BOURBON: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey

Book Review

You can tell author Fred Minnick had fun with this one. His third whiskey book takes readers from Baptist minister Elijah Craig’s 18th-century claim to have invented bourbon (he didn’t), through Thomas Jefferson’s repeal of the whiskey tax, the eras of snake oil salesmen and temperance movements, and modern-day advertising genius that enabled Maker’s Mark to thrive in spite of costing three times as much as its competitors.


The book is a visual delight, sprinkled with hundreds of photos, side stories and Fast Facts (“In a 1921 American Medical Association survey, 51 percent of US physicians were in favor of prescribing whiskey.”). You can ingest the book cover-to-cover or skip around, reading one day about the World War II “War on Slop” – distiller slang for grains left over from distillation – and the next day learning how terms like “bourbon” and “distiller” evolved.


Some of the historical references will leave readers shaking their heads, such as President William Taft’s seven-month study of, “what is whiskey?” The outcome of his research was the Taft Decision, establishing legal definitions of whiskey for distillers and consumers alike and eliminating “false labels” that deceived the public. Those standards got Taft into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, but also prompted temperance advocacy such as this editorial in the Wyoming Daily Tribune:


“Whiskey is the greatest enemy of civilized nations…Whiskey is the poison that kills intellect and morality and makes of man a brute. Whiskey is the handmaiden of the penitentiary, the insane asylum and the poorhouse.”


Minnick, the official bourbon ambassador for the Kentucky Derby Museum, knows more than most about whiskey. In Bourbon he shares not only his expertise, but also his ironic and lively take on the material. It’s an entertaining and informative book.


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