The Points Interview: Reid Mitenbuler

9780670016839_custom-f6af410e5df314f2680d56a86ecceeb5e41e0155-s400-c85Editor’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.

What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part II: Isaac Campos

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. Our second installment is brought to you by Isaac Campos, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. Also be sure to check out last week’s series premier by Miriam Kingsberg Kadia and part III by William Rorabaugh.

I’d just like to make five quick points with respect to what I wish all people knew about drug history.

First, humans have been taking psychoactive drugs since humans discovered psychoactive drugs. There seems to be a fundamental human attraction to altered states of consciousness if not a fundamental human need for it. This is old news to drug historians, but it is likely a novel idea to the average person. Thus it’s worth mentioning because it means that we are never going to live in a “drug-free world,” so we need to learn to deal intelligently with people take psychoactive drugs.Read More »

Interpreting Donald Trump’s “Oxy Electorate”: On the Interaction of Pain and Politics

On January 20 – inauguration day – the HBO news talk show Real Time with Bill Maher aired its fifteenth season premier. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump was the topic of the hour. After Maher and his panel of pundits concluded their discussion, the host delivered an editorial monologue analyzing Trump’s electoral victory and offered a provocative comparison:

“Here on inauguration day, in the spirit of new beginnings, liberals have to stop calling Trump voters rubes and simpletons and instead reach out and feel their pain, the pain they insist we didn’t see. And there is ample evidence for that pain. Did you know that of the fourteen states with the highest painkiller prescriptions per person, they all went for Trump? Trump won eighty percent of the states that have the biggest heroin problem… So let’s stop calling Trump voters idiots and fools and call them what they are: fucking drug addicts!”Read More »

What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part I: Miriam Kingsberg Kadia

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. First up is Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (2014). Her piece critiques the sloppy and often simply false way “knowledge” about drugs is presented from “authoritative” sources, particularly the D.E.A. museum in Washington, D.C. Contact the author at

What Historians Wish the DEA Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Museum in Pentagon City, Washington, D.C. depicts the history of the narcotics market and U.S. government efforts to counteract it. The exhibition currently on display was created under the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) yet reflects the view of the new Trump administration: that mind-altering substances are (and have always been) a “foreign” problem and threat to an imagined ideal of “Americanness.”

The opening placard reads:

During the 18th century, the Chinese began smoking first a mixture of tobacco and opium, and then pure opium. The British, who had a huge trade imbalance with China, were delighted to finally find a highly popular commodity. But when the Chinese emperor realized that opium was incapacitating the upper sectors of society, he outlawed further trade. This sparked the Opium Wars of 1840 and 1860. Britain won both and forced China to make opium legal. Addiction became widespread in the Celestial Kingdom and sparked resentment among the Chinese. This began the modern pleasure drug culture.Read More »

The Points Interview: Tom Shroder

Editor’s Note: The latest installment of our interview series features Tom Shroder, author of Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal, published by Blue Rider Press in 2014.


1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The hysteria surrounding recreational use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s caused the government to overreact and criminalize a drug that had been used successfully for 15 years to treat some of the most difficult problems in psychiatry with astounding success. The new laws failed to stop recreational use, but they shut down legitimate research into medical use totally. Most doctors and researchers gave up due to the outsize stigma of even admitting an interest in psychedelic research, but a small group of believers refused to abandon such promising therapy. Acid Test is the story how this small group overcame almost impossible obstacles to finally bring psychedelic therapy to the brink of FDA approval.Read More »

Personalities of Prohibition: A Review of the Museum of the American Gangster

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is provided by Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There, she teaches and writes on Japanese history. Her latest book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History, was published by University of California Press in 2013. 

The Museum of the American Gangster, which opened in 2010 in trendy St. Marks Place in Lower Manhattan, celebrates the so-called heroes of Prohibition who kept the nation awash in alcohol against the bumbling efforts of moralizing temperance reformers and corrupt law enforcement during the years of national temperance (1919-1933).

Photo by Manhattan Sideways

Open from 1-6 p.m. daily excluding Mondays, the museum offers tours of approximately 75 minutes at 1, 2:30, and 4 p.m. It would be possible to walk around the main rooms on one’s own, but most guests would probably find the exhibition much less lively that way; moreover, the basement and underground tunnels of the speakeasy next door cannot be entered without a guide. On weekends the museum is a popular attraction despite the rather steep cost of admission ($20 for adults, $12 for students). The 4 p.m. Sunday tour that I joined had at least a dozen people, about the maximum that could comfortably move through the small space.

The tour begins in the main building, which dates back to the early nineteenth century and is believed to have been constructed on the site of a Dutch farmhouse of the New Amsterdam era. An enthusiastic guide described its early history as a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves. A century later, it fell into the hands of Frank Hoffman, a German immigrant with a penchant for South American beauties who made his fortune importing and selling alcohol during Prohibition (1919-1933). His speakeasy, which once welcomed Al Capone and other notorious gangsters, today draws mostly a student clientele from nearby NYU as well as museum-goers with a post-tour thirst.Read More »

Dissertation Roundup: Interpreting Drug Use and Smuggling in History

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you another selection of drug-related dissertations, dutifully compiled as part of an ongoing bibliography by University of Pittsburgh History of Medicine Librarian Jonathon Erlen. Contact him at 

Narcomundo: How Narcotraficantes Gained Control of Northern Mexico and Beyond, 1945-1985

