Monday, August 3, 2015

Reid Mitenbuler's "Bourbon Empire"

Reid Mitenbuler’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Saveur, Whisky Advocate, and other publications. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.

Mitenbuler applied the “Page 99 Test” to Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey, his first book, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“Many and many a putrid heap have I had dug out of trenches where they had been buried in the supposition of an everlasting rest, and ghoul-like work have I done, amid surrounding gatherings of wondering surgeons.”
This first sentence from page 99 of my book is a quote from Major John Brinton, a Union Army surgeon during the Civil War. Brinton was tasked with collecting body parts from dead soldiers for medical research, often digging them out of pits full of amputated limbs and preserving them using whiskey.

Brinton’s tale of one unconventional use of whiskey gave me a compelling narrative I could use to explore more pertinent issues related to how America’s whiskey industry tells the story of American capitalism in miniature: the quality of whiskey during the war (bad), peoples’ access to it (sporadic), the drinking habits of soldiers (you can probably imagine), other alternative uses of whiskey (medicine, currency), and how the economic and political impacts of the war influenced the spirits industry (drastically). Used as a lens, whiskey offers a unique takes on American politics, economics, and culture, and Brinton’s tale gave me a springboard for the next part of the book: how taxes on alcoholic spirits were used to pay the war’s staggering debts and were responsible for between a third and half of government revenue for many decades. Unfortunately, since America’s Gilded Age government—a collection of men made numb by the war they had just endured—was highly corrupt, this all-important whiskey industry regularly found itself mired in the era’s biggest political and business scandals (Ulysses S. Grant’s Whiskey Ring and, later, the Whiskey Trust, a cartelization effort that often led to physical warfare between competing distilleries).

So, page 99 is representative of Bourbon Empire in that it uses a narrative one might not readily associate with the history of booze or the quintessentially American business behind it. Nevertheless, Brinton’s story helped create a pastiche demonstrating how this one product, treated as a commodity, has influenced our nation’s history and, likewise, how that history has guided the evolution of the spirit itself.
Visit Reid Mitenbuler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue