New Books Network

Reid Mitenbuler

Bourbon Empire

The Past and Future of America's Whiskey

Viking 2015

New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in FoodNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books Network May 18, 2015 Eric Lemay

Most of the year, when the weather lets us, my wife and I wind down on our front porch with a bourbon. We live...

Most of the year, when the weather lets us, my wife and I wind down on our front porch with a bourbon. We live out in the countryside and, for no particular reason, bourbon feels like the right choice as we watch the long grass waving on the hillside and the birds shuttling back and forth between the far trees. Every so often, I’ll suggest we change things up: maybe a Scotch or an Irish whiskey–not really such a big change in the grand scheme of things–but my wife looks at me as though I’ve made some horrible faux pas, as though I’ve suggested a tumbler full of cotton-candy vodka or bacon grease. Bourbon, she insists, that’s what goes with the landscape.

And she’s not alone. As Reid Mitenbuler points out in Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey (Viking, 2015), bourbon is our native spirit. This is the fact that Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning affirmed in 2007, when he sponsored a bill to declare September “National Bourbon Heritage Month.” Bourbon, the bill stressed, captures the American values of “family heritage, tradition, and deep-rooted legacy.” Like most American icons, bourbon’s true history isn’t so rosy. It is, however, fascinating, as Mitenbuler shows us by tracing the spirit’s place in every era of America’s past, from the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to the “Declaration of Independence” for bourbon, which wasn’t passed until 1964, when congress voted on a resolution deeming bourbon, in lackluster language, “a distinctive product of the United States.” Yet here, too, Mitenbuler finds a great story, about power brokers, corporate maneuvering, and a forgotten man named Lewis Rosenstiel, who is the reason we now have whiskeys aged over eight years.

Mitenbuler offers us a rich sense of the true heritage, tradition, and legacy behind the bourbon in our glasses, and it’s as complexly American as the country itself. Scotch whiskey? Irish whiskey? My wife is certainly right. What was I thinking?