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

Bourbon labels may reference legendary Kentucky pioneers and cherished secret recipes, but, as Reid Mitenbuler points out in Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, these stories are often little more than marketing ploys designed to establish an aura of authenticity. Focusing on a decidedly unromantic chapter in Bourbon’s history, Mitenbuler argues that Bourbon’s story is not so grandiose or singular; in fact, he suggests that the most important figure in shaping Bourbon was Lewis Rosentiel, the former head of Schenley Distillers Corporation (now part of Diageo). Rosentiel had been ramping up production in hopes that a long Korean War would result in a whiskey shortage similar to that of World War II. The shortage didn’t materialize, leaving Rosentiel with millions of barrels of whiskey, his wares evaporating at a rate between 3 and 7 percent a year. To cut his losses, he launched a marketing campaign to help sell Bourbon abroad and spearheaded the lobbying effort for the 1964 Congressional Resolution that made Bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States.” The resolution gave Bourbon label protection akin to Cognac and Scotch in markets abroad, while making it illegal to import anything called Bourbon whiskey. He also spent millions creating the image of Bourbon as a luxury product that improved with age. Rosentiel is just one of the idiosyncratic characters Mitenbuler covers, as he exposes a story as vibrant and scandalous as that of the nation that created this brown spirit.

by Reid Mitenbuler (Penguin Group, $28)

Reviewed in W&S February 2016.