Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey

Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey

by Reid Mitenbuler

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143108146
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 201,078
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Reid Mitenbuler has written about whiskey and drinking culture for the Atlantic, Slate, Saveur, Whisky Advocate, and other publications. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

• INTRODUCTION •

BENEATH THE CHAR

In 1964, a handful of U.S. congressmen found themselves in an awkward situation. A pending resolution to declare bourbon a distinctive product of the United States sat on their desks, and while most would pass it immediately, a few had reservations. The measure would convert this humble whiskey into an American classic on par with baseball or apple pie, and some legislators needed a little more justification from House staffers before granting this kind of lofty recognition. Of course, bourbon’s modest pedigree wasn’t their biggest concern: behind the measure lurked lobbyists for an industry with a shoddy reputation. During the previous decade, the Justice Department had investigated the predatory and monopolistic business tactics of the handful of companies, known as the “Big Four,” that controlled almost three-quarters of the liquor trade. There had also been a Senate investigation—known as the Kefauver Committee—that had revealed links between Big Four executives and organized crime chiefs dating back to Prohibition-era bootlegging. Surely, a resolution glorifying bourbon as an American original wasn’t great use of political capital. Nevertheless, any misgivings between the lawmakers and lobbyists were eventually smoothed out—no doubt in a way that involved drinking a lot of bourbon—and the resolution was passed.

The next day, news of bourbon’s coronation as an American icon made a scant media blip on the back pages of a few newspapers, and the resolution was soon forgotten.

A half century later, that legislation has risen above its inauspicious beginnings to become famous. Marketers and food writers love to burnish bourbon’s credentials by reminding drinkers that even Congress, in all its awesome authority, has officially declared the spirit a unique part of America’s heritage. For them, the resolution is a stamp of approval, verifying that the values implied by the frontier iconography found on countless bourbon bottles are inherently American: individualism, self-sufficiency, practicality, and guts. It means that these truths, which we Americans hold to be self-evident, are unquestionable and true. In 2014, after the National Archives loaned the original resolution to the Kentucky Distillers Association for display, the trade group’s president even went so far as to tell a crowd of onlookers that the document was “the Declaration of Independence for bourbon. . . . It’s one of the most cherished pieces of our history.”

But like all good American legends—Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, the Headless Horseman—the resolution’s story has become embellished over time. In the years following its passage, people started dressing up its language, swapping the dry legalese of “a distinctive product of the United States,” which did little more than clarify bourbon’s place of production, with the punchier “America’s Native Spirit.” This zippier but inaccurate wording would help create a folksy sense of pageantry around bourbon, a little hokey but definitely better for marketing. Today, the catchier but misquoted language has become the norm. In 2007, when Kentucky senator Jim Bunning sponsored a bill to declare September “National Bourbon Heritage Month,” the legislation he introduced to Congress not only misquoted the original resolution, it added sentimental language connecting the spirit to a loftier set of ideals than the original resolution ever intended: “family heritage, tradition, and deep-rooted legacy.”

But regardless of how much bourbon truly deserves these accolades, it wasn’t sentiment or patriotism that inspired the 1964 legislation. It was business, and a cutthroat one at that. The true driving force behind the resolution was actually a man named Lewis Rosenstiel, head of Schenley Distillers Corporation, part of the Big Four and one of the largest liquor companies in the world. The impetus for his move had happened more than a decade earlier, when Rosenstiel mistakenly evaluated that the Korean War would create whiskey shortages like those suffered during World War II. In preparation, he ordered his distilleries to produce at full blast, helping push total stocks of American whiskey held in storage past 637 million gallons, enough to supply national demand for nearly eight years. When the war quickly ended without the shortages Rosenstiel had anticipated, his surplus gave him control of roughly two-thirds of the nation’s aged whiskey stocks, according to his competitors. This was a disaster from a business perspective—Americans were drinking plenty of whiskey, but demand was dwarfed by supply. Since bourbon evaporates at a rate somewhere between 3 and 7 percent a year while it ages in wooden barrels, much of Rosenstiel’s investment threatened to vanish into thin air before he could sell it.

Rosenstiel had spent tens of millions of dollars on creative ad campaigns and lobbied Congress for changes to industry regulations that would make it easier for him to sell his whiskey. Even though most of his lobbying initiatives were good for the industry as a whole, such as tax breaks, some had met fierce resistance from Rosenstiel’s Big Four counterparts. Whenever these other executives assessed that a looming rule change might give Schenley an unfair advantage—even though it might be good for the whiskey trade in general—they’d undermine it within the Distilled Spirits Institute, the industry’s main lobbying group.

