Whiskey Book Review; The Business of Spirits

I have a confession to make: I am a nerd. Let's be clear, I'm not a Star Wars nerd or a World of Warcraft nerd, although there's nothing wrong with those, but I am very nerdy about certain topics. One of them, as evidenced by this blog, is whiskey. Another of my nerdy interests is business & economics. I read Forbes just for fun and I get a real kick out of reading over Harvard Business School case studies. My most recent reading material, The Business of Spirits by Noah Rothbaum tapped into my nerdy interests in both whiskey and business, making for a double dose of nerdy reading pleasure.

This thin volume contains an overview of the American spirits industry that manages to be very concise and to-the-point at the same time that it provides a broad look at the world of distilled spirit production, marketing, and consumption. Throughout the book Rothbuam provides historical information on the American booze biz, highlighting various trends in drinking from the pre-Prohibition era through to the modern day. Alongside this historical narrative of the overall industry, Rothbaum delves into the specific worlds of several individual types of spirits with chapters on Scotch, Vodka, and others. The author also tells the stories of the various mixed-drinks, bar-trends, and other factors that have shaped the public's demand for spirits over the years.

The author's main goal is to explore and explain the renaissance that spirits have been experiencing over the past ten to fifteen years. He compares current trends towards unique, higher-priced, slickly-marketed spirits with the way that wine and beer experienced similar booms in prior decades. Rothbaum seems to be a fan of trendy cocktails and high-end craft spirits, so don't his book to tell you that a $7 bottle of vodka is on par with Grey Goose, but he does take an even-handed look at the role that marketing, packaging, and hype has played in justifying ever higher prices and bigger profit margins for spirits-makers. He also highlights the real differences between well-made spirits and mass-produced, profit-maximizing hooch, such as the use of 100% Blue Agave in many newer, high-end tequilas.

The book was published in 2007, and perhaps the best example of the current boom in the spirits industry is the fact that many of its examples are already out of date. Some of the brands that Rothbaum mentions as being on the cutting edge of the industry are now commonplace, while others have already succumb to the harsh judgment of the marketplace and disappeared from bars and liquor store shelves. An updated version of the book is needed to delve into how the industry has continued to react to increased demand for unique and high-end spirits, as well as to the economic downturn of the past few years.

In keeping with the case-study tradition of business books, The Business of Spirits features numerous short 'case studies' of specific companies, individuals, and events that have played key roles in shaping the modern spirits industry. These case studies are great jumping off points for the reader to find out about unique stories within the spirits business, and they make the book convenient for quick, stop-and-go reading. Whiskey aficionados will especially appreciate segments on Park Avenue Liquor Shop, John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky, the history of the Scottish Whisky Trail, Jimmy Russel of Wild Turkey Bourbon, and the "Return of Rye."

If you're only interested in whiskey, a big chunk of this book might not interest you, although understanding whiskey's competitive place in the market does help to better understand whiskey itself. However, if you're interested in the broader spirits world and in understanding how different drinks evolved and how they compete compete in today's marketplace The Business of Spirits is a great place to start. You'll learn a little bit about history, marketing, bartending, and host of other topics. It's a nice quick read and a great way to get your head around how one of the world's most interesting industries evolved to its modern form, and where it seems to be going from here.