than that.

Is Pappy “the best,” like some people say?
Pappy’s good, but it’s not that good. I remember the days when nobody wanted it and it sat on liquor store shelves and wasn’t expensive. But it got caught up in the vortex of what I describe as the “foodie-industrial complex”—that pocket of the food world, similar to what you find in the art or fashion industries, which makes everything ultra-precious and traffics in a mix of money, vanity, and fame. Pappy had celebrity chefs acting as de facto spokespeople, and that did more for its reputation than the liquid that’s in the bottle. In the book, I have fun with all of this, though. Some whiskey geeks take the Pappyification of bourbon very seriously, as a matter of grave concern. It has led to a buying and pricing arms race that often has little relationship with what’s actually in the bottle.

So consumers shouldn’t be alarmed at all the smoke and mirrors?
I have tried to present the history of American whiskey in a way that will also help people navigate the fog of all the creative marketing, and the greatest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that the most interesting stuff on the shelf usually isn’t that expensive or hard to find.

“Bourbon Empire” explains how the whiskey industry’s rise parallels the history of the U.S. economy. How so?
Back in the early nineteenth century, there were thousands of distilleries scattered across the countryside. It was basically a way for farmers to preserve the value of their excess grains. Like most businesses of the era, everything was on a small, local scale. But by the year 2000, close to 99 percent of all American whiskey was made by just eight companies operating 13 plants. Like so much else, it all comes down to just a few giant corporations now.

Has the recent boom in craft distilling changed that?
Not as much as you might think, and that’s not a slap at craft distilling—what’s happening there is very exciting, but its press coverage is out of proportion to its actual output. Even with close to 600 new distilleries opening in the last few years, those same eight companies I just mentioned still make more than 95 percent of the nation’s whiskey. And this is where it gets interesting—this boom is a reaction against corporate consolidation. Products we see as “small” and “local” have gained cultural currency. But much of the whiskey customers see on store shelves is still made by those same few companies, yet it’s been packaged and labeled to look like something small and independent.

Isn’t it easy to tell the difference?
No, and that’s one of the things that drew me to this story, all the ironies and contradictions. Whiskey isn’t like other foods—it’s agricultural on one hand, but also highly industrial and processed on the other. Whiskey often turns the reflexive thinking of our modern food culture—that “small is best”—on its head. Whiskey isn’t like its counterparts in the beer, meatpacking, or cheese industries. The craft distilling movement is very exciting and has shown a lot of potential, but there are cases where bigger is better. Of course, since that message doesn’t play well, many big companies work very hard to make their whiskey brands look smaller than they actually are.

What’s your favorite bourbon?
It depends on the season. In the winter, something a little heavier and higher proof. In the summer, something lighter—perhaps a wheated bourbon, poured over ice. Generally, I go for between five and ten years old, which is where I tend to find bourbon’s achieve balance, depending on variances in aging conditions. There are exceptions, of course, but my hard-and-fast rule is never to fetishize any particular brands. To me, it doesn’t take much for bourbon to reach “perfection.” It’s a relatively simple product—just some grains that are fermented, distilled, and thrown into a barrel to age. That’s what’s so great about American whiskey; it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. Even as it reaches mega popularity and moves into a fashionable new space, I keep reminding myself that it’s just whiskey.

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