Sunday, July 19, 2020

The History of Bourbon (Great Courses), by Ken Albala

Audible Originals, December 2019

This is a lively and interesting history of bourbon, starting with human discovery of alcohol, and why it made nutrtional and economic sense to turn a good proportion of your grain into alcoholic beverages.

Eventually, we get to the invention of whiskey, its medicinal uses, and its evolution into a recreational drug. It was not to completely lose its medicinal uses, however, till the 20th century.

Finally, we get to the invention of bourbon in the late 1700s, by--someone. Someone in the new United States of America, probably in Kentucky. From there we get the sruggles over what is bourbon, should we have any pure food and drug laws (really; whiskey and bourbon were a significant factor in this), etc.
Then Prohibition came.

I'll come back to Prohibition later, but the key point for our purposes is that Prohibition also wiped out all the laws and regulations on what could go into whiskey and bourbon, and those laws and regulations didn't magically come back when Prohibition was repealed. The end of Prohibition meant a lot of prior work had to be done all over again.

Among the other things Albala covers are the cycles of popularity and unpopularity of bourbon, along with the marketing stories about the origins of bourbon generally, and the particular figures associated with each brand. It seems most of these figures are real, and were important in the founding of the brands associated with them, and the stories themselves are complete fiction, born in the Mad Men era of Madison Avenue, puresly as marketing tools. I thought this had real potential to be the most entertaining part of the story, but Albala apparently didn't agree.

He also covers the growth of the current brewing companies, the entirely separate distribution companies, and of course the retailing of bourbon and other alcoholic beverages, with each part of this three-level system being an opportunity for taxation. Also of interest is the way everything done to break up monopolies of bourbon and whiskey makers led ultimately to consolidation by other avenues, and including the parent companies going international. There's a lot here that's interesting and informative.

Now, back to Prohibition.

I was frustrated but not really surprised that Albala just blithely treats Prohibition and the Temperance movement that led to it as if it were just an irrational expression of religious fantaicism. Certainly that was a part of it. Evangelicalism was the driving, organizing force of the Temperance movement. But that doesn't explain why the rest of the country went along with it to the point of amending the Constitution. No, there were real social problems associated with the increasing availability of cheap, strong liquor, along with beer, in circumstances where industrialization and the use of heavy equipment with none of the safety features we take for granted today.

A drink of beer, or whiskey, or bourbon, with breakfast was common and natural, because this was also before wholesale water purification was widespread, established, and familiar to everyone, and alcoholic beverages were safer. That was changing, but it wasn't comfortably in the past. And this was okay, when work was, for most of the population, farming. 

But industrialization meant working with heavy equipment in factories, where OSHA standards did not yet exist. Even on the farm, machinery was getting heavier and more dangerous. The acceptability of drinking alcohol, starting at breakfast and throughout the day, got more and more dangerous.

Add to that the fact that for all Albala's poo-pooing of it, drunkenness really did, as the Temperance movement said, cost women and children heavily.

Was a complete ban on alcohol a moderate and reasonable response? No. Was it insane? No.

Now the point where I say what no one ever likes to hear: Prohibition worked. It was a success.

It produced its own problems, including a big boost to (not the creation of) organized crime. However, it dramatically lowered the consumption of alcohol in the US. Yes, there was smuggling. Yes, there were speakeasies. Yes, there was illegal brewing (and, by the way, entirely legal home brewing.)

But overall, the the consumption of alcohol crashed, in total, and per capita. It completely changed the role alcohol played in people's everyday lives.

And when Prohibition was repealed, consumption increased, but never returned to pre-Prohibition levels. It took till the 1970s for the total amount consumed to return to pre-Prohibition levels, and has never returned to pre-Prohibition per capita consumption levels. We are a whole heck of a lot more sober than before Prohibition.

Prohibition really did solve the real problem that sparked the Temperance movement, even though it didn't do so in a way that Carrie Nation and her sisters in the Temperance movement wanted. It turns out we can have a sane, healthy, relationship with alcohol in an industrialized society, without banning it.

Worth a listen, especially if you're interested in the history of bourbon.

I received this audiobook as part of the Audible Originals program, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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