Whiskey Book Review: The Social History of Bourbon

The Social History of BourbonDisclaimer: this book took me a long while to get through, so I apologize to the author if I forget anything from the first half. Given that The Social History of Bourbon by Gerald Carson was published in 1963, I thought it would be acceptable to take my time with it since nothing in there could be late-breaking news. Like many a well-aged bourbon, this book went down just fine as a slow and easy sipper.

The Social History of Bourbon attempts to tell the story of bourbon from its humble beginnings as unaged corn whiskey on the American frontier to its revered place in the society of the early 1960's (when the book was originally published). It's interesting to read about bourbon from the perspective of a time when it was not at the peak of its popularity. I would say that bourbon is much more popular today that it was when this book was written, making the book itself an interesting historical artifact.

Nothing in this book is new to a reader with a basic understanding of American whiskey history, but the author does use numerous detailed anecdotes and examples to make the general outline of history come to life. Some of these anecdotes veer into the overly mundane and boring, but some of the whiskey-fueled stories are downright hilarious, and paint a vivid picture of whiskey's role in early America. The author also does a good job of remaining neutral on such touchy questions as who invented bourbon, and how exactly bourbon is best defined. He tells all sides of the story fairly and does a good job of telling all of the stories that are tangentially related to bourbon without veering to far out of bounds.

My overall take-away is that this is an entertaining book if you're a whiskey history buff, and a must have reference if you're doing serious research on bourbon's place in history. It can also be fun if you're willing to jump around from one entertaining anecdote to the next. However, as a straight-through read it's a bit overly academic and quite lengthy, perhaps best enjoyed slowly, one sip at a time, just like a fine bourbon.