Bourbon is the American spirit. In Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey, Reid Mitenbuler tells the story of the big brands you see prominently displayed at almost any bar, to the evolution of the spirit since the Civil War, and the stories of how bourbon went from small Kentucky stills to big bucks.
In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Mitenbuler explains how the biggest obstacle in front of bourbon as it rose from regional drink to the choice of American drinkers was actually its Scottish counterpart, scotch.
Bourbon's biggest obstacle to gaining an international foothold was that nobody knew what it was or how it was different from scotch. It was more foreign to foreigners than vodka was to Americans, Time quipped while reporting [Lewis] Rosenstiel's announcement of his global rollout. Bourbon generally peaks faster than scotch and often doesn’t have to be aged as long, but international customers were only familiar with scotch. Younger bourbons might very well be superior to their older scotch counterparts, but it wouldn’t matter — people would still think they were inferior because they were younger.
The reason scotch is often able to hold up to longer aging than bourbon is because Scotland's climate is milder and most whiskey there is aged in used barrels (meaning less oomph from the wood, akin to reusing a tea bag and steeping it for a longer period of time). The relatively higher humidity and lower temperatures in Scotland also mean less evaporation, so scotch producers lose less liquid by aging longer. In one experiment, American and Scotch producers exchanged barrels of whiskey and found that the bourbon aged in Scotland took much longer to mature, and that the scotch aged in Kentucky developed much faster than it would have otherwise, simply because of the climate differences. Most people never get to try truly overaged whiskey, however, because most companies pull barrels from the hotter parts of the warehouse before the whiskey goes over the line. If there isn’t a market for it, they sometimes store it in metal containers, to stop it from aging while waiting for the markets to improve, although this move is usually prohibitively expensive and rare.
Regardless of the realities between scotches and bourbons of different ages, Rosenstiel's older bourbons were better able to compete with scotch, and the overseas markets would give him a place to dump any overaged bourbons, passing them off to customers who believed they were good simply because they were old. This strategy was a godsend during huge surpluses that would again occur a couple of decades later, when a few bourbon companies were able to dump overaged bourbon on a Japanese market that based its understanding of whiskey entirely around the rules of scotch.
As for luxury appeal in overseas markets, scotch also held the advantage. When bourbon and scotch were getting their starts during the late 1700s and early 1800s, both Kentucky and Scotland were considered remote and rather isolated backwaters, manned by fierce independents who drew uncomfortable stares from polite society. Scotch’s image, however, would evolve into something more urbane during the middle of the nineteenth century. Before then, wine and brandy were the tipples of European high society, just as they had been in America. But starting around 1860, the Phylloxera aphid decimated the European vineyards that wine and brandy both rely on, a tragedy that required years of rebuilding and replanting. Shortages of wine and brandy thus forced Europeans to look for alternatives.
Scotch was the obvious choice, moving into society's spotlight just as Scotland began riding a wave of voguish popularity. A few decades earlier, Sir Walter Scott had romantically depicted the misty crags of Scotland's landscape in his novels. Then he arranged for King George IV to visit the Scottish countryside and wear a tartan while doing so, glorifying public perceptions of Scottish tradition and heritage while making the region a popular tourist destination. In 1852, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands, lending even more respectability. By 1870, the whiskey made by Scottish distillers such as John Walker and Tommy Dewar had grown increasingly prominent, bolstered by advertising that relied heavily on tartans and bagpipes. By the 1890s, whiskey and soda was the preferred tipple of English gentleman, turning Dewar and Walker into millionaires. Tommy Dewar entered the House of Lords and was the third British man to own an automobile (the first was tea baron Thomas Lipton, the second the Prince of Wales). Scotland had become a classy place, and so had its whiskey.
Bourbon country had never enjoyed a similar makeover, which might have allowed American distillers to take advantage of consumers’ class perceptions. Even though Kentucky's charms are many, and it has had some contemporary success attracting the kind of tourism enjoyed by Napa Valley’s wine industry, it still occasionally suffers the prejudices of people who consider it one of those "flyover" states where the cornfields simply blend into the horizon. Of course, with American customers, anyway, this disadvantage is spun in bourbon’s favor when the spirit's humble roots become part of its appeal — even if it's a premium brand, bourbon retains its status as a blue-collar choice of the workingman. Drinking it sends a signal that you’re not pretentious.
But that message doesn't always translate to foreign countries. As export markets became bourbon's new frontier in the 1950s and '60s, advertising would need adjusting. Clever marketing would be used to reimagine bourbon's image in places where scotch — the literal drink of kings — had written the rules of the game. Beam turned out to be so good at shape-shifting that in 1965 it received special accolades from none other than the Wall Street Journal for catering to "snob appeal." Its "ads overseas feature tuxedo-clad men in posh surroundings" and helped "bourbon [develop] the same kind of status overseas that scotch has in this country." To this day the brand enjoys enhanced status in Germany and Australia, places where import duties boost its price — which customers almost always interpret as a sign of higher quality — and where the company has modified its advertising appropriately. The same goes for other humble American whiskey brands utilizing similar overseas marketing strategies — Four Roses Yellow Label sits on the top shelves of Spanish and Eastern European bars, as does Jack Daniel's, which flies off shelves at the Dubai Airport duty-free shop. It's yet another reminder that we taste and judge as much with our minds — susceptible as they are to outside signals of quality and value — as with our senses.
From Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler, published on May 12, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Reid Mitenbuler, 2015.