(Book Review) The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum

By David Nilsen

As foodie culture has spilled over to encompass drink in the whiskeylast two decades, every family of potent potables has developed an artisan sector and an avid following of connoisseurs. My particular weakness is craft beer, but I can enjoy a good bourbon, scotch, or dark rum now and then. Neat, please. I decided to check out Noah Rothbaum’s new book The Art of American Whiskey: A Visual History of the Nation’s Most Storied Spirit, through 100 Iconic Labels (338.76 Rothbaum), and I’m glad I did.

The Art of American Whiskey provides an excellent overview of the history of distilled grain liquors in the United States, and it does so through the entertaining window of bottle label art. The book avoids going too deep into historical details and getting bogged down, and gives just the right amount of factual and anecdotal information to provide context for the showcases labels.

Bottled alcohol–be it beer, wine, or liquor –is one of the few products for which the label art could be considered just that – art. Drink companies pour a huge amount of money and creative energy into presenting a package that is as visually pleasing as their bottles’ contents are delicious. Hip artists are often hired to design label art, and many bottles become collectible even emptied of their inebriating nectar. Some drink aficionados turn up their noses at this, finding it false and consumerist. It probably is, but I don’t care. Bottle art matters. It tells us something about the craftspeople who are making our barrel-aged imperial stouts, our single malt bourbons, our spicy pinot noirs. For a liquid that can take anywhere from months to decades to reach our hands, ready to be savored, taking a little extra care to present it attractively hardly seems unreasonable.

Rothbaum lays out examples of American whiskey labels roughly chronologically, sharing his favorites from as far back as the 1800s to as recent as today’s artisan distillers. Take a look at a few of these great labels and then head on into GPL to check out the book today. Be sure to pour a dram to enjoy while you browse the pages!

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Old Forrester, introduced in 1870 by Brown, Thompson, & Co. of Louisville, Kentucky. Image courtesy of Brown-Forman Corporation.
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Bottled in Bond Old Rip Van Winkle Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the decade following the repeal of Prohibition. Image courtesy of the Van Winkle family.
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Bourbon Star Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the post-World War II era. Image courtesy Willett Distillery.
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Beam’s Choice, bottled for Continental Airlines and Braniff International Airways in the 1970s. Image courtesy Beam Suntory Inc.
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Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whiskey, a modern liquor from Waco, Texas. Image courtesy Balcones.

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