Bourbon Whiskey: From Rebellion to Consolidation

If you like your history lessons with a quirk or two, you’ll probably enjoy the book review we have in this month’s issue of the Washington Monthly of Reid Mitenbuler’s recently published Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey. You’re probably familiar with the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790’s as well as with the differing perspectives and legacies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. It turns out that the history of bourbon whiskey can be told as a lesson in how the competing Hamilton and Jefferson visions of the country have played out.

This is what makes the book compelling even if you don’t really care about bourbon. After all, the story of bourbon begins with defiance of a Washington DC-imposed tax and a fight for the independence of individual distilleries, but it ends with massive consolidation and virtually all bourbon distilling in the hands of just a small handful of large corporations. This story isn’t unique to bourbon, just look at the plight of the family farm.

The book (and our review) is also of interest if you want to know how different bourbons are distilled or you’re interested in why we use a “Proof” system for declaring the alcohol content of our spirits. There’s even a long treatment of the Jewish-American influence on the industry.

In any case, check it out. Sometimes it’s just more fun to have a fresh framework for re-exploring our nation’s history.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.