“America was astonishingly drunk.” So concluded just about every visitor to these shores in the early days of the republic.
Who would have thought that taking a plug from the jug could be a resonant political act? Mitenbuler, a journalist who specializes in “drinking culture,” combs the archives to turn up stories both entertaining and revealing about how bourbon came to be identified as a national drink—a process as artificial and as eagerly swallowed up as the invention of Paul Bunyan. And not just national: by Mitenbuler’s reckoning, Rebel Yell, later beloved of Keith Richard and other rockers, was a coded rejection of the nascent civil rights movement in the South. Meanwhile, other brands became popular in part thanks to deals cut with the military to place it in commissaries around the world—deals in keeping, it seems, with some of the charges of wartime profiteering that industry executives faced in the 1940s. The author can occasionally be smart-alecky (“Jack Daniel’s today is often seen as a bit downmarket, the quaff of biker bars and a prop of Guns N’ Roses band photos”), but mostly he takes his work seriously, offering up intriguing tidbits—on, for example, the makeup of George Washington’s own blend, revolutionary inasmuch as it drew on homegrown rather than imported ingredients, part of a process that “increasingly turned into a popular symbol of national unity and self-sufficiency that helped clear away rum’s whiff of colonial rule.” Mitenbuler closes with a brief account of the hipster-fueled revival of bourbon by means of Maker’s Mark, “a celebrity alongside a few other star brands,” and the rise of bespoke microdistilleries that traded in millennial notions of authenticity and locality over the values favored by boomers, “who held the quaint notion that ‘taste’ was most important.”
An illuminating, well-paced narrative that will interest students and imbibers of the wee drap, American-style.