America’s Whiskey: A History

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

America’s Whiskey: A History

“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.

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