Whiskey business: Bourbon-book author names his top Brooklyn bars

Mash up: Cobble Hill whiskey expert and writer Reid Mitenbuler at one of his top bourbon-drinking spots, Char No. 4.
Photo by Josiah Shelton

He is giving it to us straight.

A Cobble Hill whiskey expert is serving up the spirited story of bourbon in a new book. In “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey,” author Reid Mitenbuler traces the liquor back to its origins in America, through to modern-day distilleries and recent revival, explaining how the drink has made its mark on the country along the way.

On June 3, he will sign copies of his book — and no doubt share in a few rounds — at Ramona Bar in Greepoint. We caught up with Mitenbuler ahead of the event and asked for some neat facts.

Sarah Iannone: Why an entire book on bourbon?

Reid Mitenbuler: On its own, the story of this drink finds its way into all these great corners of American history: the Whiskey Rebellion, the Whiskey Ring scandal, big business, Madison Avenue. It has all of these inspiring elements — innovation, ingenuity, etc. — but it also has the prickly sort of things — corruption, oddball marketing — that round out the tale and make it three-dimensional. Bourbon is one of those rare products that can be used as a comprehensive lens to explore American capitalist culture, both for better and for worse.

SI: For example?

RM: In the decades immediately following the Civil War, taxes on alcohol composed between a third and half of government revenue. Schemes to skim from those taxes or avoid them led to all sorts of colorful scandals. The whiskey industry was gobsmackingly corrupt, and helped spur a number of consumer protection laws that extend into many other parts of American life today.

SI: How did you get interested in bourbon?

RM: At first it was a kind of fashion accessory — I was fresh out of college, had joined the military, and needed an unfussy go-to drink at the bar on base. Then I discovered that I liked it and went down one of those rabbit holes where you find foodies geeking out.

SI: What’s the most interesting thing you learned about the spirit while researching the book?

RM: This isn’t in the book, but you know that sweet, vanilla-like smell you find in old book stores and libraries? It comes from the wood pulp used to make paper — those same chemical compounds are found in the wooden barrels used to age whiskey, and are what give bourbon a similar aroma. That factoid poetically ties together my book and its subject.

SI: Please bust one myth about bourbon.

RM: There are a million, but I’m surprised at how many people think it can only be made in Kentucky. It’s truly an American thing, and can be made in any state, although most of it does come from Kentucky.

SI: Why do you think bourbon has made such a comeback in recent years?

RM: It’s almost like comfort food today. All those old-timey labels hearken back to a nostalgic past that we like to imagine was simpler. I don’t think it really was simpler, but enjoying this storied drink with all this great history surrounding it at least gets us part of the way there.

SI: What is your go-to bourbon?

RM: It depends — something a little younger and higher proof during the summer, so I can dump it on ice. In the winter, something a little older — eight to 10 years — that I’ll drink neat. I try hard not to fetishize any brands and don’t think there’s any single gold standard or “best.”

SI: What is a good choice for a beginner?

RM: Nothing too expensive. Many of my favorite — brands that I find have the best balance — are usually priced very reasonably. After trying those, folks can move to the pricey stuff. Then, after they realize that the super pricey stuff isn’t always worth the effort, they can return to the classic standbys.

SI: Where are your favorite bars to drink bourbon in Brooklyn?

RM: I love Char No. 4, which is down the street from me in Cobble Hill. The staff is knowledgeable and the selection is well curated — always something interesting on hand but not overwhelmingly completist. Noorman’s Kil in Williamsburg also has a great selection and good prices.

Reid Mitenbuler signs “Bourbon Empire” at Ramona Bar (113 Franklin St. between Kent Street and Greenpoint Avenue in Greenpoint, www.wordbookstores.com) June 3 at 6:30–8:30 pm. Free.

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