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Reid Mitenbuler

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Most of the year, when the weather lets us, my wife and I wind down on our front porch with a bourbon. We live out in the countryside and, for no particular reason, bourbon feels like the right choice as we watch the long grass waving on the hillside and the birds shuttling back and forth between the far trees. Every so often, I'll suggest we change things up: maybe a Scotch or an Irish whiskey–not really such a big change in the grand scheme of things–but my wife looks at me as though I've made some horrible faux pas, as though I've suggested a tumbler full of cotton-candy vodka or bacon grease. Bourbon, she insists, that's what goes with the landscape.

And she's not alone. As Reid Mitenbuler points out in Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey (Viking, 2015), bourbon is our native spirit. This is the fact that Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning affirmed in 2007, when he sponsored a bill to declare September "National Bourbon Heritage Month." Bourbon, the bill stressed, captures the American values of "family heritage, tradition, and deep-rooted legacy." Like most American icons, bourbon's true history isn't so rosy. It is, however, fascinating, as Mitenbuler shows us by tracing the spirit's place in every era of America's past, from the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to the "Declaration of Independence" for bourbon, which wasn't passed until 1964, when congress voted on a resolution deeming bourbon, in lackluster language, "a distinctive product of the United States." Yet here, too, Mitenbuler finds a great story, about power brokers, corporate maneuvering, and a forgotten man named Lewis Rosenstiel, who is the reason we now have whiskeys aged over eight years.

Mitenbuler offers us a rich sense of the true heritage, tradition, and legacy behind the bourbon in our glasses, and it's as complexly American as the country itself. Scotch whiskey? Irish whiskey? My wife is certainly right. What was I thinking?


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Movies and television shows often include scenes of eating, either as a side activity of the actors or as an integral part of a scene. University of Nevada, Reno Professor Tom Hertweck compiled 14 essays in his collection, Food on Film: Bringing Something New to the Table (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). He talks with me about […]

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If Cuba will soon be a travel destination for Americans, what do we think we know about this neighbor that is so close geographically (93 miles south of Florida) and yet politically so far? For Ana Sofia Peláez, author of The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History (St. Martin's Press, 2014), this is a […]

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February 10, 2015

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Why are club sandwiches so good? This is among the important questions we get around to discussing during this podcast. Chef Bryan Voltaggio, a Top Chef finalist and Maryland-area restaurateur, met me at the Malibu Diner in Manhattan, known for blinky fluorescent lighting and a menu that includes cheap burgers and moussaka, to discuss his new cookbook Home: Recipes […]

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Diane KochilasIkaria: Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die

January 21, 2015

Want to know how to live forever? Somewhere on the Greek island of Ikaria, there seems to be a fountain of youth. It may not be a fountain, though. The secret to why inhabitants have one of the longest lifespans on earth is more likely a confluence of factors, one of the most important being […]

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Sarah BeskyThe Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Plantations in India

January 14, 2015

[Cross-posted from New Books in South Asian Studies] In this wonderful ethnography of Darjeeling tea, Sarah Besky explores different attempts at bringing justice to plantation life in north east India. Through explorations into fair trade, geographic indication and a state movement for the Nepali tea workers, Besky critically assesses the limits of projects that fail to address underlying exploitative […]

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January 13, 2015

David E. Sutton’s book beguiles. Secrets From the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island (University of California Press, 2014) seems like a simple chronicle of the most basic food practices on the island of Kalymnos. But what practices they are. Cutting boards are not used. Cooks cut food while holding it […]

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