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Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  745 ratings  ·  107 reviews
How bourbon came to be, and why it’s experiencing such a revival today

Unraveling the many myths and misconceptions surrounding America’s most iconic spirit, Bourbon Empire traces a history that spans frontier rebellion, Gilded Age corruption, and the magic of Madison Avenue. Whiskey has profoundly influenced America’s political, economic, and cultural destiny, just as
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Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 12th 2015 by Viking
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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 ·  745 ratings  ·  107 reviews


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Cathie
Mar 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Entertaining historical account on the spirit of bourbon that spans from Washington & the Revolutionary War, to Repeal of Prohibition & the Twenty-First Amendment, to Bourbon branding and resurgence today.

Each chapter has an interesting historical trait of the bourbon industry. The author discusses key family-owned and operated distilleries across the U.S., and those who supported and promoted the bourbon brand. He also shares such
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Phil
Apr 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-nonfiction
I had a hard time choosing between 3 and 4 stars for this book. The author has a wealth of interesting information to share, but most importantly he is a good storyteller and his love of the topic is infectious. Parts of the book are fascinating. I especially liked seeing how the opinions on bourbon changed throughout American history spanning the civil war, the western frontier, prohibition (of course), the industrial "captains of industry" age, and the modern craft food/drink movement. The ...more
Timmy
Dec 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great historical dive on the American spirit, bourbon. Full disclosure, I’m from Kentucky and live near the Bourbon Trail so I’m a little biased.
Grumpus
Jun 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, audiobook
I don’t know why I am fascinated with these biography-of-things books. I suppose if you are a history lover such as me, a biography is a biography no matter the topic. Still, who would have thought to write a history of bourbon? Who knew there would be enough compelling information to hold a reader’s interest for 320 pages? I don’t drink the stuff nor know anybody who does. Yet, this was compelling because ALL of the information was new.

Even though the content was previously unknown to me, it
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David Yoon
Dec 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
It’s America’s whisky and Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of bourbon back to the first president. Turns out the spirit is closely tied to the country that gave birth to it. Backwoods individualism to corporate shenanigans, outright criminal activities to being an essential staple of war. For a spirit that cultivates it’s craft heritage it’s become a mass produced product created by only a handful of distillers. It enjoys a rip-roaring, mythic history that makes for an entertaining read.
Gail Strickland
Apr 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
I'm not a fan of bourbon, but my last husband surely enjoyed Evan Williams and I wish he were still here so he could read this informative, entertaining book on the history of his favorite drink. You may think you know this history of that bourbon in your hand, but you'll be surprised how many backstories are a product of pure marketing. Whatever the story is/was/or will be, I still think your taste buds will lead you to the perfect brand for you.
patrick
May 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
The author takes you on a journey just like our country has been forged through the history of immigrants and does the same with bourbon, whiskey, rye, and the differences. How they are produced still in certain regions because that is where their ancestors emigrated to from Scotland, Germany, Ireland. How that before that revolution most people were drinking rum, and then like most things the British started taxing the rum at a higher rate so the whiskey or bourdon being produced in Tennessee, ...more
B.
Aug 06, 2019 rated it did not like it
The book is both repetitive and unfocused. Sentences are repeated, almost verbatim, from one page to the next. This book reads like a rough draft, or notes, not an actual history of American whiskey. I'm pretty sure the editor gave up around page 10. Unlike the editor, I kept going, and felt the lack. I would love my time back. You'll get a better history of whiskey touring the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam distilleries than you will from this book.
Evan Hollander
Jan 23, 2020 rated it liked it
While I enjoyed the subject matter, I found this book to be very uneven. Mitenbuler is strong at the beginning, but sags as he diverges into tangents that seem to be an attempt to force more material into the text. For a book that is not a scholarly survey, the footnotes were distracting. Overall, this is an interesting read but would have benefited from a more discerning editor.
Angel
Quick impression: This is a very interesting book that looks at the history of bourbon, its influence on US history and culture as well as a good look at the business and industry. It also debunks a good amount of myths around bourbon. For the audio version, good narrator. However, the book does skip around a bit, and in audio, means you may feel you missed something; transitions not that great. Still, worth a read.

