If I could sum up Bourbon Empire in one idea, it would be that myths are no less real for being myths—in fact, that might make them more real, as far as the experience is concerned.
In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of whiskey from its first distillation in the new republic to its present status in the global drink industry. Throughout his detailed, and often humorous, recounting of the key figures and periods of the drink's—and America's—history, Mitenbuler keeps an eye on the role that legend and myth play in the perception of taste, often returning back to the motifs of the big name brands and how they acquired (or maneuvered) their ethos and cache.
This is one of the most charming aspects of the book. While he does pull back the curtain on certain key aspects of the whiskey industry, then and now, Mitenbuler does not do so maliciously, as if trying to invalidate the drink's history. He recognizes, from the first chapter, that myths—even myths we know are not literally true—can still be an essential and enjoyable aspect of the experience. One can know that the image of the pioneer farmer distilling his corn into bourbon was, by the mid-1800s, a myth, and that most bourbon was being made in large distilleries, and yet still enjoy the link between the whiskey's taste (which tastes little now like it did then) and that first image of the pioneer. In this way, the book mixes romantic idealism with the realism of its subject, and the result is a charming read or listen.
Bourbon Empire is a fun and engaging overview of American history through the lens of our national drink. While I would not recommend the book as a replacement for a serious history (there are some discrepancies—and, of course, it's not trying to be that), in context, Bourbon Empire provides many excellent details of figures that history students may not have heard of. As a literature tutor, I found much to inform my unit on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Having previously enjoyed similar accounts, and generally appreciating the view that the economy is a prime mover of history, I would recommend this book, especially, of course, to those who enjoy or are curious about whiskey.
Hi! I am a writing professor, tutor, ESL instructor, regular columnist for a UK magazine, & soon-to-be novelist, and I specialize in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy. Between work, writing projects, and family, I try to maintain a regular reading & reviewing schedule. Open to requests!
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