During one such impasse in 1958, over a change in tax codes, Rosenstiel responded by forming his own renegade lobbying organization, which he called the Bourbon Institute. Running the organization for him was retired navy vice admiral William Marshall, a man who had commanded a destroyer at Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion. Marshall folded the resolution into the lobbying group’s broader strategy of giving bourbon international trade protection so Rosenstiel could expand into overseas markets. In being declared “a distinctive product of the United States,” bourbon would be afforded the same regional trade designations as scotch whisky, French cognac, and champagne, giving U.S. producers like Rosenstiel a competitive advantage abroad. It would also prevent U.S. merchants from importing products called bourbon from overseas, protecting the domestic market from unwanted outsiders (one of the resolution’s few congressional opponents was indeed a New York politician representing two Manhattan heiresses earning royalties from imports of a cheap “bourbon” made at a distillery in Juárez, Mexico).

Before the 1964 resolution passed, Rosenstiel put in place the rest of his overseas sales strategy. He sent a case of bourbon to every U.S. embassy in the world and spent $35 million on a global marketing campaign. It was all a gamble—bourbon had little name recognition in foreign markets—but Rosenstiel was a solid bet to reverse that trend. By this point, he had been involved in the liquor trade for nearly a half century and hadn’t encountered much failure. He was a tough operator who had made his bones in the industry during the lawless years of Prohibition, the same decade when U.S. president Calvin Coolidge declared, “The chief business of the American people is business.” That quote would eventually become famous and no doubt was still ringing in Rosenstiel’s ears when Congress passed the 1964 resolution. Of course, by that point this corporate titan was already one of the richest men in America.

 • • • 

Like no other American product, bourbon embodies capitalism—a word that’s dirty to some, beautiful to others, but has nonetheless shaped our political and cultural life as much as it determines how we do business. Early styles of American whiskey, bourbon among them, allowed farmers to preserve the value of surplus grain crops by converting them into spirits. This liquid soon became the frontier’s de facto currency, knitting together America’s early economy. Then, when the question of taxing these spirits erupted during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the ideologies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson clashed in a battle to define the soul of American business. While the debate roared, the trappings of a cottage industry gave way to factories and, according to business lore, the term “brand name” entered the American lexicon as distillers began differentiating themselves from one another by branding their names onto the ends of whiskey barrels. The evolution wouldn’t be complete, however, until bourbon, that spirit born on the frontier, would come of age on Madison Avenue. The style of modern marketing it helped create would define the system of commerce that America would eventually spread across the globe.

But just as bourbon helped shape U.S. history, it was also shaped by it. The spirit’s recipe was determined by the migration of Americans drifting west to places where corn, its main ingredient, was more prevalent than the grains primarily used in other whiskey styles such as rye. Most of bourbon’s flavor also comes from aging in wooden barrels, which was an outgrowth of America’s shifting trade patterns: as the empire expanded, people noticed that whiskey shipped in barrels on relatively longer voyages tasted better after absorbing flavors from the wood. America’s Industrial Revolution brought scientific advances that would change bourbon, just as other technological innovations today keep doing. Finally, there’s government lobbying. This strange art—which helps guide the “invisible hand” that economist Adam Smith credited with building the wealth of nations—always has, and always will, affect whiskey by influencing production standards, regulations, and profits.

None of this history, however, is brought up in the dry language of the 1964 resolution. The declaration doesn’t explain how bourbon is the tale of a nation told on a condensed scale: the humble origins, ambition and promise, innovation driven by necessity, the dizzying wealth, corruption, downfall, and redemption. Nor did the legislation mention that textbook history and the carefully cultivated myths of the whiskey industry are often overshadowed by stories as shocking as they are impressive: the nation as it really works, built by men like Lewis Rosenstiel as well as the frontier icons you find on many bourbon bottles. We hold up bourbon as a mirror of the America psyche, but the images it reflects—seen on whiskey labels that portray our evolving attitudes toward race, class, sex, and religion—always confound expectations.

