Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey
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“Pulls aside the curtain of puffery to show . . . the business of liquor to be every bit as fascinating as the fictions in which the distillers love to swaddle themselves.” —Wayne Curtis, The Wall Street Journal
Walk into a well-stocked liquor store and you’ll see countless whiskey brands, each boasting an inspiring story of independence and heritage. And yet, more than 95% of the nation’s whiskey comes from a small handful of giant companies with links to organized crime, political controversy, and a colorful history that is far different than what appears on modern labels. In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler shows how bourbon, America’s most iconic style of whiskey, and the industry surrounding it, really came to be—a saga of shrewd capitalism as well as dedicated craftsmanship.
Mitenbuler traces the big names—Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Evan Williams, and more—back to their origins, exploring bourbon’s founding myths and great successes against the backdrop of America’s economic history. Illusion is separated from reality in a tale reaching back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when the ideologies of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton battled to define the soul of American business. That debate continues today, punctuated along the way by Prohibition-era bootleggers, the liquor-fueled origins of NASCAR, intense consolidation driven by savvy lobbying, and a Madison Avenue plot to release five thousand parrots—trained to screech the name of a popular brand—into the nation’s bars.
Today, the whiskey business takes a new turn as a nascent craft distilling movement offers the potential to revolutionize the industry once again. But, as Mitenbuler shows, many take advantage of this excitement while employing questionable business practices, either by masquerading whiskey made elsewhere as their own or by shortcutting the proven production standards that made many historic brands great to begin with.
A tale of innovation, success, downfall, and resurrection, Bourbon Empire is an exploration of the spirit in all its unique forms, creating an indelible portrait of both American whiskey and the people who make it.
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marketers have mastered. When tastings are blind, expectations are always confounded. In blind wine tastings, cheap castoffs are often named as favorites and cherished vintages from prestigious vineyards are disregarded. At the Judgment of Paris, held in 1976, wines from California’s burgeoning wine industry were chosen by French critics over their French counterparts. Francophiles were horrified and embarrassed; if the tasters had known, national pride almost certainly would have prevented them
in the field. To prevent the theft, Brinton chose particularly good barrels of whiskey and added tartar emetic to induce vomiting. Problem solved. The museum itself became a kind of whiskey depot after the secretary of war ordered that confiscated liquor go directly to Brinton. A side lot next to the museum soon swelled with “kegs, bottles, demijohns and cases, to say nothing of an infinite variety of tins, made so as to fit unperceived on the body, and thus permit the wearer to smuggle liquor,”
to take initiatives to clean up dirty corners of the industry’s image lingering from days of the Whiskey Trust and of blatantly false advertising. Instead, they left very real problems to fester: there were few institutions addressing alcohol abuse and the rampant domestic violence that slithered out of it; saloon culture was notoriously linked with prostitution and gambling, which sparked more violence; and an industry that had grown large on the backs of rectifiers suffered from image problems
at the liquor magnate’s house, where prostitutes and organized crime figures also made occasional appearances, and the blackmail potential of Rosenstiel’s tapes ostensibly kept Hoover at bay. The other Big Four heads were up against a powerful adversary, which Rosenstiel proved with his next move: he left DSI and started a separate lobbying group, calling it the Bourbon Institute. (In 1973, the Bourbon Institute would merge with DSI and another trade group called the Licensed Beverage Industries