Reid Mitenbuler’s Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey (available at many fine retailers) is one of my favorite history books about bourbon. The book addresses not only the big bourbon personalities in depth, but also covers the production and business sides in an approachable manner without sacrificing nuance. I originally planned this interview to accompany a review of two alternatively aged whiskies, but Mitenbuler’s thoughtfulness and depth merited the conversation as a standalone piece. In the interview, he discusses consumer tastes, alternative aging, the growing bourbon supply coming off the stills, craft distillers, and whiskey stockpiling. A special thanks to him for his patience and generosity spending the time through a long interview with revisions.
The following interview took place over the phone and was subsequently transcribed and revised over email for clarity in written form. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Malt: In your book, you have a long historical vision of the production side and the mythology these producers create for themselves. You have this section about how based on supplies the marketing would try to align to wherever in the boom or bust cycle things were at. In your research, to what extent was the marketing able to adjust consumer preferences and their perception of the whiskey?
Reid Mitenbuler: Yeah, one thing that stuck out for me was that, in the years after repeal, you saw a lot of brands label their bottles with age statements like “three years old” or “two years old” – relatively young ages – but do so very proudly, making sure those ages were front and center. This is because there was very little aged whiskey on the market, so those ages signaled a certain level of quality, especially compared to the rotgut that most consumers had grown accustomed to during Prohibition. After that Dark Age, I suspect that a lot of Americans had forgotten what truly good whiskey should taste like. They were back to square one.
Advertising has always influenced the market, but I think it had a particularly strong effect after the 1950s. Bourbon wanted to expand its foreign exports and begin competing with Scotch, which dominated those export markets. The thing is, Scotch was often aged longer than bourbon and consumers equated that additional age with quality. For all whiskey – but bourbon and rye in particular – older isn’t necessarily better, but to compete with Scotch overseas, American brands started boasting older age statements. They could do this because they’d inaccurately predicted production constraints in anticipation of the Korean War and built up their surpluses in anticipation of that. When those constraints didn’t occur, they were left with a huge surplus of older whiskey they needed to get rid of. So why not plaster all the bottles with age statements? Lewis Rosenstiel, the notorious head of Schenley, spent millions on advertising slogans like, “Are you getting enough age for your money?” and “Age is better.” Not all of that whiskey was, in fact, better – it was arguably overaged, at least for my taste, and unbalanced by too many wood tannins – but Rosenstiel’s advertising campaigns had convinced many people otherwise.
This period of exuberant age statements had an interesting effect on the Japanese market. Japanese consumers had typically taken their cues from the Scotch market, where older was often, but not always, better. In the 1980s, when Americans were trying to get rid of their way-overaged stocks – and not able to sell it to an American market that wasn’t much interested – Japanese consumers paid top dollar for it. They had an appreciate for bourbon but also played by “Scotch rules.” While researching my book, several old-timers in the bourbon world told me, “Oh man, back in the 80s, we sold so much crap to the Japanese market that we probably should’ve just destroyed.”
I have talked to a ton of distillers who wish that people would abandon the idea that older whiskey is better whiskey. In the Scotch world, Bruichladdich is a perfect example. They’re not selling super old stuff, but it’s really good. Same goes for a lot of American producers, especially some of these younger ryes.
When I do events or teach courses, I’m quick to point out that spirits aging is comparable to cooking meat. Some meat is best raw, like sushi or steak tartare. Their spirit equivalents are an eaux de vie or certain silver rums and mezcals (spirits I personally prefer unaged). Then you’ve got brisket, which you want to cook low and slow for a long time. Brisket’s spirit equivalents are certain age-bomb Scotches or other spirits aged in relatively cool environments. For me, bourbon is generally equivalent to New York strip steak, medium-rare, cooked but not too much. It can be great at four years and often finds a real sweet spot in the six-to-nine-year age range. Of course, there are exceptions to all these examples. Taste is ultimately subjective.
Malt: Do you think some of the very high age bourbon covers up for weak distillate?
Reid: Not really, and it doesn’t make sense to do that anyway. If your stuff isn’t that great coming off the still and has flaws, it’s still expensive to age that long. You’re losing a lot to evaporation, so it’s not an economical way to cover your flaws. What I see more frequently is barrel finishes. There are some very nice barrel finishes that really add to a spirit, but I’ve also seen plenty of examples where barrel finishes are clearly being used to cover flaws, oftentimes just adding a cloying sweetness or throwing the whole thing out of balance.
Malt: I recently got back from Kentucky and noticed that a lot of the majors seemed to be dramatically expanding production.
Reid: Oh yeah, all of them. Heaven Hill just increased its production by a third. I think a lot of that extra volume is planned for overseas expansion, or for contract distilling. Current U.S. demand is pretty well taken care of. Overseas, though, that’s where big, untapped fortunes are waiting. That’s the Big Hope anyway.
Malt: Have you noticed a market they’re trying to target?