(Full review on my blog later).
Tomasz Stachewicz
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Loads of good, thorough research (the bibliography section is as big as I'd expect from such a book) combined with good writing, making the book a smooth read. I loved it!
Mark
Apr 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great narrative of how the evolution of whiskey spirits parallels our own national history. And, I particularly enjoyed learning about the economics of the distilling business.
Jesse Lansner
Jun 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
If I think a book is worth lower than three stars I won't finish it. This gets three stars because I did finish it -- something I'm not sure the editor can say, as the last third of the book is repetitive, unfocused and riddled with cliches. (Can you compare the history of the bourbon industry to a battle between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideals? Sure, but you don't need to do it over a dozen times.) The last chapters seem to exist just so Mitenbuler can bash new distillers (and new bourbon ...more
Stayton
May 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Mitenbuler's written a hell of a fun biography of that brown stuff your grandpa and no one else drank when you were little. He pulls off the tall task of being comprehensive covering bourbon's long, rich history while keeping things interesting and engaging. The writing's not dry (whiskey pun!) and is filled with Gladwellian nuggets ready to wow dinner parties (e.g. a "shot" is thought to be the amount of booze an old timey soldier could get in exchange for one bullet). There's plenty here to ...more
Patrick
Jul 03, 2015 rated it liked it
The history of bourbon as told through the lens of U.S history. That's about the first 2/3 of the book. The last 1/3 covers contemporary whiskey and bourbon industry.

There are good stories and plenty of trivia. All the company name changes can get confusing.
Erik
May 08, 2015 rated it liked it
Fascinating. I am a bourbon fan, and really liked the portion of this book that dealt with the historical origins of the liquor and it's original distilleries. Unfortunately, I found myself less and less interested in the telling as the story line progressed toward the present day.
Steve
Oct 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
I'll be honest, I only read a third of it. I enjoyed the history in the beginning but then it got kind of repetitive and dry. I love bourbon but, unlike a glass of bourbon, I could not finish this.
Amory Ross
May 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was excited to have finally gotten around to read Bourbon Empire. Though I tend to lean toward craft brews, I will stray specifically into bourbon territory to change things up. I knew enough that my sliver of Pennsylvania was a rye powerhouse prior to Prohibition. I knew enough that Pappy Van Winkle was a bottle to grab at any price. I knew this was the liquid of a country. Or did I?

Never has an author so convincingly put forth a thesis that whiskey was at the root of all things America. It
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Amir
Sep 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For an author with a passion for a topic to write a book on that topic addressed to a general audience is no small undertaking. The audience may share the author's interest in the topic, but that interest won't necessarily rise to the level of a passion. Consequently, the author needs to take a step back from the topic rather than dive into it, to keep his enthusiasm in balance with his other goals as a writer rather than allow his writing to be consumed by his enthusiasm.

All these things Reid
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John Radko
May 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book, though it is difficult to classify (which may be part of the reason I enjoyed it). It is part history, part business, part story-telling, and all about bourbon.

Mr. Mitenbuler is gently unsentimental about the mythology of bourbon (despite heavy marketing to the contrary, modern bourbon is usually superior in quality and craftsmanship to pre-20th century bourbon), but is not at all preachy. From beginning to end, the tension between artisan distilling and industrial
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Joe
May 28, 2017 rated it liked it
I love whiskey, and I love books, so I'm not sure why I didn't like this book more.

Perhaps one clue resides in the author's own acknowledgements. Mitenbuler says the book is "a blend of commentary and history." I liked the history part a lot. The commentary was not as strong.

Mitenbuler decided that the history of bourbon was the history of the economic precepts of Alexander Hamilton (industry best functions in the hands of large companies that can achieve economies of scale) and Thomas
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Kit Kimes
Dec 31, 2019 rated it liked it
This book was recommended by a relative of mine and I did enjoy it but it was probably not a book I would have chosen for myself based on the synopses I have seen.

