Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Bourbon history untangled in new book

As Bourbon is hot, Fred Minnick is writing books about it with military precision. His latest, "Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey" is his third in the last three years. It's his most ambitious and authoritative yet, and it leads me to wonder what he's going to do for an encore.

With this book, Minnick has tried to write the definitive history of America's domestic spirit. That approach bogs it down in the beginning, as he spends the opening chapter of the book trying to answer an unanswerable question, namely who is the father of bourbon (spoiler: nobody). I had the book sitting around for a few weeks and it took me several false starts to get past that part.

Fortunately, what begins as a fairly academic history takes off at the coming of Prohibition, at which point it becomes a page-turner.

The politics of distillation immediately before and during Prohibition are fascinating.

Big distillers tried to ship as many barrels of their product as they could overseas before Prohibition took effect. One company sold 25,000 barrels of Kentucky whiskey to the British government in February, 1918, as a tonic for troops still engaged in trench warfare. Others sold shipments to France, Germany and Cuba, and one company moved its operations to Juarez, Mexico, where it made "bourbon" until the 1960s. Minnick writes, "This author has tasted the so-called Mexican bourbon, and it's the worst bourbon that's ever touched his lips."

But time ran out for most distillers and in late 1919, they were stuck with 35 million gallons of Kentucky bourbon in warehouses. Because it was now illegal, it could not be insured. Bootleggers broke into warehouses and stole it, and Kentucky bourbon -- real and fake -- became a popular speakeasy drink.

As soon as Prohibition hit, doctors and pharmacists clamored for whiskey for medicinal use. It wasn't a lie, either. This was the 1920s: the term "antibiotic" wasn't even invented until 1942, much less most of the drugs we use today. Whiskey was prescribed for coughs, pain, influenza: you name it. Today we look back on the prescriptions for whiskey as a big cheat during Prohibition, but as with medical marijuana, there was some legitimate need and genuine use.

But the U.S. government was still controlled by politicians who had taken a "dry" pledge, and setting up a system to allow medical whiskey sales was difficult. Some states refused to allow it at all; others imposed rules like South Dakota, which limited physicians to one whiskey prescription per day. (Imagine the patients fighting for that scrip.) Yet by 1922 the number of patients requiring whiskey had grown so large that the American Medical Association claimed it couldn't get enough from legitimate channels and was forced to purchase from bootleggers.

By 1927, no whiskey had been legally produced in the U.S. in five years. The government tried to get production restarted, but with no promises that there would be a legal market, no distillers signed on. Not until 1929 did distillation resume, and by then, the political climate had changed. Repeal of Prohibition had become a popular cause and Franklin D. Roosevelt championed it during his Presidential campaign in 1932. Within two months of Roosevelt taking office, Prohibition was over.

Bourbon's next major challenge was World War II, when the War Production Board ordered producers to convert their stills to industrial alcohol. All whiskey production ceased in October 1942 and did not resume until 1945.

After the war, bourbon producers went on a multi-decade run of lousy marketing decisions that ended only recently. They ignored women as potential customers. When vodka took off, only Jim Beam among major brands responded by doubling down on bourbon's strengths. The rest offered "light whiskey" in an attempt to get into the market of young Baby Boomers drinking fruity cocktails. It was a disaster. Bourbon sales dropped in half between 1970 and 1985, as, in the U.S., only older men stayed with it. In the 1980s, bourbon sales took off in Japan and Europe, but as Minnick writes, "nobody really believed domestic bourbon sales would come back."

The resurgence, you know about. Minnick says the groundwork was laid by media-friendly master distillers like Booker Noe who traveled the country, telling bourbon's story. Maker's Mark was the original cult bourbon, its popularity boosted by a 1980 Wall Street Journal article that may have helped save the whole category. Now it has been surpassed by Pappy van Winkle, which sells for more than $2000 per bottle on Wine Searcher. It's too early to tell if the current mixologist-driven craft cocktail craze has staying power (I certainly hope so), but bourbon producers have profited immensely from it, though Minnick sees echoes of the "light whiskey" mistake in the ongoing introduction of flavored bourbons.

"Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey" is a hybrid of a book: almost a serious academic history, yet with an eye toward the mass audience. It's the best reference book for bourbon that I've seen, and if you are a fan of the spirit, it deserves a place on your bookshelf. And -- sign of the times -- it's cheaper than a 1-ounce pour of good bourbon in my neighborhood.

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