The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ Anymore

The monopolist behind your favorite “craft” bourbon.

Perusing the shelves of your local liquor store, you’re presented with dozens of whiskeys to choose from. Their labels likely boast nostalgic imagery evocative of the American frontier, and perhaps, in the hipper parts of town, words like “craft,” “single barrel,” and “small batch.” Maybe you gravitate toward your favorite, the basic but reliable bourbon you’ve mixed with ginger or bitters for decades. Or maybe you reach for a special bottle this time, one with a hand-printed label and an elaborate origin story for its namesake.

Bourbon Empire: The Past
and Future of America’s Whiskey

by Reid Mitenbuler
Viking, 320 pp.

Behind those shelves lies a complex history of regulation, corruption, wealth, and power. In his book Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, Reid Mitenbuler seeks to illuminate some of the lesser-known aspects of bourbon’s path to becoming America’s signature spirit. Walking away from this book may leave you a bit discouraged about how readily we bourbon drinkers have consumed the industry’s marketing ploys—terms like “craft” and “single barrel” are entirely unregulated, it turns out, and mean virtually nothing. And that legend on the label, detailing the namesake’s hardscrabble success story, is almost certainly made up. (For instance, Michter’s suggestion that George Washington served their alcohol to his troops during the Revolution makes for a good story, but in reality, the modern version of that brand, which purports to date back to 1753, has only existed since the 1990s.) In Mitenbuler’s telling, however, those fabrications don’t undermine the reality that even the large-batch, several-barrel bourbon we’re drinking today is still high quality and authentic.

Bourbon Empire is primarily a history, one that stretches back to the eighteenth century. Mitenbuler uses the dichotomy of Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian politics to frame the industry’s various themes and changing tides. This contrast is clearly illustrated by the fight over the controversial whiskey tax that led to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and embodied the core existential crises of a nation still finding its identity. Hamilton’s advocacy for the tax positioned him as a friend of bankers, big business, and the elite. Jefferson’s opposition allied him with small farmers and agrarianism writ large. While the tax did pass in 1791, it was repealed when Jefferson entered office in 1801.

Mitenbuler describes the modern whiskey industry as a blend, as it were, of the visions of Jefferson and Hamilton. From its early days, the bourbon industry took great efforts to portray bourbon as “an icon of frontier independence—of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer.” But with many bottles to fill, Hamiltonianism had its charm: as Mitenbuler puts it bluntly, “Hamilton’s vision was a good way to get that whiskey into bottles efficiently.”

After a choppy first few chapters—which mostly oscillate between describing the wonky details of how whiskey is made, and characterizing assorted presidents’ alcohol preferences (Washington preferred brandy, and Jefferson snobbishly eschewed whiskey for the higher-brow wine)—Mitenbuler picks up bourbon’s narrative around the Civil War. By that time, whiskey was a widely consumed beverage (though it was also still occasionally used for cleaning wounds). The book moves quickly through the 1800s, briefly discussing the Whiskey Trust of the late 1880s and its attempts to monopolize the industry before being pursued by the U.S. government under the Sherman Antitrust Act. The bulk of the book, though, focuses on the whiskey magnates of the twentieth century, and their looming legacies in today’s consolidated whiskey industry.

At the center of Mitenbuler’s story is Prohibition, on its face a huge obstacle for the bourbon industry, but also a boon for the underground bourbon economy and its champions. During Prohibition, entrepreneurial types such as Lewis Rosenstiel, who would become one of the most powerful men in the industry, bought closed distilleries and their whiskey stocks to prepare for repeal, which they considered inevitable. In the meantime, they took advantage of a Prohibition loophole that allowed doctors, dentists, and veterinarians to prescribe up to one pint of 100 proof spirits every ten days. High-end doctors would give patients bourbon that was bottled and crafted essentially the same as before Prohibition, except with a four-word caveat on the label: “Unexcelled for Medicinal Purposes.”

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, men like Rosenstiel seized the opportunity to solidify their control over the bourbon industry. Consolidation in the industry began to accelerate. Between 1933 and 1958 the number of distilleries dropped from 130 to seventy-six as the bigger companies expanded through acquisition. By the end of that period, the top four distilleries controlled more than 75 percent of the market. And few attempts were made to reel in the power of these giants. In 1952, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on whiskey monopolies, but nothing came of it. In the postwar era, whiskey was booming. Not only was whiskey patriotic, but the whiskey lobby had grown in strength over the prior decades.

