When was the last time you perused your local section of whiskey? Of over one hundred brands available for purchase 95% of what’s available comes from one of 13 distilleries owed by only eight companies. This is not the landscape of our forefathers who used whiskey as not just a drink but also as currency, rebellion and a means to reduce waste. Reid Mitenbuler addresses these realities of whiskey and it’s foundation within American history in his first novel Bourbon Empire.
What resonated with me in Bourbon Empire was the author’s sense of disappointment and pointed criticism in the appropriated history of America’s native spirit. Current marketing claims attempt to define those who were “first” in terms of creation and technique in addition to methodology and early conception. They tell tall tales of established processes that make their “unique” whiskey flavor. But, per Mitenbuler, there is no documentation available to support this. He warns not to believe the origin claims of boutique bottles stemming from one of the big 13.
Additionally, the rating of not just whiskey but also wine and other spirits are skewed in favor of good press or reciprocity. If there is no bad whiskey, how do you know what’s good as a consumer? But I suppose we have to be thankful for what we have. “Good” is something we earned over time. Early whiskey was aged artificially and sold direct to consumers after creation. There was no layering of flavors, or savoring with age. By comparison, we may still have it pretty good with “bad” whiskey.
Mitenbuler also spends much of him time lecturing on the history of our American forefathers and the importance of whiskey in our development. He circles each of his anecdotes with it’s relationship to today’s market. I worry this will alienate the general reader with no background in spirits let alone whiskey. It sometimes felt too much like a history lesson and less the informative companion it’s made to be. I appreciated the whiskey backbone of early America, but I, too, occasionally felt put off by it. It’s hard to say if Mitenbuler is looking to bring the casual drinker into the fold of his Bourbon Empire, or if he’s trying to cater to the pre-established fan club spread across the world.