Editor’s Note: The latest installment in our author interview series features journalist Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire (Viking, 2015).
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
My book uses whiskey as a lens for exploring American history–politics, economics, culture. The product influenced America to a surprising extent. Tax policies surrounding the industry sparked open insurrection (The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794), political corruption (The Whiskey Ring Scandal of Grant’s administration), and economic malfeasance (The Whiskey Trust, otherwise known as “The Octopus,” which copied its charter from Standard Oil). Culturally, the way people drank it (recklessly) helped spur major reform movements–with Prohibition, the template for modern single-issue lobbying was born. With whiskey advertising, you also see how cultural attitudes about race and gender evolved over the years.
But the influence worked both ways. as the nation evolved, from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the production of whiskey itself changed, so I dig into a lot of culinary elements as well, which help modern consumers understand the product.
I build the book around several narratives, and the characters involved are all very colorful. With the Whiskey Rebellion, you have Hamilton vs. Jefferson and a kind of “big vs. small” debate which still surfaces in modern foodie politics. With Prohibition you have a bunch of gangsters. With Repeal, you have a bunch of former gangsters who are now respected businessmen hiring Madison Avenue to clean up their image. It’s the Great American Story.
What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
I really wanted to avoid writing a piece of “foodie lit” that regurgitated the kind of tired themes you might find in a lot of popular food magazines. Of course, I also wanted the book to be fun with broad appeal. I hope that alcohol and drug historians will appreciate my looking at food politics and economics with the kind of nuance those subjects deserve. Whiskey, a product that is both agricultural and industrial, offers a great way to explore those kinds of complicated themes.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
I love the business/marketing stories from my book. When people think about bourbon, the images that come to mind are of log cabins, Appalachia, old men that look like Civil War generals, etc. Those images help sell the product because they’re rooted in nostalgia. They’re like the myths we create about our national identity, drawing on lots of frontier iconography. The real stories, however, are so much more interesting.
For instance I love telling the story of Lewis Rosenstiel, who at one point in the 1950s owned nearly half the whiskey in the U.S. He had gotten his start during the lawless years of Prohibition (with connections to people like Meyer Lansky), then ended up ruling a liquor empire from a floor of the Empire State Building. He was bisexual but kind of owned it, which was controversial for his time, and people whispered about how the blackmail material he held on J. Edgar Hoover was the reason why the FBI didn’t pursue the liquor industry more aggressively. Basically, he was the opposite of what the advertising/marketing would have us believe about this industry. And yet, in his own way he still represented a kind of frontier attitude and dominated the industry. I love that kind of American story.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
More information about how people in the early 1800s started using the term “bourbon” to describe the unique style of whiskey flowing out of the Ohio River Valley. We know some, and there are lots of good theories, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
Well, there is an audio version of my book and a gentleman named Brian O’Neill does it. He has exactly the kind of honey-dipped, smoke-cured voice you’d want to hear narrate a book about bourbon.