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'Bourbon' review: history in a shotglass

Dane Huckelbridge, author of

Dane Huckelbridge, author of "Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit" (William Morrow, April 2014). Photo Credit: William Morrow

BOURBON: A History of the American Spirit, by Dane Huckelbridge. William Morrow, 278 pp., $25.99.

A mash-up of social history and personal commentary, Dane Huckelbridge's new book attempts to discover America through bourbon, and bourbon through America. But at times Huckelbridge seems not to trust his audience to follow along, so he tries too hard to entertain them.

He writes, for instance, that the Spaniard Ramon Llull's medieval discovery of distilled spirits provided a "faster and far more efficient way to get...absolutely [expletive]-faced" and observes that during the American Civil War, bourbon-drinking Union troops "partied their federal [expletive] off."

But "Bourbon" fortunately settles down into an engrossing song to America through an alcoholic beverage. Bourbon's two defining characteristics -- it's made primarily from corn and aged in charred oak barrels -- were, he says, "the simple result of a resourceful immigrant people trying to make do in a harsh new land," where traditional sources of spirits such as barley and potatoes were in short supply. In the 1840s, when the bracing brown liquor was distilled in large quantities in Bourbon County, Kentucky, it earned the name it carries today.

In the 19th century American West, bourbon, increasingly precious, was adulterated so badly by corrupt middlemen that drinkers called it "skull varnish" and "tarantula juice." During Prohibition, a bootlegger named George Remus exploited a loophole to legally produce whiskey for "medicinal" purposes. After becoming ascendant in the comfortable midcentury, in the '70s bourbon was déclassé. In Reagan's America, sales further collapsed as drinkers rejected mundane bourbon, "with its hokey labeling and total lack of umlauts." In the 1990s, however, canny executives realized that success might lie in bourbon's past. Maker's Mark dipped the mouths of their bottles in red wax to suggest the old-fashioned practice of sealing in flavor. "It tastes expensive," their slogan went, "and is."

Today, bourbon is made in unlikely locales -- including California and Brooklyn -- and younger drinkers favor it for its evocation of "the shared memory of the American past." Huckelbridge may wax a bit too poetic when he writes that the American Spirit bends "quite admirably to the winds of time -- bending, yet never ceasing to burn." But don't be too hard on him -- that's the kind of effect bourbon can have on a consumer.

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