Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Trouble with Whiskey History

It's often said that history is written by the winners. Then we get 'revisionist' history, written by the other side. Often history says as much about the preoccupations of the present as it does about doings in the past.

You might think history is absolute--something either happened or it didn't--but you'd be wrong. While there is science involved, in the form of facts that can be verified (JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963), there is also art. Good history writing is storytelling, and the best story usually wins. (Conspiracy theories persist because they're better stories.)

Sometimes stories get simplified to fit the available space. Columbus didn't exactly 'discover America' but what he really did takes some time to explain. Maybe 'Columbus discovered America in 1492' is sufficient in some circumstances.

Add a commercial element and you create an incentive to tell the story that sells best. That's why even brands that are blessed with oodles of real history tend to fudge it here and there.

For example, the claim that Jack Daniel’s is 'the nation's oldest registered distillery’ is not only false, it's ridiculous. Assuming they're talking about registration with the Federal Government, the first distilleries were registered when the first Federal Excise Tax was enacted in 1791, 59 years before Jack was born.

The 'oldest registered distillery' claim, like many others, is based on facts that cannot be verified, otherwise known as 'tradition.' You would think that if Jack Daniel registered his distillery with the Federal Government in 1866 there would be some kind of document, but there isn't. It's tradition. Jim Beam claims that Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in 1795. The source? Beam family tradition. Bulleit Bourbon claims that Augustus Bulleit came to Louisville from New Orleans in 1830 and established a distillery. Source? Bulleit family tradition.

Even so, some claims are more fictional than others. One day a few years ago, Sazerac decided to declare William LaRue Weller 'The Father of Wheated Bourbon.' In addition to plucking that claim out of thin air, it's based on an immaculate conception, since Weller wasn't even a distiller. He didn't make whiskey, he just sold it.

It's worth debunking these stories because it's nice to know what's true and what's not, but it's hard to get too outraged about the fibs. It's neither unusual nor unpleasant when a story told over a few bourbons is exaggerated. We should take the stories, and their debunking, in that spirit.


EllenJ said...

I love whiskey folks.
I love fishermen, too.
I don't believe a word either one of them tells me, nor do I think they'd expect me to (that's for marketing people, don'tcha know), but I love 'em anyway.
Don't you? :))

Miles D. Harrison said...

Dmitri Mendeleev supposedly invented Russian Standard Vodka, too...

Anonymous said...

Chuck, You are a great writer and even better storyteller.