Walk into any well-stocked modern liquor store and you’ll find dozens of American whiskey brands boasting of their independence, individuality, and “craft” bona fides. The marketing used for these labels almost uniformly relies on the economic vision that Thomas Jefferson once had for the nation: that of small, yeoman farmers operating independently. The reality behind today’s American whiskey industry, however, actually resembles the economic vision imagined by Jefferson’s ideological counterpart Alexander Hamilton: that of centralized big business. The two competing ideologies were at the heart of America’s Whiskey Rebellion and continue today, albeit in marketing offices rather than on battlefields. This discussion explores which vision—Jefferson’s or Hamilton’s—ultimately produces the most interesting whiskies, with surprising conclusions.
Reid Mitenbuler is the author of Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey (Viking, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Air Mail, Slate, the Daily Beast, and Whisky Advocate, among other publications.