Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Art of American Whiskey, by Noah Rothbaum

I am fairly shameless when it comes to asking publishers for copies of books I can review on my blog. I learned a long time ago that the publishing business is nuts, and if that means they'll give me something to read and something to write about, fine by me.

An explanation of the business case for sending review copies to bloggers.

But "fairly shameless" is not "utterly shameless," and when I saw Noah Rothbaum's The Art of American Whiskey in the Ten Speed Press catalog, I couldn't bring myself to ask about it. As much as I would like a picture book of whiskey ads and labels, I didn't think I'd be able to review it. What could I say, "Nice pictures"?

So I just told the Ten Speed Press publicist to keep me in mind for any whiskey or cocktail books they might have in the pipeline, and she replied with a PDF of The Art of American Whiskey. (Emailed PDFs make a whole lot more sense to me that UPSed hardcovers, but as I say: nuts.)

The lesson I learned is, don't judge a book by its subtitle, which in this case is A Visual History of the Nation's Most Storied Spirit, through 100 Iconic Labels. It is both a written and visual history. It does have nice pictures, but also a lot of good words.

The book divides American whiskey history into seven eras: the start through the early 1900s; prohibition; post-repeal; the '40s and '50s; the '60s; the '70s, '80s, and '90s ("a.k.a. the dark ages"); and "the new golden age" of this century (so far). (The book ends just before the bourbon shortage reduces us all to savagery.)

Each era gets a chapter, comprising a few pages of written history, many pages of artwork (mostly labels), and a few recipes for "cocktails of the times," contributed by well-known bartenders. There are also brief profiles of some "distilling legends": Heaven Hill's Shapira family, Margie and Bill Samuels; Booker Noe; and Pappy van Winkle.

The artwork is definitely the focus of The Art of American Whiskey, but the text makes it a complete book. Rothbaum includes a short bibliography -- Veach, Cowdery, Lubbers, you many know the names -- if you need more than an hour's reading on the topic, but he himself covers the story in broad strokes and a straightforward reportorial style, throwing in a bit of editorializing suitable to the subject:
[After World War II, b]rands did everything they could to get bottles back on the shelves. On February 9, 1947, the New Yorker ran a story about the American Distilling Company petitioning the Connecticut Supreme Court to approve its Private Stock Whiskey bottle label. The front label was regal and talked about the history of the brand, but on the smaller label on the back of the bottle was the truth: "Whisky colored and flavored with wood chips. This whisky is less than one month old." The court, fortunately, did not rule in the American Distilling Company's favor.
Life was ever thus.

As I say, though, you get this book for the pictures. With "100 iconic labels," this is a survey rather than an encyclopedic collection, and Rothbaum's commentary is that of an observant whiskey enthusiast, not a graphic design historian or art critic. He provides a little context, maybe a remark on style or motif (old Kentucky and stock certificates are perennial favorites), then lets the reader do their own looking.

I found the Prohibition chapter most interesting. Everyone makes jokes about all the (ahem) "medicinal" whiskey prescribed, but I'd never thought about how medicinal the packaging of the whiskey was required to be -- viz, not at all. Each bottle had to be packaged in a cardboard box, which gave the companies that much more room to call attention to their product. My favorite is probably "Golden Wedding," for the sheer incongruity, though I don't know how appealing a la grippe sufferer would have found it ninety years ago.
Nothing says effective medicine like renewing wedding vows . [1]
While a lot of brands from the 1800s are still around today -- in name, at least -- there's also a good selection of labels for brands that, as far as I know, are no longer sold (the steamer trunks with the recipes are, no doubt, waiting to be discovered). One of the book's panels shows a set of concept labels developed for Heaven Hill brands prior to 1946 (they don't know whether any of these were ever used). It's quite a selection, both straight bourbons and younger. I do like Coon's Age boast, "This whiskey is 1 year old."
I'm going to guess it was generally worth paying the premium for straight bourbon even then. [2]
Um... [3]
A few labels touch on some of the lowlights of the U.S. whiskey industry, made around 1970, but the less said about those the better.

The final chapter does a good job at covering both the major players and the craft distillers, with a wide variety in bottle and label design, from Four Roses Single Barrel and Maker's 46 to Hillrock and Tin Cup.(Implicit in the pictures but not really discussed in the text is the relatively recent increase in bottle variety to help brand whiskeys.)

The Art of American Whiskey will add a key visual dimension to a whiskey book collection -- and a respectable amount of historical information, too, particularly to a collection that's missing some of the classic sources Rothbaum references. Publication date is April 28, 2015; it can be pre-ordered in Kindle or hardback editions.

I'm told I'm supposed to mention that the photos are reprinted with permission from The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
1. Image courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery.
2. Image courtesty Heaven Hill Distilleries.
3. Image courtesy Beam Suntory Inc.
Credit where credit is due. I'd give credit for the "Numberwang" skit, but I'm not even sure what that would mean.

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