Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit

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WAYNE CURTIS in the WSJ.

(An aside: In a recent home blind taste test the cheapest tied for first place. Here are the results: 1. Bulleit ($34.95)/Colonel E. H. Taylor Single Barrel ($67.99) 2. Rock Hill Farms ($52.99) 3. Angel’s Envy Barrel Selection ($46.99) 4. Parker’s Heritage Collection ($109.99)).

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Bourbon whiskey has long been linked to a don’t-tread-on-me, do-it-yourself lifestyle. “Give ’em the bird,” advises a recent ad for Wild Turkey. So it’s a little disconcerting to learn that bourbon, which had $8 billion in global sales last year, is arguably one of the most nanny-stated products in America. There’s little independent about it. Clipboard-toting agents of the federal bureaucracy drive their gray mid-sized cars to distilleries and tell bourbon makers what they should use to make their liquor (mostly corn), how to distill it (at a relatively low proof), how to age it (in new, charred oak barrels) and what they can put on the label.

That chasm between the marketing-driven perception and the reality of bourbon is, in part, what Dane Huckelbridge explores in his entertaining “Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit.”

There’s a long-running debate about where bourbon originated. Did it start in Bourbon County, Ky., as lore insists? Or maybe, as Michael Veach suggested in his 2013 “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage,” it earned its name from the appreciation of good whiskey on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, to which barrel-laden barges ceaselessly flowed from Louisville and other whiskey ports.

Mr. Huckelbridge, a fiction writer and essayist, is less interested in settling this debate than in painting a colorful context for bourbon’s evolution. And so he starts off in Europe with the rise of distillation in 13th-century Catalonia before crossing the Atlantic and putting forth the slightly heretical notion that bourbon actually was first made in coastal Virginia. He even pegs a date: Dec. 19, 1620. In support of this, he lays out the evidence that one George Thorpe, deputy governor at Jamestown, was known to make an “Indian corn” whiskey on the side. Barrels were present. He cites reports of considerable drinking among colonists. The phrase “it’s only logical” makes a cameo. There is not enough evidence to convict, but it’s fairly persuasive. (And not all that heretical: Thorpe was earlier credited for his pioneering efforts by Gerald Carson in “The Social History of Bourbon,” published more than 50 years ago.)

After sojourning in Jamestown, Mr. Huckelbridge resumes his high-speed, high-elevation survey, tracking the doughty Scotch-Irish settlers into the Appalachians and onward, and the rampant black markets for whiskey and fervent commitment to same on the part of a famed Louisiana brigade during the Civil War. Then, it’s the saloons of the Wild West, the speakeasies of Prohibition and back to Europe for World War II. He dwells not so much on the evolution of bourbon’s production (if you’re looking for that, track down the Veach book), but rather the history of bourbon’s consumption, its social iconography and uneasy relation with the law. Surprisingly little of the book is actually set in bourbon’s spiritual home of Kentucky.

Mr. Huckelbridge does focus on the amber gold itself when he delves into the Gilded Age in the most intriguing part of his book. The era of Vanderbilts and Newport “cottages” corresponded with one of the sorriest times for bourbon, plagued by what Mr. Huckelbridge calls the “shameful practices of compounding and adulterating.” To meet the demand for aged bourbon, “rectifiers” bought new whiskey (“white dog”) by the tanker, then made it taste old—or at least less raw—by mixing in ingredients like “sweet oil and sulphuric acid,” “a few drops of strong ammonia” or “black tea boiled thirty minutes.”

Legitimate whiskey producers were irked by the shortcut-taking and pleaded with the federal government to step in. Thus came the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, followed by the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, both of which helped delineate new categories for whiskey, separating blended and rectified whiskey from more pure variations. In essence, the revenuers rode in to save a product besieged by charlatans.

Mr. Huckelbridge is adept at conveying a lot in a little, and knows when to zoom in and when to zoom out. Still, he sometimes wanders a bit far astray from his subject, venturing into thickets from which he has trouble emerging. (The Civil War has rarely seemed so long.) His style is also plagued by a peppiness that can grate, especially when larded with gratuitous references to pop culture—he writes that Jamestown in 1620 “didn’t bear much resemblance to a contemporary spring break at Virginia Beach.” Of whiskey’s migration over the mountains, he writes of the need for “hog wild, weapon-slingin’, whiskey-lovin’, Anglo-Celtic cusses to come a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ all doon’ the hill.”

Yet where Mr. Huckelbridge is strong, he’s very strong. His account of the “delicate compromise between modernization and legacy” that the spirit faced in the late 19th century nicely sets the stage for the present-day debates over American whiskey’s future. Demand for good bourbon is soaring; after decades of decline, sales have increased some 40% over the past five years and much of that demand has been in the super-premium category. With rising demand triggering shortages and delays—in aged whiskey, in barrels for aging, in getting new stills made to produce more to age—the new wave of craft distillers are once again undertaking a search for shortcuts. They’re using smaller barrels and barrels modified with shallow perforations to increase the wood-to-liquor ratio. They’re vibrating barrels to accelerate aging. And—if rumors are to be believed—some are even employing centrifuges to sort out the pleasing elements in bourbon from the unpleasing.

Bourbon’s tale is a complex and entertaining one, with surprising twists here and there. Mr. Huckelbridge doesn’t shrink from wandering down a dark alley or two, and leading us to some surprising conclusions. We may not know who made the first barrel of bourbon, but we know who made the bourbon industry: It was a lanky, churlish, bearded, hawk-faced dude. His name was Uncle Sam.

Mr. Curtis is the author of “And
a Bottle of Rum: A History of the
New World in Ten Cocktails.

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