This book was published in 1963. The industry was lobbying to get Bourbon recognized as an American product at the time and that probably fueled the interest in the subject. It probably also received some financial support from the industry. It is one of the first attempts to write a history of the industry. Carson did depend upon information given to him by the distillers, but it surprises me every time I read it, just how much he got right. He did not just depend upon the information from the distilleries, but checked other sources as well. It is a very good book and something everyone interested in distilling history should read.
The Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of Our Star-Spangled American Drink, by Gerald Carson. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1963. Contents, Forward, Chronology, Glossary, Chapter Notes, Index, Illustrated. Pp. 280
When a historian thinks of “social history” he tends to think about the history of the common people so in that line of thought the title of this book is a bit misleading. This book tells the history of bourbon through a series of chapters that could stand alone as magazine articles. They are interesting to read but not completely accurate. Carson does use footnotes, but tracking down that information is not always possible. For one example he traces the term red liquor to a letter at the Filson Historical Society, but the letter is not there and there is no record that the letter ever was. Did he find this at another institution and mis-credited the letter? Good question and let us hope that is the case. Even so, it does show that he visited the Filson Historical Society and did not depend solely upon what the distilleries were telling him about the history of Bourbon.
The information for these chapters appear to be well researched, but he did rely heavily upon the distilleries (and thus their marketing departments) for information in some chapters. These chapters discuss a variety of subjects from the role of whiskey in the civil war to how the term “whiskey” came to be defined by the Taft Decision. They are easy to read and entertaining. The chronology at the end of the book also helps the reader get a perspective on this history since the chapter do tend to jump around a bit and the glossary provides some definitions for terms found in the industry. There are some very nice photographs in this book as well.
This book is another standard for any bourbon library. It is quoted by many other writers and was one of the first books to actually use footnotes to state sources. Its information is 40 years old, but since most of the history subjects are more general industry history, and not specific company history, it is still relevant.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller