Weekend Reading: Bourbon Empire

I went on Spring vacation to Kentucky with Mrs. Doug and the compliance nuggets. There was a lot of bourbon and horses. For vacation reading, I dug into my ever-growing tower of books to read and brought along Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler to read. It seemed appropriate.

Reid Mitenbuler portrays bourbon as a balance of Jefferson and Hamilton’s ideas, still being argued today in politics. On one side is the small agrarian culture championed by Jefferson, in opposition to the capitalist growth of Hamilton. Bourbon is Jefferson on the outside, with Hamilton on the inside.

In Kentucky, bourbon finds that its color. History collides with myth, filling in the recorded gaps with burnt oak.

I found the origins of “proof” to be a fascinating relic of taxation. Ever since President Washington imposed the whiskey tax, distillers have tried to work around taxes for profit. Tax collectors would measure the strength of the whiskey by mixing it with gunpowder and setting it on fire. If the flame sputtered, the alcohol content was low and if it flared up it, there was too much alcohol. A steady flame proved that the alcohol content was proper. This proof came at about 50% alcohol. So if the whiskey was 100% proved, it was was about 50% alcohol.

There was little government oversight of what could be put in the bourbon bottle or put on the label. The biggest first step of regulation was the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act that required the whiskey be made a single distillery by a one distiller, aged for at least four years, unadulterated and bottled at exactly 100 proof. The bottle’s label had to identify the distillery where the whiskey was distilled and bottled. If it met those standards, the whiskey would have the right to bear the green stamp of approval featuring the image of John G. Carlisle, a Kentucky congressman.

Whiskey, like all alcohol, was scrubbed out of existence by Prohibition. Okay, so that is clearly an overstatement. It went from local farmers and big distillers, to the underground criminal element. One interesting loophole of prohibition was an exception for medicinal whiskey. (Medicine has come a long way in the last few decades.) If you are going to dispense medicine, you need pharmacies. Walgreens grew from 20 stores in Chicago to over 525 stores during the era of prohibition. Mr. Mitenburger points to The Great Gatsby in which Daisy describes the mysterious bootlegging Mr. Gatsby as having “owned some drugstores, a lot of drugstores.”

Bourbon and Kentucky are linked. My tourguide at the Woodford Reserve distillery point to Kentucky limestone, with its removal of iron from the water, as the key to Kentucky bourbon. Whatever may be the truth or the myth or marketing, 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky.

With the fall of Prohibition, government regulation of alcohol increased. That was especially true in labeling and identification of what was inside the bottle. To earn the “straight” identification, the whiskey needs to be aged in brand-new charred oak barrels for at least two years.

It was the rise of Maker’s Mark in the 1980s that turned bourbon towards its “craft” status, embracing quality over mass-production in its marketing. It was the embracing of the Kentucky mystery and Jeffersonian small-batch aesthetics that define most bourbon today. Behind the scenes, a handful of distilleries make the vast majority of bourbon and pour different variations into long line of product labels.

I enjoy a good bourbon and I enjoyed Bourbon Empire.