Other drinks have concrete images—beer is for the everyman even when it’s expensive and hyper-crafty, while wine is typically considered sophisticated and swanky even when you buy it at a gas station. Bourbon, though, is a shapeshifter. It can be a refined drink or it can be rough, depending on how it’s served and who’s drinking it. Sometimes it conjures up images of old men sitting around in deep leather chairs, power brokers who spend their time in rooms decorated with oil paintings of other old men with good posture and impressive facial hair. At other times it makes you think of cowboys getting arrested—one fun but probably untrue bit of drinking lore even claims that the expression “a shot of whiskey” originated from how much whiskey cowboys got for trading a round of ammunition at the saloon.

Of course, these old stereotypes are fast changing. Today, women have cracked into the old boys’ club and are just as likely to drink whiskey as men, while the rowdy cowboys are replaced by whiskey geeks who sniff cautiously at the edges of their glasses before dutifully noting aromas of “hibiscus,” “buttery oak,” or “stewed fruits” in their tasting notebooks.

Speaking of tasting notes, voluminous pages of these can be found in many other fine books that scrutinize and rank individual brands. These sources are a helpful first step for understanding whiskey, but I ultimately believe that examining the spirit’s history is the best guide. Rankings are subjective, arbitrary, and vulnerable to the industry’s marketing efforts. Certain qualities—the length of time a whiskey is aged in a barrel, proof, the grains used in different recipes—have come to be more appreciated than others. And why is that exactly? The answer is for reasons aside from what actually gives us the most pleasure. We taste with our minds as much as our senses, and perceptions of status and image—the products of economics, politics, and culture—dictate many of our “rules” about connoisseurship.

For instance, when Lewis Rosenstiel was lobbying for the 1964 resolution, he was also investing $21 million ($167 million today) on ad campaigns to reeducate the palates of drinkers toward particular whiskey styles of which he held vast surpluses. Some of it was good, but some of it wasn’t—it didn’t matter, he simply needed to get rid of the stuff. Nevertheless, you can still see the fallout from those ad campaigns today when celebrity chefs or the other various apparatchiks of the foodie-industrial complex offer questionable advice about what to buy or what is the “best.” Much of this talk is just white noise, doing little to demystify the array of bottles on store shelves today. Knowing the history, though, and how some of these “rules” came to be, clears the marketing fog and helps us make our choices more objectively. Fortunately, the lessons are usually refreshing, revealing the best bottles to be hidden gems, and not always the ones that are the most expensive or discussed.

 • • • 

Even though the true origins of the 1964 resolution aren’t particularly romantic, the document’s sentimentalized meaning has become today’s reality. This has helped drive bourbon’s resurgent popularity this century, a comeback that is often credited to the drink’s “authenticity,” a term used to describe unbroken heritage and trueness. We often imagine that bourbon connects us to a past that was somehow less complicated, and we’ve turned to it for relief from modern confusion. Bourbon’s sales this century have spiked to their highest level since Rosenstiel’s 1964 resolution, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that the uptick has come during times of confusing change. The economy is booming, but the new industries are tearing asunder the old ones and leaving inequality in their wake. Our political leaders are smart products of the meritocracy, but Washington seems more angry and gridlocked than ever. And while technology today better connects us, it has also managed to disconnect us, replacing actual conversation with the numb glow of tiny screens. Some pundits speculate that these changes spell the decline of the American Empire, but I have no idea if this is true or not. What I do know is that we could all probably use a drink of bourbon right now.

In this way, bourbon is comfort food. As the world becomes more complex, bourbon remains simple—its foundation is little more than a balanced combination of grains, mostly composed of corn, that is fermented and distilled into alcohol. It also remains gloriously inefficient as the ruthless efficiency of new industries unsettles the modern economy—the better part of a decade is required to make it well, as it sits quietly in charred oak barrels absorbing flavor from the wood and waiting patiently to be ready. And as the workplace scrambles around on increasingly shorter deadlines, bourbon refuses to be rushed—drinking it is an exercise in slow sipping, just letting the concentrated bursts of honey, spice, and vanilla flavors unwind on your tongue. The heat of its alcoholic power rewards those who patiently savor it, and punishes those who drink it too fast.

