Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

If I could sum up Bourbon Empire in one idea, it would be that myths are no less real for being myths—in fact, that might make them more real, as far as the experience is concerned.

In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of America’s favorite drink, whiskey, from its first distillation in the new republic, through its becoming a symbol of the American spirit in the industrial revolution, past its joint status as black market item and loophole product during Prohibition, into its importance as a symbol of the West during the Cold War, and to its present status in the global drink industry. Throughout his detailed, and often humorous, recounting of the key figures and periods of the drink’s—and America’s—history, Mitenbuler keeps an eye on the role that legend and myth play in the perception of taste, often returning back to the motifs of the big name brands and how they acquired (or maneuvered) their ethos and cache.

This is one of the most charming aspects of the book. While he does pull back the curtain on certain key aspects of the whiskey industry, then and now, Mitenbuler does not do so maliciously, as if trying to invalidate the drink’s history. He recognizes, from the first chapter, that myths—even myths we know are not literally true—can still be an essential and enjoyable aspect of the experience. One can know that the image of the pioneer farmer distilling his corn into bourbon was, by the mid-1800s, a myth, and that most bourbon was being made in large distilleries, and yet still enjoy the link between the whiskey’s taste (which tastes little now like it did then) and that first image of the pioneer. In this way, the book mixes romantic idealism with the realism of its subject, and the result is a charming read or listen.

However, this does touch on one of my few gripes with the book. Despite his awareness of myth’s ephemerality, Mitenbuler ironically accepts as fact the myth that the late-19th-century industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller were little more than unscrupulous and cynical social darwinists, which is flat incorrect. Rockefeller was a public and private detractor from that view and did much to counter its influence; I encourage readers interested in a nuanced presentation of Rockefeller and his times to read Ron Chernow’s Titan.

However, as Mitenbuler’s account is about whiskey, and he is using the Rockefeller myth for figurative comparison to describe unscrupulous whiskey distilling of the “Gilded Age,” it does not detract much from the book, overall. Yet, because of this, and, one wonders, other glosses, I would not recommend the book as a replacement for a serious history (of course, it’s not trying to be that). In context, though, Bourbon Empire provides many excellent details of figures that history students may not have heard of. As a literature tutor, I found much to inform my unit on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bourbon Empire is a fun and engaging overview of American history through the lens of our national drink. Having previously enjoyed similar accounts, and generally appreciating the view that the local economy is a prime mover of history, I would recommend this book, especially, of course, to those who enjoy or are curious about whiskey.

Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

“America prospered, in large part, because it accepted that destruction is the price for creation. The world’s most liberal bankruptcy laws allowed companies to go out of business. The world’s biggest internal market allowed people to move to places where their skills would be more generously rewarded. The United States accepted that ghost towns and shuttered factories are the price of progress.”

As its title says, Capitalism in America covers the history of the United states with a focus on its economic setting and growth. From the joint stock companies of the English colonists (which they identify as a wholly new invention in a world where mercantilism was taken for granted) to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, Greenspan and Wooldridge lay out the circumstances leading to, the benefits produced by, and the reactions against the free (and at many times not-so-free) market of the United States. I listened to the audiobook version read excellently by Ray Porter.

One of the unifying themes of the book is the necessity of creative destruction for growth. As great as the major leaps of the market were—spurred on by the mutually reinforcing and liberating inventions of like the Lowell Mills, the Bessemer Process, the steam engine, the telegraph, and many others—they meant that investments in previous processes, industries, locations, and jobs were and had to be liquidated, adjusted, or left behind. The authors, thus, also follow the growth of reactionary movements such as the populist Grange Movement and the unionization and regulation of the Progressives—all the while citing the benefits and, more often than not, economic drawbacks and ironies of such things.

However, being a general history, the book does not focus only on the turn of the 19th – 20th century (though the surrounding events and precedents set the stage for later discussion). Honestly elaborating on the dreadful economic impact of plans like the New Deal, the authors nonetheless lay out the social and presidential merits of actions by presidents like FDR to slow or stave off the destructive elements of the market (and give that president, perhaps, more credit than one might expect, or is due). The authors also go through the rest of the 20th century and early 21st, describing the relative economic plans of the Cold War and post-Cold War presidents, which many times diverged from their respective executive’s party affiliation or persona. The book ends at 2019, noting the various economic benefits of President Trump’s deregulation agenda, as well as the looming effects of his administration’s declining to cut entitlement spending. While the fact that the authors could not foresee the sudden economic downturn caused by the 2020 lockdowns, etc, or the inflation of the 2020-2024 administration lends a bit of irony to the final chapters, such events do fit within the book’s final prediction of recession, as well as within the broader themes of economic cycles.

As an AP US History teacher, I plan to recommend this book to my students, if not use it in class. Besides some parts which discuss elements of market economics (e.g. when the 2008 mortgage loan bubble is discussed), the book is clear enough in its language and consistent enough with its themes to be readable by non-economists (and even those aforementioned parts are manageable and made clear within context). While Greenspan takes a generally conservative view of America’s economic history, he is, nonetheless, quite even-handed in his treatment, which may be what some readers are looking for. I was tempted to give four stars because of a few minor gripes, but I decided those were due to my own differing views on some of the book’s topics and not due to any deficiency in the book, itself.