Reid: Anywhere they can. Sometimes a market will take off and everyone is surprised and can’t really explain why. Germany was a beachhead market for Jim Beam in the 1950s. Spain, for reasons I was never able to track down, had a taste for Four Roses. Wild Turkey in Italy. Campari Group now owns Wild Turkey. It just took off there for whatever reason.
Malt: Did you think Campari’s acquisition of Wild Turkey was in part driven by the Italian market’s preference for Wild Turkey?
Reid: I was actually in London working with Campari on a project in June, and we talked about that. They acknowledge that Italy had a taste for Wild Turkey, but I’ve never asked them specifically about the acquisition. Wild Turkey’s always been popular in Italy. It’s an easy-to-understand acquisition for Campari.
Malt: Back in February, I visited Kentucky and needed a break from bourbon after a week and so I go to Copper & King’s and try their brandies, because I’m also a rum and brandy guy. I’m almost ashamed to admit, but the bottle I purchased was a bourbon finished in one of their brandy barrels, despite their brandy specialization. They have this interesting maturation technique they use, which is absolutely thumping bass at the aging level of their distillery to vibrate the barrels. You had a similar story in your book. Did you ever come across anything like that in your research that you thought was effective or consistently brought out interesting flavors?
Reid: Not really. A lot of alternative-aging techniques might make an infinitesimal difference here and there, but a lot of them are gimmicky, in my opinion. They can be fun and make for good stories though, so that’s something. It’s like, “Oh, you aged your whiskey in a warehouse where you blasted your favorite album 24-7, supposedly allowing the deep bass notes to resonate the barrel and deepen a whiskey’s flavor?” Okay, sure, that’s a fun story, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Taste is ultimately subjective, though, so take any of my curmudgeonly statements with a grain of salt (or a shot of whiskey aged next to a speaker blasting an Acid Mothers Temple album).
With a lot of alternative approaches, especially the rapid-aging stuff, using pressure chambers or tiny barrels, I want to keep an open mind. Someday, someone will figure out how to do it – maybe. I mean, aging is a complex process – you have oxidation, heat, all these different factors – that are ultimately just science. If you can figure out how everything is interrelated and interconnected and dial it in and develop a process, I imagine could you make something that tastes really good in a very short period of time. I’m totally open to the idea that that could happen someday, but I haven’t personally encountered it yet. I’m rooting for some mad scientist to pull it off, though.
Malt: I am wondering if you’d be willing to provide a bit of historical background on aging gimmicks, which is what drove my initial outreach. You had a few early examples in your book, but I’d be curious about how alternative aging fits in the broader bourbon history and the market forces that drive its resurgence in this current boom era.
Reid: Historically, whenever the whiskey market has experienced supply shortages, producers have tried to come up with alternative ways to age their whiskies faster. These sorts of efforts were particularly pronounced in the late 1800s, right after Repeal, and more recently with the “Bourbon Renaissance.” Typically, these alternative methods don’t work well. As soon as supplies start catching up to demand, producers tend to abandon these alternative methods.
Malt: One of the things that I really appreciated about the book was the chapter about craft distilling and locavore food. Why do you think food and drink specifically took off as part of this craft local production movement and not something like furniture, which in theory could have been equally marketed as a local product?
Reid: I think food and drink are important to this movement because they’re part of our daily sustenance. Food is perishable and organic, from the earth, so there’s a spiritual element to it as well. Add to that, you regularly consume these products with family and close friends. A meal is not just about food you need to survive. There’s also a social function around it: camaraderie, family, community. Food is at the center of that. I think those movements having to do with local food and craft food tap into a just-the-basics approach to remember the fundamentals. It kind of echoes with a lot of people’s yearnings for community, especially in the digital age and social media age in which we’re being pulled apart. Food can be an antidote to all that, representing a way to get back to a local community, especially if it’s made nearby by people you know. It forces you back to a simplicity that people are constantly yearning for in their complicated lives.
Malt: Bourbon, I think, fits that mold really well, right? With the Americana laced throughout all the marketing.
Reid: Yeah, it’s got that Americana. It’s also associated with winding down at the end of the day. You’re sharing a drink with friends, sharing your troubles and joys. It’s part of many important rituals – which is also great for its marketing, and I’m not saying that cynically. It’s authentic. Also, since whiskey’s a drug, giving you a buzz, there’s something almost quasi-magical about it.
Malt: I certainly think so, but I am biased. Sticking in that vein, one of the themes that really stuck with me from your book is that the market is so consolidated in terms of who is producing at scale. You had written in 2015 “the few large companies that dominate the American whiskey scene make good products but two centuries of consolidation have made their handful of winning formulas narrow examples of whiskey styles that used to be more diverse.” Do you think this is still the case? Are you seeing more product diversity in the field in terms of grains and what is sellable to consumers?
Reid: There’s definitely a lot more diversity in the market since I wrote my book, and it’s been great. In the book, I predicted – and hoped – things would go this way, and I’m glad to see that they have. Broadly, a small number of big distilleries still produce a lion’s share of American whiskey – 90-something percent, the figure is a moving target by this point – but they’ve increased their offerings considerably, not to mention all the tiny producers who are now in the game for people who want to seek them out. In my book, I used the dynamic of Hamiltonian-versus-Jeffersonian (Big vs. Small) economics to define the push/pull of the industry historically. Both of those models have those upsides and downsides. Right now, we kind of have the best of both worlds.
