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Book Review: Making Bourbon: A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky

A few months ago, we reviewed Karl Raitz’s Bourbon’s Backroads: A Journey through Kentucky’s Distilling Landscape, which provides a thoroughly detailed and data-intensive look at the context during which bourbon came to fruition. Raitz made the hard stuff look effortless: weaving together a narrative involving transportation, government affairs, topography, geography, engineering, architecture, and nearly every other topic possible bourbon could touch. It was immersive, intense and enjoyable with every page.

With Making Bourbon, the truly heavy lifting and scholarship commences: if Bourbon’s Backroads was an undergraduate course, this is the stuff of Master’s and PhD students. It is a well-researched and comprehensive analysis, taking a very deep dive into the Kentucky ecosphere that made bourbon possible. Going well beyond the synthetic mythology of the 19th and 20th century raised up by marketing and public relations folks of recent times, it celebrates the true grit of farmers and distillers who labored tirelessly, developed one mechanical and chemical innovation after another and used bourbon as a thoughtful agricultural extension and additional income generator. Raitz adopts a welcome but no-nonsense tone right from the first chapter: eschewing style in favor of substance, and places great value on accuracy over speculation. There are some assumptions made by the author to the reader: that one has a basic understanding of bourbon, Kentucky geography, history, that the reader is information literate (able to read charts and maps), and that they have time on hand to Google unfamiliar terminology and historical events.

At 656 pages it is quite a hefty tome, but it is designed and packaged with great care, and will look most handsome on any bookshelf whose presence it graces. Speaking from experience, it also pairs well with a sturdy bottle of Weller or Willett Family Estate.

There are so many books on the market that will entertain and inform you from a surface level on this subject. That’s just fine, they serve their purpose well. However, those looking for a proper education on bourbon would be hard pressed to find a better set of books published in the last decade than this pair.


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Making Bourbon: A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky



Rob Theakston

Rob Theakston is a contributing editor to Drinkhacker.

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