But even though bourbon connects us to the bedrock values of our past, the stories used to establish our ideas of heritage and authenticity are not always what they seem, as the story behind the 1964 resolution demonstrates. Take, too, Bulleit, a brand that is owned by Diageo, today the world’s largest spirits company and the outfit that would eventually acquire a good portion of Schenley’s portfolio following Rosenstiel’s retirement and a few other rounds of corporate takeovers. In advertisements, Bulleit bills itself as “frontier whiskey” and “The Last of the Great Bourbons.” It has one of the most eye-catching bottles on the liquor-store shelf: shaped like a tombstone, with a font reminiscent of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters, it was even used as a prop in HBO’s Old West period drama Deadwood. But the truth behind the brand is a little different: Bulleit didn’t first hit store shelves until the 1990s, its backstory as a frontier original the result of clever marketing. The giant British corporation that owns Bulleit (Diageo) as of 2014 contracted production of the bourbon out to a competing company (Four Roses in Kentucky), which itself is owned by a foreign conglomerate based out of Japan (Kirin Brewing Company).

Nothing here really screams “frontier” or conjures up notions of what most people would probably define as “authentic.” But this isn’t meant to pick on Bulleit—not only do most brands stretch the truth to create a sense of heritage, but many go much further. Michter’s suggests that its lineage traces back to 1753 and that George Washington served whiskey made by the company to his troops during the Revolution. It’s a powerful story, but the modern version of the brand actually only dates to the 1990s. The company behind it originally didn’t even make its own whiskey—it simply purchased spirits from outside suppliers (which were typically very good) and sold them under its own label. The name Michter’s came from the resurrection of a lapsed trademark created in the mid-twentieth century by an advertising executive named Lou Forman who had combined the names of his two sons, Michael and Peter. For Michter’s, the decidedly unromantic story of its true beginnings needed a little glamour, which the George Washington tale provided.*

To some, these details about popular labels like Bulleit and Michter’s rob the brands of their integrity. Perhaps, but integrity aside, the facts behind these brands don’t necessarily deprive them of their authenticity; they simply indicate what bourbon and the industry surrounding it have been for a long time. Even in the nineteenth century, at the dawn of modern liquor marketing, brands began creating fake backstories they used to appeal to customers’ desire for heritage and history. These fanciful tales are very much a part of bourbon’s authentic legacy, and have proved essential to many brands’ success. Almost none of the stories or dates on bourbon bottles are true, but asking, “Is the story true?” sort of misses the point. Instead, ask, “Is it good?” Even if it’s not, the bourbon inside the bottle usually is.

Besides, the honest truth is that you probably wouldn’t want to let most authentic frontier whiskey touch your lips. It was often an inconsistent nightmare of quality that could have raised a corpse from a concrete grave, made by amateurs selling it as a bulk commodity and hiding its taste with other ingredients in cocktails. Whiskey sold on the American frontier passed no government regulations and was doctored up to appear older than it was with chemicals that today are used to embalm cadavers. Nostalgia is a powerful force, but the whiskey you most want to drink is the modern stuff made after bureaucrats, not frontiersmen, tediously passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

But even though reality is often less romantic, it’s usually more interesting. Beneath the slick surfaces of America’s greatest tales dwell contradictions and surprising truths that make the stories real. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” but is signed by men who owned slaves. Daniel Boone made the coonskin cap a symbol of rough-hewn frontier independence, but he refused to wear one himself because he thought them “uncouth” and that top hats made of beaver fur were more dignified. Thomas Jefferson is beloved by bourbon drinkers because he established policies that helped whiskey production thrive in the decades after his presidency, but he called the drink a social “poison” and tried to persuade Americans to switch to wine instead.

Bourbon is likewise brought to life by its contradictions. It has one foot in the agricultural realm, made from grains harvested from fields, but another foot in the industrial realm, distilled in places that have always resembled the factories of their eras. Take as another example today’s craft distilling movement: it is full of people reclaiming whiskey’s individuality from corporate conglomerates, but many of those giant corporations started as craft outfits themselves, growing big because they made a good product, which isn’t something that can always be said of whiskey’s counterparts in the beer or meatpacking industries. In fact, big companies often make the most coveted bourbon brands, and our conversations about whiskey within the confines of the craft movement demand a different type of discussion than we have about other foods.

