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Bourbon Empire

The Past and Future of America's Whiskey

By Reid Mitenbuler
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Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler

Bourbon Empire (2015) takes you on an exciting journey through time, revealing the complex history of America’s famous corn-based whiskey. Learn how this tipple survived the dry period of Prohibition, numerous corruption scandals and competition from overseas spirits while making its mark in politics and society.

Key idea 1 of 7

Bourbon whiskey is the embodiment of the American spirit and storied history.

How do you like your bourbon whiskey? Served on the rocks, with a twist? Or perhaps just a shot after a long day at work? However you enjoy bourbon, know that it has a long, storied history as the drink of choice for the American people.

There are many reasons why bourbon is a uniquely American spirit.

While bourbon is technically a whiskey, this type of spirit can only be called “bourbon” if it meets the following conditions: It must be distilled in the United States; the grain mixture must be at least 51 percent corn; and it must be aged in new oak barrels.

These rules to protect bourbon’s unique character came about through careful lobbying by the liquor industry. In particular, Lewis Rosenstiel, head of one of America’s largest liquor companies, wanted to give bourbon a special classification to secure it as a distinctively American product.

Through this classification, Rosenstiel knew he could make bourbon a more desirable export product. He spent millions of dollars lobbying overseas, even sending every US embassy a case of bourbon!

In time, his efforts paid off. In 1964, the classification rules were made law and bourbon was on its way to international fame.

While politics made bourbon the spirit it is today, its history with American drinkers runs much deeper.

North American whiskey appears as far back as the seventeenth century when the fiery spirit was supplied to frontier soldiers fighting Native Americans. This whiskey was of questionable quality, but producers at the time weren’t concerned about quality ingredients or proper distilling procedures.

But as settlers began to move into the western territories, new and different corn and grains were discovered and added to the mash recipe. This certainly helped the flavor of this originally simple spirit: what once tasted like gasoline began to refine into what we know as bourbon today.

Thus, bourbon whiskey was on its way to becoming the “American native spirit.”

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