As is my wont, I only took an interest in Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, Reid Mitenbuler’s engrossing book on the history of America’s quintessential liquor, after returning from a trip to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail earlier this summer—it’s a repeat of my approach to guidebooks in general, which I always buy before the trip, but fail to read mostly until I get home from it.
And so Bourbon Empire is a guidebook of sorts, sifting through an industry steeped in mythology that’s syrupy thick. Mitenbuler debunks the romantic falsehoods right up to the point of overkill, without quite stepping over it. He starts with setting the origin story straight. Elijah Craig, for example, didn’t invent bourbon, even if his role in it has become accepted wisdom. The true father of bourbon, if there is one, is probably a little known man named George Thorpe, who in the 1600s wondered if he couldn’t make whiskey from corn.
Luckily, once we’ve separated fact from fiction, it turns out the truth that’s left is just as fascinating as any of the make believe, from the Whiskey Rebellion of the 18th century, to Prohibition, to the rise of “craft” bourbon beginning with Marker’s Mark.
As I read the book, I noted a few particularly interesting tidbits. Here they are…
- Early Days: Already by 1810, the Ohio River Valley, where Kentucky is located, was producing more than half of the young country’s booze. In that year, there were 14,000 distilleries in the United States.
- The Origins of “Proof”: The origin of the term “proof” to measure the alcohol content of a spirit comes from the following practice, in Mitenbuler’s words: “[D]istillers would “prove”…a spirit’s strength by mixing it with gunpowder and lighting it on fire. If the flame sputtered because the alcohol content was low, the liquor was “under proof.” If it flared up like a bonfire, it was “over proof.” A steady and even flame, which occurs when whiskey is about 50 percent alcohol by volume, meant it was “100 percent proved.” That’s why today 100 proof whiskey contains 50 percent alcohol.
- The First Bourbon Bottles: Around 1870, Old Forester became the first bourbon to be sold in standardized sealed bottles. Up until then, the liquor had been sold straight from the barrel, usually into whatever container the customer had brought with him.
- A Cousin of Pappy: Wanna try Pappy van Winkle but can’t get your hands on it? W.L. Weller 12-Year Bourbon, also made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, is nearly identical. Both bourbons are made from the same recipe, or “mash,” in industry parlance. The difference between the two comes in aging and the barrel selection: Pappy Van Winkle’s youngest bourbon is aged for 15 years, and Buffalo Trace cherry picks the best of the best of the barrels for it, leaving the rest of what is still very good bourbon for the W.L. Weller.
- Regional Domination: Today, the north-central region of Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon.
- The Birth of Aged Bourbon: Aged bourbon was not considered desirable until the Korean War, when one distiller overestimated the grain shortages that would result from the conflict. With more bourbon on hand than he knew what to do with, the Schenley Distillery lobbied the US Government to pass a bill giving producers more time to hold onto their stock before paying taxes on it. Once the bill passed, Schenley began promoting its aged bourbons–creating the illusion that when it comes to bourbon, the older the better. It’s a belief that sticks today.