WSJ: The Spirit of America
By Wayne Curtis
May 19, 2015
'We're in the entertainment industry," the CEO of a prominent liquor company told me not long ago. "It's important we never lose sight of that." Consumers shouldn't lose sight of that either: Think of every liquor brand as a popular TV series-gin is a British import, like "Downton Abbey." American whiskey is getting its "Deadwood" on, harking back to an American West full of apothecary-style bottles and dudes named Ezra, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jack. Rum tales tend to begin with a palm tree and end with a pirate.
In truth, the mythmaking isn't nearly as compelling as the real stories behind the bottles on the shelves today. And, in "Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey," Reid Mitenbuler pulls aside the curtain of puffery to show us the spirit's history, as well as how the stuff is actually made, who controls the industry and where it might be headed.
He begins with bourbon's "Big Bang" in coastal Virginia in the 1600s. That's when Capt. George Thorpe likely took corn that grew well in its native land, mashed and fermented it, ran it through a still, then (possibly) stored it in a barrel. Here, as in much of his accounting of the first two centuries of the rise of American whiskey, Mr. Mitenbuler is rehashing-if ably and well-what's been told before in numerous whiskey tomes.
It's when he turns to bourbon's direction from the mid-19th century onward that he opens up unfamiliar vistas. Bourbon started with many small makers and ended with few very large ones. In the early 19th century, Kentucky was home to an estimated 2,000 distilleries. Today, eight companies control about 95% of the entire American whiskey market, selling it under numerous brands (Heaven Hill alone produces Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Mellow Corn, Rittenhouse Rye and Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey).
The late 1800s was a time when unscrupulous entrepreneurs bottled and sold "aged whiskey" that was in fact newborn. They would start with what was essentially vodka fresh from the still, then flavor it with burnt sugar, prune juice, sulfate of ammonia, cochineal (from insects), tea and whatever else might approximate the taste of barrel-aged whiskey. Mr. Mitenbuler estimates than less than 5% of whiskey sold then was actually made by traditional means-that is, with a barrel and the mellowing effects of time.
At the height of this "rectification" boom, the spirits capital of the United States wasn't Kentucky, but Illinois-Peoria alone produced some 185,000 gallons of liquor daily. At one point, the city claimed the title as the largest purchaser of corn in the world. It took an act of Congress-quite literally, the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897-and the federal government stepping in to guarantee the product's integrity. Prohibition, which began in 1920, knocked most of the smaller players out of the field, and when repeal came in 1933, the stage was set for widespread industry consolidation, aided in part by expensive modern advertising campaigns. My favorite marketing idea: Lewis Rosenstiel, who headed Schenley Distillers, once had 5,000 parrots trained to say "Drink Old Quaker" and then give them to bartenders. "The campaign fizzled in all the disastrous ways one imagines it would," Mr. Mitenbuler notes.
One thing modern whiskeys have in common with their predecessors is that they aren't always what they seem. The spirits industry continues to rely on what we might call "aggressive creativity" in its marketing. "The appearance of authenticity and heritage is often more important than the real thing," Mr. Mitenbuler writes. As a result, the back stories behind many famous brands often skew fictitious, with distillery tours and advertising always emphasizing rustic origins while hiding the machinery of modern production. Takes the example of Michter's whiskey, as Mr. Mitenbuler does. The brand likes to claim ties to the whiskey George Washington served his troops, suggesting a lineage that dates to 1753. Yet the brand was actually named in the 1950s after the sons of an advertising executive-Michael and Peter-and the modern whiskey was originally purchased from a large-scale producer then bottled. Image often trumps taste. Mr. Mitenbuler notes that being a master distiller today in part requires comfort with posing for photos, "nose buried in a snifter of bourbon, eyes closed, an expression of serenity across the face."
"Bourbon Empire" closes with a look at the remarkable rise of craft distillers over the last few years. The author celebrates some of the noble experimenters, like Corsair Distillery in Nashville and Coppersea in New York. But he also casts a welcome critical eye on other startups, noting that some have been too reliant on small barrels, trying to rush a process that needs to unfold over a longer time. Tiny-barrel whiskey, he writes, "often carries a nose reminiscent of cut plywood or the smell one might associate with the inside of a Home Depot outlet."
Several high-profile class action law suits have been filed in the past year against spirits producers, alleging untruths in labeling-that is, essentially calling them out on the brand fictions they've concocted. Maker's Mark was accused of misleading customers by putting "handmade" on its label, as was Tito's Vodka-both of which produce more than a million cases every year. Templeton Rye was also sued for claiming a "Prohibition-era recipe" despite being purchased in bulk from a commodity producer. While such suits smack of legal opportunism-and the Maker's Mark suit was recently thrown out-they seem part of a growing trend demanding more transparency from the liquor industry. I suspect we'll be seeing more books like Mr. Mitenbuler's that sidestep lore and gravitate toward facts, thereby showing the business of liquor to be every bit as fascinating as the fictions in which the distillers love to swaddle themselves.
Mr. Curtis is author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails."
Reid MitenbulerViking, 310 pages, $27.95