In the new book, Bourbon Empire, author Reid Mitenbuler investigates the recent rise in America's bourbon consumption. Mitenbuler goes through each and every marketing ploy and branding choice that bourbon-makers have selected to win you over when you are trying to decide on your next drink. These tricks have been in play by distillers and marketers for centuries.
When looking for your new favorite bourbon, Mitenbuler says you should be cautious and remember these tips to avoid getting duped by clever marketing ploys.
If you see a bourbon that's advertising an "age-old" or "antique" recipe, use caution. Mitenbuler says most early batches of bourbon were fermented with whatever vegetables or other ingredients were available. Any strange tastes would then be knocked down by adding additional herbs and spices, but overall the taste probably wouldn't go over well with modern consumers.
Many people think that "small batch" whiskeys are better because they have a bigger focus on quality. Mitenbuler argues that smaller distributors pay more for things like bottling and branding, which goes back onto the purchase cost for the consumer.
Many brands that advertise themselves as independent or small-scale, when in reality they are just an offshoot of a bigger label. For example, bourbons that are labeled under Knob Creek Distillery are actually being produced in the same plants as Jim Beam.
Many bourbons over the years have used historical figures and memorable symbols to make their drink stand out among the rest. "When I once asked brand proprietor Trey Zoeller why he named his whiskey (Jefferson's Bourbon) after the former president," Mitenbuler writes, "He simply laughed and said, 'I had no marketing budget. I simply wanted a recognizable face associated with history and tradition.'"
No one who is mass-producing bourbon is using the truly old style of bourbon-making. Some are using pot stills similar to those used in the early 1800's, but they still result in a different product than what was being made back in the early days.
Overall, Mitenbuler urges bourbon consumers to focus on finding the drink that they enjoy the most. In the end, what you pay for is the taste and the enjoyment that it gives you and should be the main focus of your experience.
Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler is available in bookstores now.