The ultimate message is … drink what you want, no matter what the label looks like.
Why I love it
I am not a bourbon drinker. Or rather, I stopped being a bourbon drinker as soon as I got old enough that an evening's glass would guarantee a headache the next day. But even though I no longer drink the spirits Reid Mitenbuler describes in Bourbon Empire, I had a lot of fun reading about their history. Or histories.
For example: there's a fancy kind of bourbon called Michter's that prints "EST. 1753" on its label. Really, though, Michter's didn't exist until the 1950s, when a liquor executive made it up by combining the names of his two sons, Michael and Peter. The Michter's distillery was on a piece of land that, in 1753, belonged to a farmer named Johann Shenk, who also sometimes made whiskey. The Michter's that you buy today, though, isn't even produced on Shenk's land—another company bought the trademark in the 1990s and now distills its whiskey in a brand-new facility hundreds of miles away. So much for heritage.
Mitenbuler, for the most part, doesn't care that brands like Michter's are fakes. He knows the history of bourbon, and it was ever always thus. "Even in the nineteenth century," he writes, "at the dawn of modern liquor marketing, brands began creating fake backstories." The more important question for Mitenbuler—and for anyone willing to risk that headache the next morning—is whether the bourbon is any good.
But first, some definitions. Bourbon is whiskey, yes, but it's whiskey that has passed three tests: 1. it's distilled in the United States (any state, not just Kentucky); 2. the grains used to make it must be at least 51 percent corn (usually a good deal more than that, most often accompanied by rye and barley); and 3. it must be aged in charred oak barrels (new white oak, to be specific). The char in the barrel caramelizes the sugars in the wood, creating sweet flavors that end up in the booze.
There's a lot more to absorb, including all sorts of jargon like white dog, feints, sweet mash, sour mash, and honey barrels, to name a few. The same goes for the author's view of American history as seen through a bourbon glass. We learn that George Washington had a distillery at Mount Vernon; that the word "julep" (as in a mint julep) derives from the Arabic julab, which means rosewater; and that Peoria, Illinois, was once the great bourbon capital of the country.
You might scoff at the idea of drinking Peoria's finest, but Mitenbuler doesn't. Just as he seems to delight in debunking the backstories of Johnny-come-lately whiskey makers, he happily celebrates the industrial spirits-makers who turn out consistently good products but get no credit because they aren’t considered "artisanal." Of Midwest Grain Products Ingredients (MGPI), a giant distillery in Indiana that makes whiskies for such brands as Bulleit, Templeton, High West, and Redemption, he says, "MGPI is often mocked, but it is actually one of the oldest distilleries in the country, giving it the kind of real heritage that many brands covet."
The ultimate message is one I'll take to heart if I ever do decide to try another bourbon on the rocks: drink what you want, no matter what the label looks like.