The most beguiling aspect of bourbon, however, is found in the stories of the people who really built the industry, rather than the ones with their names on the bottles. Lewis Rosenstiel sold millions of gallons of whiskey in his lifetime but never got a brand named after him or his picture on a bottle. Admittedly, the label might have looked funny: Rosenstiel wore the kind of amber-tinted glasses most people associate with the fashion sense of bookies working in Atlantic City during the 1970s. Plus, his stare was crooked, the result of his getting kicked in the face as a teenager. It was this injury that actually got Rosenstiel into the liquor business in the first place—he figured it ruined his chances of becoming a professional football player, so he dropped out of high school and went to work at his uncle’s distillery in Kentucky.

Even if Rosenstiel had attempted to name a brand after himself, one of the four Madison Avenue advertising agencies on his payroll probably would have advised against it. Nobody wants to drink something honoring the guy at the top of the food chain. The ad men no doubt would have reminded Rosenstiel that bourbon is one of those rare objects into which America invests its own image. This, they would have said, should always be a picture of ideals and aspirations—how we want to be seen—rather than a picture of shrewd operators such as himself. Not only that, but the prejudice of Rosenstiel’s times might have sniffed at his Jewish name. This sort of obstacle had already been dodged by a long history of other notable Jews who had responded to bigotry by building their fantastic success on the names of long-dead WASPs such as Elijah Craig and Evan Williams, men who had nothing to do with the liquor in the bottle but at least conformed to stereotypes. Of course, Rosenstiel had other image considerations as well: he was indicted, although never convicted, on bootlegging charges during Prohibition. And there were stories of his legendary sexual adventures—with men and women alike; he did nothing on a limited scale—at epic parties he threw at his home that were attended both by politicians and underground crime figures.

In terms of how Rosenstiel changed whiskey as a product, his legacy on that front is also a little controversial. He presided over vicious consolidation rounds that put many distillers out of business and caused many unique bourbon styles to go extinct. But with this said, Rosenstiel is also part of the reason why many bourbons today taste as good as they do. On the lobbying front, he was a driving force to change industry regulations over taxation—dictating how long distillers could age bourbon and still make a profit—that are directly responsible for the existence of some of today’s most noteworthy brands.

But here’s the greatest irony: even though Rosenstiel didn’t make it onto a bottle, he would have fit in well with the frontiersmen who did. Like them, he was an ambitious bootstrapper and a gambler who won more than he lost. He was a shtarker, the Yiddish term that’s used, half in admiration and half in fear, to describe somebody who will always get the job done and never apologize about how it was accomplished. Rosenstiel might have been accused of lining the pockets of a few politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, but he also gave $100 million to philanthropic causes; and while fierce to his enemies, he was loyal to his friends. Rosenstiel was full of contradictions, but that’s just another way of saying that he was an American, and just one in the kaleidoscopic cast of Americans who have made bourbon what it is. Of course, just to be fair, it was Rosenstiel who was most responsible for convincing Congress to designate bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States.”

Our native spirit, indeed.

• CHAPTER ONE •

BIG BANG

The earliest days of bourbon whiskey likely date to a Virginia swamp where roughly a quarter of America’s colonial population was massacred in 1622 during the Powhatan Uprising. Almost four hundred years later, a visit to the swamp is much more pleasant. The Berkeley Plantation, about twenty miles upriver from Jamestown, sits in the middle of it, and was briefly the home of Captain George Thorpe, one of the first Americans believed to have distilled liquor from corn. The finer details of his efforts are vague, which can sometimes give Thorpe’s story the feel of a legend, but what is certain is that he was eagerly exploring the New World’s potential riches when the native grain caught his eye. In America, corn grew better than the barley that Europeans used to create beer and spirits, and Thorpe wondered if it could be used instead. Berkeley today is a working museum, and historians speculate that the carpet of grass where I’m standing on the day I visit is where Thorpe had his original still, and also where attackers during the uprising bludgeoned him to death and dismembered his corpse.

Before his unfortunate demise, Thorpe was a living paradox. Here was a New World fortune seeker who condemned his fellow colonists’ bigoted attitude toward American Indians. A humanitarian as well as an inquisitive explorer, Thorpe was enthusiastic about his new home and its native people. Where his countrymen were skeptical of America’s native corn, Thorpe wrote back to London championing the grain, hoping it could be used for a drink that would raise morale and reduce the death rate caused in part by unsafe drinking water. He owned a still but he wasn’t a professional distiller looking to create an industry—America for the next century would consist mainly of cottage industries supporting the larger economies of Old World empires busily carving up the continent. Rather, Thorpe was a curious amateur feeling out his new home, trying to re-create the comforts of his past life in England by experimenting with an unfamiliar grain. His early efforts likely tasted more like paint thinner than what we’d today recognize as bourbon. Regardless, the act of distilling a distinctive New World grain was a break from Old World tradition and the first step toward a uniquely American whiskey. A forerunner of the more refined corn-based whiskey that would evolve centuries later, here was bourbon’s “Big Bang.”