Author: Hernandez, Carlos Armando

Abstract: Mexico’s official history does not properly address the Drug Wars and its effect on the nation as well as the U.S. – Mexico border region, including criminal spillover between the two countries especially since 1911. Drawing from evidence gathered at Mexico’s National Archives – specifically declassified documents from Mexico’s secret police files – contemporary news accounts from Tijuana, Mexico City, and California, as well as court cases and long ignored political biographies, I trace the historical origins of the Drug Wars in Northern Mexico extending into Mexico City; a history of drugs, dissidence, and violence. The First Phase goes back to the year 1911 when General and later Governor Esteban Cantú arrived to defend the Northern Territory of Baja California against incursions from Southern California by the Flores Magón brothers during the start of the Mexican Revolution. This was also a period where the role of vice tourism in Tijuana and Mexicali profited from the Prohibition Era in the United States (1920-1933) set the foundations for a drug trafficking model– developed for Baja Norte by Governor Cantú. This cross-border smuggling model was later refined in Baja under General and then Governor Abelardo L. Rodríguez (1921-1930), who then took the model to Mexico when he joined President Ortiz as a Secretary of Defense (1932) and Economy (1932) before he became Interim President of Mexico (1932-1934). The model has held to this day. The Second Phase encompasses Mexico’s official start on the War on Drugs from 1945 to 1985 and coincides not surprisingly with the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s. In this Second Phase I analyze the consolidation and metamorphoses of Drug Trafficking Organizations in Mexico’s War on Drugs up to 1960. Thus, I explore the connection between East-Coast based Mafia and its incursion and eventual control of the drug trade and organized crime in the West Coast as well as eventually the transborder region. I also analyze the early eradication campaigns carried out by Mexican authorities first on their Baja regional level and subsequently at the national level. I also examine links between “Bugsy” Siegel and his alleged control of the drug trade in Southern California, which stretched easily to Tijuana. This volume also investigates the War on Drugs and a “hidden dirty-war” against dissidence and peasants in rural Mexico, a span that ranged from 1965 to 1985. Under the pretext of eradicating drug production by narcocultivadores or narcogrowers, Mexican authorities also launched an offensive against dissident groups interested in readdressing the land issue in rural Mexico, effectively eradicating dissidence, but not drugs. The search for the source of drugs soon involved the CIA-Contra-Drug Trafficking connection from the Mexican perspective. By the early 1980s, The Mexican journalist Manuel Buendía had begun to explore the link between the CIA-Contra-Drug Trafficking Conenction from the Mexican perspective, and he hypothesized that it needed the complicity of corrupt Mexican and law enforcement officials.Read More »

ADHS at AHA 2017

Splash Screen Logo

Earlier this month, thousands of historians descended – or perhaps ascended – upon snowy Denver for the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. (Some attendees took to Twitter to make light of the inclement weather.)

The Alcohol and Drugs History Society was represented in the Mile-High City by three panels: “A Question of Intent: Alcoholic Insanity, Violence, and the Law in 19th-Century America”; “A Vicious Turn in Global History: Fighting Drinks, Drugs, and ‘Immorality,’ c. 1850–1950”; and a roundtable discussion, “Approaching Prohibition’s Centennial: Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.”

Read More »

Fish Stories: The Drug Wars’ Unreliable Narrator

Given the Saturday Evening Post’s homogenous readership in 1926, we can forgive novice journalist Harry J. Anslinger for embroidering this lead into his article, “Tiger of the Sea”: “A moving picture with a South Sea scene is hardly complete unless the native hero, with a long dagger held between his teeth, balances his weight on the edge of a canoe to prepare for a dive to kill the shark that is between him and the precious pearl which he risks his life for to offer to the daughter of the white missionary whose beauty has captivated him.”

The reference to film is unsurprising, given Anslinger’s later fascination with Hollywood and his obsession with celebrity drug use. Students of American drug prohibition might also recognize this sort of dangerous interracial romance as an ever-present theme in Anslinger’s writing. But I want to discuss something more basic about Anslinger and his work: truthfulness.

The cover of the issue in which “Tiger of the Sea” appeared

The article goes on to describe how sharks have gained a mistaken reputation as killers of humans while actually, the vicious barracuda – a quick-moving fish with razors for teeth – is the real “tiger of the sea.” The shark, writes Anslinger, is actually “the scavenger of the sea … usually found hovering near slaughter-house drains. He invariably follows fishing craft homeward bound to gather the fish refuse cast overboard. … He is wary of live bait.” Barracudas are the real perpetrators, he writes, of many supposed attacks by “the innocent shark.”

Read More »

Recent Dissertation Abstracts: Substance Use Around the World

Editor’s Note: Periodically the Points blog posts selections from University of Pittsburgh History of Medicine Librarian Jonathon Erlen‘s running bibliography of dissertation titles relevant to our interests. Today’s post surveys some recent work in the varieties of drug experiences and their management in different cultural contexts. Contact Erlen at 

Fathering and Substance Use in Northern Uganda: An Ethnographic Study

Author: Mehus, Christopher J.

Abstract: Parents are the most proximal influence in children’s lives and parenting practices can moderate the relationship between risk-laden contexts and child outcomes. The present study is part of a broader project supporting parents in Northern Uganda and adds to the small but growing literature focused on the impact of fathers in children’s lives. In this study, I utilized ethnographic in-depth interviews with 19 fathers, focus groups, informal conversations with community members, and field observations to learnRead More »