F. Paul Pacult is a very talented spirits writer, but not a historian. He was hired by Beam’s marketing department to write this book and he has done an excellent job of marketing the Beam brands. The book has historical interest, but that is mostly in the latter half of the book where he had access to more sources. The book has its merits and worthy of any good Bourbon library, but it should be remembered that it was written to please the marketing department at Jim Beam.
American Still Life, by F. Paul Pacult. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003, Contents, Forward, Appendices, Bibliography, Index, Illustrated, pp. 240.
This book is a prime example of what a marketing company wants from a corporate history. Lots of plugs for the company and the brands. With that said, the book still has many saving graces, just not in the first half of the book.
The early chapters have very little real history of the Beam family and the author tries to cover this lack of documentation by placing the Beams in with the larger picture of what was going on in Kentucky’s distilling history. The problem is the author does not know that much about the history and simply uses the same old marketing stories that have been used for years. He tells the reader that the distillers from the western part of Pennsylvania came to Kentucky to escape the whiskey rebellion, but does not consider that there is very little evidence that that ever happened. After all the tax was in Kentucky as well as Pennsylvania, so why should they pack up to move to the same conditions?
Land is another problem. The land of Kentucky was spoken for by veterans of the Virginia militia during the American Revolution, so these distillers would have had to purchase this land from someone already in Kentucky or Virginia. He also makes a point of calling the first Beam Bourbon “Old Jake Beam Sour Mash” and then in a side bar claims that James Crow invented Sour Mash. Crow was not in Kentucky until about the time of Jake Beam‘s death.
He paints a picture of Kentucky women as being homebound without ever travelling past the nearest town and not involved in such things as distilling. This is not true as there are many examples of women in frontier Kentucky travelling back to their family homes in the east for visits and one of the earliest documents mentioning “Sour Mash” is from a woman distiller in 1818. The examples of the author’s lack of historical knowledge continue through the first three chapters.
The second half of the book improves significantly. Pacult obviously had much better sources of information as the people being discussed were either still living, or in the memory of those still living. This part of the book is much better written and more informative. The story as to how “Booker’s” bourbon came about is very informative. Even so, there is still the marketing element there as they downplay the “Single Barrel” concept and put more emphasis on the “Small Batch” concept. The truth is both are about equally important in the rebirth of interest in bourbon.
The chapter about the “Other Beams” is also very interesting and the author has the grace to acknowledge the source of his information, Jo Ann Beam. She did a great job of researching her family and deserves all the credit he gives and more.
The book ends with Pacults tasting notes and ratings of the Beam bourbons and a timeline for the family. The photographs are all placed in the center pages of the book with many good shots of the family members, focusing mostly on Jim Beam and Booker Noe.
The book is a good one for a bourbon library because of the information about post Prohibition Jim Beam brand and the Beam family.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller