Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire, was kind enough to take 40 minutes of his Sunday afternoon to chat with me about his book, Bourbon and life. Reid currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, but maintains his DC area code cell phone.
Side Rant to Everyone: Once you get a cell phone, that’s your cell phone number for life. There are some exceptions like moving abroad for work, etc., but if you live domestically, that’s what you get. If you leave Southern California for NYC, keep that 858 area code and cherish it. Don’t be that person who throws away their past for a 646.
For the sake of continuity, readability and length, I’ve taken the liberty of condensing some of the questions and answers:
NewBoubonDrinker: Reid, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I loved the book, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. There is a lot of honesty and truth in the book. As a consumer that is something that I really enjoyed, but I’m guessing there are a lot of producers that don’t want all the truth to be known.
Reid Mitenbuler: Thank you. The feedback has been very, very positive. Even though most of the book was very positive except for a few things like small barrels. No one has come back, even the producers that use shortcuts like small barrels, probably because they know they are taking a shortcut. Shortcuts are an elephant in the room: everyone knows about them, but they don’t focus on them. I always thought what if people talked about whiskey like they talk about sports. You can be critical, but not be mean.
NWD: That makes sense… I’m a Yankees fan, and I don’t like the Mets. Maybe you like Diageo instead of Beam, same idea.
NWD: What I find interesting, and you mentioned this in your book, is that the vast majority of what people drink are from a few companies and a handful of distilleries.
But everyone wants to be craft, small.
MB: Yes, but also some of the big ones are craft, but craft isn’t always good. The big companies do a really good job—distilling is an industrial practice. I do feel that maybe in five to ten years some of the small craft stuff has a lot of potential. The optics of the craft industry is, they’re small, there in a refurbished warehouse in a gentrified part of the city, etc…
NWD: It’s interesting because it takes a long time to produce a good craft whiskey. Craft beer however, which there is a lot of out there, doesn’t take a long time to produce. Some of it is really great, while some of it is terrible. It only takes a couple months to go from start to a finished product.
MB: Yeah. Not to mention, the guys who are doing craft beer are perfecting their craft at home on a small scale. You can’t implement a fully industrial product at home like distilling; the home producer doesn’t have that ability. The scale that is required is a factor. Who at home is going to buy a huge barrel? The mechanics of spirits doesn’t allow the person at home to try it out before, while many of the craft beers did just that. You can’t really compare them.
I sometimes worry that I’m a little too hard on craft, but I talk to some people who think I’m not hard enough. If in sports everyone just told each other how great they are, no one would improve, they need to be pushed. There isn’t enough discourse like that in craft. Most comments out there about the craft guys are ‘it’s just awesome.’
NWD: What I like about craft beer is that you can go out and buy a few for $3-$12 each, and if they stink, it’s not a big deal, you can just pour them down the drain. If you buy a craft whiskey for $60 and it sucks, you don’t dump them out, it’s going to be sitting on your shelf for a long time.
So, what’s your go to drink right now?
MB: The stuff I have at home is pretty standard, although I do have some of those special occasion bottles. The stuff from Buffalo Trace is a favorite of mine. It was an early distillery tour that I felt was special. My benchmark is the Buffalo Trace regular label. When you look at it from a price point, it’s amazing they can put out something of that quality. That’s how I benchmark other whiskeys.
I will continue my conversation with Reid later in the week.