In my book, I criticized a handful of craft distilleries that I thought were coasting on their craft bona fides while producing mediocre whiskey. They were new and hadn’t learned their craft yet, which is something a lot of other craft distilleries quietly took note of when I interviewed them. I didn’t enjoy taking aim at small producers like that – who wants to root for Goliath instead of David? – but I was responsible to readers and consumers for an honest opinion. I’m glad to say that I’ve been forced to reverse some of my opinions in recent years. A lot of producers I was critical of now make excellent whiskey. Not only that, they have brought their costs down in some cases. Bravo!
Malt: What has been one of the craft whiskies you’ve really loved see grow over time, and what do you pick if you go to a typical liquor store? What resonates with you after all of this writing and all of this thinking?
Reid: I’m good friends with Colin at King’s County and have always liked that brand. They’re good at honoring tradition but not being bound by it – or even of combining lots of traditions to make something novel. They do a peated bourbon that’s great. I like that sort of experimentation. Willet, I’ve always liked their ryes. Coppersea was mentioned in my book. Lost Lantern is doing cool work highlighting the efforts of lots of distilleries.
Malt: We do seem to be in a bit of a golden age in terms of quality.
Reid: Yeah, it’s a golden age right now in terms of variety, although I wish some of the prices would go down. Maybe I’m just cheap, but some of the high prices seem to be coming from a warping force: speculative buyers who create bubbles. Social media amplifies all this goober-ish behavior. People take to social media, create hype around certain releases, and then speculative buyers vacuum up everything. Then those bottles just sit in closets because their buyers hope to reap a windfall from selling them in secondary markets. I suspect there’s an ocean of excellent whiskey not being enjoyed because a few nerds who spend too much time online want to treat these bottles like Fabergé eggs.
I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but what the hell, here goes. I kind of preferred that older age of imperfect information, when connoisseurs had to go out dusty hunting. The thrill of the hunt, you know? Now it’s a quick-draw game, where speculators vacuum up the special bottles two seconds after they’re released and then hoard them. It ruins the fun for the rest of us. And by “rest of us” I mean people with lives.
Malt: I have been a very vocal advocate within my tiny, tiny little bourbon community that rare whiskey should be treated like a beer at a ball game. If you’re given a bottle of George T. Stagg, they rip the seal off in front of you, uncork it, recork it, and reseal it with a crappy heat-gun wine sleeve.
Reid: For me, bourbon, at its ideal, is a pretty simple thing; not overly luxurified. It’s just a few simple grains, aged in a simple barrel. There’s nothing that fancy about it. Yes, a lot of craft and creativity go into making it, but nothing about it should be particularly rarified. That’s why I’m rubbed the wrong way by bottles going for insane prices. My book is about how bourbon represents America, including a sort of egalitarian, democratic ideal. I love the idea that a product which represents this country so deeply can be enjoyed, in its best expressions, at a relatively affordable price and not too hard to find. It’s out of nobody’s reach, no matter where they sit in the social hierarchy.
Malt: Do you think there’s going to be a [market] corrective? This one of those topics you see kicking around, and I don’t claim to have the answer, but it does feel like there is so much booze being made simultaneously right now.
Reid: No one really knows for sure. I mean, the forecasting is difficult because it’s tied to fads and fashions… and who knows what direction those trends will take? There could be a corrective the way there was in the late 50s going into the 60s where the prices kind of plummeted. But that is really an extension of taste and fashion. Hemlines go up, hemlines go down. Lapels get skinny, lapels get fat. If bourbon, for whatever reason, somehow becomes uncool again and falls out of favor, then you could have another “golden age” – like we had in the 80s – where you can get extraordinary whiskey for almost no price. But, if bourbon really, really takes off in lots of foreign markets, the market will be affected in a very different way.
Malt: Do you think producer awareness is linked to the growth of business analysis and computerization, when you think about the last boom and bust?
Reid: Market forecasting is a lot more sophisticated than it was 40 years ago, for many of the same reasons a lot of stuff is more sophisticated. Thanks, computers. There’s still a randomness to it, a bit of a gamble, room for error and all that, but a lot more experience goes into some of these business decisions.
Malt: What was something or characters you wanted to put into the book and didn’t get the chance to put in?
Reid: There’s tons of stuff, that got left on the cutting room floor. I met a ton of people I wish I could have included in the book but couldn’t because it needed to be streamlined. This was my “starter” book, my first book, and from a writing perspective I’d probably change a lot if I could do it over. I think I’ve become a better storyteller since then, and there are ways I’d like to sharpen this story.
Reid Mitenbuler is the author of Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation, and Wanderlust: An Eccentric Explorer, an Epic Journey, a Lost Age. His website is at https://reidmitenbuler.com/.