Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit

  • Dane Huckelbridge
  • William Morrow
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Garrett Peck
  • June 12, 2014

The ups and downs of bourbon in the U.S., from its origins, through Prohibition, to today’s craft distillers.

Dane Huckelbridge’s debut book, Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit, shows a mastery of conversational history and humor. He has written an accessible, breezy, and above all fun and informative history of America’s national spirit. You didn’t know that America had a spirit? Yes indeed – Congress declared so in 1964. “Simply stated, bourbon is the American Spirit, both blessing and bane served neat or on the rocks,” the author writes. “To know its story is to know our own.”

Huckelbridge covers nearly 400 years of history as he traces the evolution of bourbon in America, from its invention to the recent revival of craft bourbon distilling. “Just like baseball, rock and roll, apple pie, the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, and the cinematic splendor of Caddyshack, whiskey has obtained a transcendental place in our national consciousness; its substance is as much myth as fact,” he observes.

Bourbon traces the origin of bourbon to the Scots-Irish who immigrated to Kentucky and found an abundance of Indian corn to replace the rye they had previously used in their stills. But he dates American whiskey distilling to an even earlier period:  Huckelbridge makes the case that Captain George Thorpe was the first to distill “corn juice” in 1620 at Jamestown. He explains how the country weaned itself off imported rum after the American Revolution and shifted to whiskey – and how George Washington was briefly the country’s leading distiller. (In 2007, Mount Vernon opened a reconstructed Washington’s Distillery. It’s a fun day trip.)

Huckelbridge’s research is sound and he writes in a flowing, relaxed style. This isn’t an academic treatise about the origins of whiskey, but rather an informal history. It’s engaging and a pleasure to read.

Bourbon is also full of entertaining factual nuggets. A lengthy chapter on the Civil War looks at how Kentucky remained in the Union, and thus Union soldiers had a much easier time acquiring a canteen of bourbon than their Confederate counterparts. The author uncovers the late 19th century Whiskey War between bourbon distillers and industrial distillers that made cheap imitation whiskey – and how bourbon eventually emerged triumphant. His chapter “How the West was Fun” is an insightful look into the myths that made Manifest Destiny, drawing the link between frontier settlements, saloons, whiskey, and frequent violence. I would love to learn more about the Whiskey Ring scandal of the 1870s, which the author glosses over.

No book about whiskey would be complete without a discussion about Prohibition. Can you imagine an era when patients lined up to get a prescription for “medicinal whiskey” (a legal loophole – one of many – to the Noble Experiment)? Huckelbridge explains how Cincinnati lawyer and bootlegger George Remus served as the inspiration for The Great Gatsby.

The United States and bourbon emerged triumphant from World War II, as the country took to drinking mass-produced whiskey. But trouble was in the air amid shifting consumer preferences and markets. The bourbon industry nearly collapsed in the 1970s as the baby boom generation came of age and collectively rejected anything “old”; they shunned the great old bourbon brands like Old Crow, Old Forester, Old Grand-Dad, Old Rip Van Winkle – you get the picture. Bourbon sales plummeted. Dozens of distilleries closed, littering the Kentucky countryside with huge plants that are sad monuments from another era.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. You’ll see a great number of footnotes in the text, which can be distracting. I enjoyed Huckelbridge’s conversational style, but at times he gets too cute; for example: “And for the first time since the days of old George Thorpe, an American couldn’t get a dang ol’ drop of foreign liquor if he tried, because those jolly chaps in the Royal Navy were blockading every major port in the land.” Many paragraphs end not just with a transition, but with a punch line, such as: “Evidently, you can take the boy out of Scotland, but you can’t take the scotch out of the boy.” He sometimes resorts to clichés and generalizations, as in: “The soon-to-be General Washington shipped in Madeira by the literal boatload, drinking a bottle or five whenever he had the chance. Sam Adams was a brewer, pounding back tankards of ale as if they were teacups.”

The book also overlooks a broader truth about American drinking: While bourbon has long been a popular beverage, beer overtook it around the time of the Civil War and ever since has been Americans’ preferred alcoholic beverage. Nor does the book cover the conflicts between brewers and distillers in the run-up to Prohibition, when the two sides failed to unite to oppose the existential threat to their business: the temperance movement that demanded a nationwide ban on alcohol.

Fortunately for Americans and bourbon, the story ends happily with the revival of craft distilling through brands such as Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve. Bourbon making has even expanded beyond Kentucky. “As a people, we’ve gained enough cultural distance from our folkloric ancestors to make that world seem cool again,” Huckelbridge concludes. Bourbon is back.

Garrett Peck is the author of five books, including The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet, Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t, and, most recently, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. He also leads tours, including the Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites in the nation’s capital. 

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