While The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rauthbaum may be little more than a coffee table book, I found it informative and interesting nonetheless.
Before I get into this review, I want to explain why I am so utterly lacking in Whiskey knowledge, when I know so much about other spirits… In the first bar I worked at, where I became a bartender and discovered my passion for the industry, we had: 5 vodka brands, 4 gin brands, 3 rum brands, 10 (or so) liqueurs, and no less than 20 different whiskey brands. Even a woefully under stocked movie theater bar had 3 types of rye and 3 scotches… for someone who only began drinking after they turned 21, it was intimidating, to say the least. So, I decided to focus on other liquors and learn their differences and nuances, eventually turning into learning their history and their cultures as well. All the while, avoiding whiskey entirely. Partly this is because I told myself there was so much to learn about whiskey that once I got started, it would be difficult to move onto something else… partly I’m sure it was spite as well. At least in my part of the country, amateur enthusiasts in the Whiskey world are infinitely more irritating than those of other liquors. Now, I will freely admit this is a character flaw of mine… the same one that has kept me from seeing classic movies such as The Goonies and Fight Club, along with the sole reason I don’t listen to Blink 182. But! The time has come and since my job is predicated on whiskey knowledge and not classic movies or hip bands, in this regard I have to put my spite aside.
I had not intended for The Art of American Whiskey to be my first foray into the whiskey world, but I had it in my wish list and Amazon kindly informed me that it was on sale for $9, as opposed to the list price of $20. Ostentatiously, this book is the history of American Whiskey as told through classic and modern Whiskey labels. I’m no art historian by any means so I mostly had this book on list out of curiosity. What I got instead was a book on American Whiskey history that periodically showed me pictures of labels.
Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. It was easy reading, keeping you entertained and informed in equal measure. It was certainly more informative than I had hoped to get, at least as far as history knowledge. It was well focused enough that once done, I felt like I had a solid handle on whiskey culture in America, but it left the reader with plenty of other questions and the desire to find answers. I was less pleased because, while the history was more directly useful to me, I was hoping for a greater emphasis on explaining the art behind the labels. Like I said before, I am no art historian. I don’t even qualify as an art enthusiast. To tell me that this label is exemplary of art styles of the 40’s and 50’s is… unhelpful. The book didn’t even really go into what made a label successful or otherwise, or even which labels *were* successful. While I’m sure that is more of a marketing standpoint, I doubt the world is ripe for a marketing book that directly addresses American Whiskey labels and their history… and if it is, please, please somebody write that and let me buy it.
The book was delightfully liberal with fun facts and brand history (though I am very curious as to whether or not certain brands were represented more through some sort of agreement) such as the in depth telling of how Makers Mark came to be or the fact that Heavens Hill is the largest family owned and operated distillery in the States (as of the time of writing). I would most certainly recommend this book to the casual enthusiast and probably to the more dedicated enthusiasts too, though with a grain of salt. It would make an excellent coffee-table or cocktail-table book and it certainly looks nice behind the bar.
The featured image is from this authors woefully inadequate Whiskey selection. It is from Las Vegas Distillery, just outside of Vegas. The tours are great and so is the liquor.
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