Soon, Americans’ devotion to their favorite spirit would be codified into law. Worried about losing his foothold to foreign producers, Rosenstiel used his lobby shop, the Bourbon Institute, to convince Congress that bourbon deserved a trade designation to preserve its uniquely American provenance. In 1964, Congress passed a resolution declaring bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States,” protecting the domestic market from foreign imitations. (Bourbon companies can be, and are, owned by foreign companies and headquartered overseas, but production must happen stateside.) The legacy of this protection is still felt: today, nearly 95 percent of bourbon is produced in Kentucky. Over 40 percent of that production is controlled by Beam Suntory, producer of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, Old Overholt, and Knob Creek, among many other spirits.

Giving an account of the power brokers in the bourbon industry inevitably means a history that features almost exclusively white men. But there is a taste of diversity in the script of bourbon’s history, to be found in the prominent role of Jewish immigrants in the early bourbon boom. Today, the bottles on liquor store shelves bear names like Craig, Beam, Harper, Daniels, Walker, or Williams. But a representative ode to bourbon’s greats might include Bronfman, Lehman, Shapira, Abelson, and Wertheimer, in addition to Rosenstiel. In the industry’s early days, however, it was assumed that bottles sporting these names wouldn’t sell to a nativist and anti-Semitic American citizenry. But Mitenbuler dedicates ample inches to discussing the largely unrecognized contributions of this cohort, one of the great gifts of this book to the historical record of American bourbon.

The notion of an industry that is able to marry the economic worldviews of Jefferson and Hamilton is certainly pleasant to imagine. But the consolidation of today’s industry would suggest that for all practical purposes, Hamilton’s vision has won out. As consolidation has swept many American industries, so has the whiskey industry been concentrated to just a few companies. Today, thirteen distilleries produce nearly 95 percent of all the whiskey consumed in America, and those distilleries are owned by eight companies. (That percentage was virtually 100 before the recent whiskey renaissance saw the opening of many truly independent distilleries.) The distilleries sell their product to many brands you’ve heard of—one of the biggest, the unromantically named Midwest Grain Products Ingredients, sells its whiskey to Templeton, Bulleit Rye, and others.

Mitenbuler asks the right questions about today’s whiskey industry—centrally: Is big inherently bad? As the bourbon industry has grown, has it lost touch with its image of “independence, self-sufficiency, and aversion to arbitrary rules?” But when he answers these questions he focuses mainly on how such consolidation might affect quality. Large-scale bourbon producers, he argues, are still putting out high-quality products—in many instances, better tasting than the smaller-batch distilleries. And this settles the point for him. “The size of a still, big or small, pot or column, has far less impact on a whiskey’s quality than the skill and know-how of the distiller operating it,” he says. So long as the giants still employ top-notch distillers, the quality of our whiskey won’t be in jeopardy.

But quality is only one metric of a healthy industry. While the illusion of choice may be, in Mitenbuler’s view, largely innocuous so long as the product tastes good, it’s still an illusion, one that has most consumers fooled. Sure, there are more whiskey distilleries today than there were five or ten years ago. But most consumers, especially those outside of urban centers, can’t avoid choosing a bottle produced by one of the big eight, if not the big four. And those biggest corporations can use their monopolistic power to change the product’s recipe, proof, distribution, or price without much obstacle or transparency for consumers. The dominance of these giants also makes it more difficult for new distillers to produce and market their whiskey, limiting our options as we peruse the liquor store shelves.

Attempting to discuss both the history and the contemporary context of bourbon is difficult, and Mitenbuler handles the tension gracefully. Bourbon Empire is a page-turner, and not only for the incredible number of party facts you will accumulate in the course of turning those pages. (For instance, did you know that a spirit’s “proof” was originally determined by mixing it with gunpowder and setting it on fire? If the mixture burned too low it was “under proof,” and a flare-up meant it was “over proof.” An even flame meant the whiskey was about 50 percent alcohol by volume, and therefore “100 percent proved.” Now you can tell your friends why dividing the proof in half determines a spirit’s alcohol percentage.) The more cynical bourbon drinker might disagree with Mitenbuler’s optimistic conclusions about the shape of today’s industry. But whether you’re a bourbon nerd curious to know what distilling techniques your favorite brand prefers, or a history buff interested in the faces and names behind one of our country’s iconic industries, Bourbon Empire offers a perspective you haven’t encountered before.

Leah Douglas

Leah Douglas is a reporter and policy analyst with the Open Markets Institute, where she covers corporate consolidation and the political economy of food. She writes and publishes Food & Power, a first-of-its-kind resource on consolidation in the food system.