It covers the maturing of the Whisky/Bourbon industry in America from before the Revolution until today. It covers the changing attitudes and situations in America, especially in the 1700s through the mid 1800s. It covers the history of why the Bourbon distilling came to be centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Fun fact: Did you know
...more
Jeffrey
May 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very well written book. The prose was clear and comfortable. I have recently perused several books about Whiskey and this is clearly the best. Granted, it is a narrow topic, but if you are looking for a good book about Bourbon, this is the book to read. It strikes me as an honest book written by an author who enjoys all aspects of whiskey but also is clear eyed about the industry's defects and distortions. He tells a good story about the history of bourbon from its beginning in the late 18th ...more
Joe
May 28, 2019 rated it liked it
This is my second time reading Reid Mitenbuler's book "Bourbon Empire." The book contains a lot of interesting facts, and clearly presented research. Unfortunately, it reads like it's his first book: it's clumsy, meandering, unbalanced, and it lacks style, nuance, and direction. His writing is often heavy handed; his analogies often demonstrate more of his own ignorance of the comparative field than they elucidate concepts in the field of whiskey. Interesting opinions aren't explored far enough. ...more
Lynn Smith
Jul 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
I only recently became a bourbon drinker and so I picked out this book to learn more about bourbon. This was definitely a good choice. The book gives an in depth history of the past, present (through about 2015) and future of bourbon. It was interesting to learn all of the stories and back stories concerning bourbon and to also learn many of the stories are more legend and marketing than actual truth. Bourbon is uniquely American. If you're interested in learning more about bourbon this is a ...more
Anne
Sep 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The only thing that would've made this book better for me is having read it with friends (over a few bourbons, of course). Mitenbuler weaves together historical storytelling with technical details of bourbon production in a way that keeps things interesting and feels natural, like a friend telling you a good story. You can tell he loves and appreciates bourbon, but doesn't allow his affection to paint a rosy glow over the less savory or purely functional parts of bourbon's history. It's a ...more
David
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: micro-history
Interesting read. Informative and entertaining; the author's first venture into writing a book, is I think, a resounding success.
Just a couple of trifling issues:
1) the conclusion seemed a little rushed. I'm in the Coopersea distillery and then he wraps it up with a quote for its owner a few paragraphs later. I did't feel like I got the "wrap-up;" the culminating "what's it all for" summation was really lacking. A lackluster ending to a really cool story--I suppose anti-climactic would be an
...more
George
Oct 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Excellent book on the history of whiskey in the US especially bourbon and the liquor industry in general. Part bio, part history, part business book, it has a lot of history (the whiskey rebellion and prohibition get great treatments) as well as interesting history of small companies, turned huge conglomerates, and now small companies again doing craft whiskey. Very readable as well. My only quibble is there are a lot of names to keep track of as the small companies become big conglomerates and ...more
Sarah Allen
May 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Like many other readers, I enjoyed the history of bourbon as inter-related to the history of the United States. The last third of the book concentrated on which company owned by which people bought other companies and how they then were reorganized and resold. Oddly, if the book had omitted this information it would have better held my interest all the way through. I did start taste testing the whiskey and scotch I have in my liquor cabinet to get through this part of the book and that helped me ...more
Kathleen Guinnane
Sep 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: for-me
If you ever had any questions about the history or making of bourbon, this book will answer them. This was a fascinating look at how whiskey came to be the drink of the United States. With details going back to the Founding Fathers and even George Washington's whisky still. I enjoyed the stories about how whiskey went from small farm businesses to big business and the origin stories of brands that were created from no truth and have now become legends. If you have any interest in bourbon or ...more
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“Similar forms of trickery eventually evolved into a ritual of drunken trade negotiations that often ended with Native Americans giving away huge tracts of land for little in return. Years later, one settler put it bluntly: “When the object is to murder Indians, strong liquor is the main article required, for when you have them dead drunk, you may do to them as you please, without running the risk of losing your life.” 2 likes
“John Steinbeck many years later would write in East of Eden, “The names of places carry a charge of the people who named them, reverent or irreverent, descriptive, either poetic or disparaging.” The Scotch-Irish gave the American places where they made whiskey names like Gallows Branch, Cutthroat Gap, or, in one instance, Shitbritches Creek. In Lunenburg County, Virginia, they even named two streams Tickle Cunt Branch and Fucking Creek. They often called themselves “rednecks,” an old Scots border term for Presbyterians. Another title they used for themselves was “crackers,” a term that came from the Scots word craik, which literally means “talk,” but was typically used to describe the kind of loud bragging that usually leads to a fight.” 2 likes
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