“We make fine bourbon … at a profit if we can … at a loss if we must … buy always fine bourbon.”

-Pappy Van Winkle, The Art of American Whiskey

It measures 8-3/4 x 6-1/4 and is one hundred eighty-five pages long. But this compact tome gives life to the history of whiskey, a spirit indelibly tied to the national history of the United States. The author, Noah Rothbaum, tells this story via the labels on the bottles and a little prose here and there.  It’s called The Art of American Whiskey.

The book begins in the late 1800’s with the nascent evil that is corporate branding. Wine and cognac industries were in peril, whiskey was coming of age and distillers began building, not just reputable whiskey, but marketing schemes as well.  So we come to the bottles and their labels. Rothbaum was able to get copies of these labels thanks to his diligent efforts and he presents them by era and with some brief explanation and analysis. These little blurbs have some historical information about the distillery and at time notes about the meaning or quality of the artwork.

The labels are like art to a degree, maybe not Impressionist or abstract masterpieces, but interesting to look at and able to convey a story or an ethos. Some are sedulous and complicated with their rich and pretentious Gothic fonts and bright colors. Some are unembellished and straightforward. They feature former presidents, estates, airplane interiors, and long descriptions of the liquor.

Rothbaum takes us from the 1800’s through the Dark Times of Prohibition, into the Golden Age of the Sixties, whiskey’s decline in subsequent decades and its resurgence today. Each section begins with a brief overview of the decade, then presents the portfolio of labels and ends with a history of a prominent distiller of the time, such as the Samuels of Makers Mark. These brief chronicles impart drams of information or inspiration.

For example, the story of Makers Mark was fascinating. Margie Samuels reportedly designed the label, the bottle and the dripping red wax seal still seen on the bottles today in defiance of corporate standardization. She refused tomgive in to design changes. The family still operates the brewery and holds to her vision. Pappy Van Winkle (a real person and namesake of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, which is apparently a highly sought whiskey of which I’d never heard and now desire) made a comment about whiskey production that I know I don’t often consider. That is that these libations must be aged for several years before release, so distillers have quite the challenge in prognosticating demand.

It is an elegant book that whets the appetite not only for whiskey but more of the history. Altogether, a lovely primer on the tale of whiskey and a reference for whiskey’s to seek.

Oh, and it was comforting to read the name Fritz Maytag. He pioneered craft brewing (beer is, to be sure, my most favoritest of drinks) and he also had a hand in distilling.


I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


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