 • • • 

The Berkeley Plantation where Thorpe lived began in 1619 as a kind of suburb to the original Jamestown settlement, which was established a decade earlier when the very coast itself was considered the frontier. Thorpe and other settlers moving to Virginia in those first decades were taking a risky and dangerous gamble into a “howling wilderness” ravaged by famine, disease, and even rare cases of cannibalism. Travel agents, had they existed at the time, likely would have steered clients elsewhere.

Thorpe’s name isn’t attached to any modern whiskey brand—his grisly death doesn’t make for sparkling ad copy—and nobody has bothered to spend the budget to put his name in lights. This is partly because his achievements came too early—whiskey wouldn’t become popular in America until almost two centuries after his death. Until then, it was a bit player in an ensemble dominated by ale, cider, and other spirits such as rum. When whiskey finally emerged from the shadows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, other distilling icons—people from the Ohio River Valley states where the frontier had migrated—found the spotlight instead. By the middle of the twentieth century the whiskey industry would consolidate largely within Kentucky and Tennessee, and distillers in these places naturally chose to tell the stories of hometown favorites instead of people like Thorpe. This has diminished his legacy; most of today’s books about whiskey only put Thorpe’s name in the footnotes, if they mention it at all.

But Thorpe’s Berkeley home is likely where the idea of producing spirits from a grain unique to America first appeared. In the centuries after his experiment, the rules and standards for making bourbon, the most iconic of American whiskies, were slowly developed and codified. For a spirit to be called bourbon today, federal regulations dictate that it has to be made within the borders of the United States (not just Kentucky); it must be at least 51 percent corn, and it has to be aged in charred new oak barrels. The remainder of the grain mixture used is up to the distiller, but typically includes a small amount of malted barley and a bit of rye, which provides a spicy kick to balance the corn’s sweetness (wheat is sometimes used in place of rye for a softer effect). The proofs at which it is distilled, barreled, and bottled are also carefully regulated.

It’s a lot of rules, but this is what makes Berkeley so special. It’s where George Thorpe started everything before any of the rules were even written.

 • • • 

A native of Gloucestershire, England, George Thorpe was a well-connected lawyer who had served in Parliament before partnering with three other men to form a private colony in Virginia then known as the Berkeley Hundred. He sailed from Bristol for America in 1619, leaving in England his wife, an eight-year-old daughter, and three young sons, all of whom he planned to send for once he was established across the Atlantic. After nearly three months at sea, he arrived in Virginia aboard the Margaret.

There was plenty of booze aboard the Margaret: “5½ tuns of beer, 6 tuns of cider, 11 gallons of sack, 15 gallons of aqua vitae, etc,” according to ship records. “Aqua vitae”referred to distilled spirits, a term that is often dated to the fourteenth century and credited to a physician and alchemist at the University of Paris named Arnaud de Ville-Neuve. Ville-Neuve was obsessed with unlocking the secrets—including health benefits and the possibility of achieving immortality—presented by the distillation of alcohol. He suspected that alcoholic spirits were the concentrated essence of sunlight, funneled into fruits and grains that were later fermented and distilled. He wrote that aqua vitaewas “a water of immortality. . . . It prolongs life, clears away ill humors, revives the heart, and maintains youth.” The termmeant “living water” and translated to akvavit in Swedish, eau de vie in French, and usquebaugh in Gaelic. The Gaelic version became uisge-betha, was eventually shortened to uisge, and finally became whiskey, referring to the spirit that people in the British Isles distilled from a coarse beer made out of fermented grains, predominantly malted barley.*

It’s unclear if the aqua vitae aboard the Margaret was actually whiskey (distilled from grain) or if it was gin (also typically distilled from grain but flavored with juniper and other aromatics), brandy (distilled from fruit), or rum (distilled from sugarcane by-products like molasses). Old historical documents have a confusing tendency to use spirit names interchangeably.* In any case, more important than the specific nature of the spirits on board the Margaret is the fact that they were a part of the first Thanksgiving, which the Berkeley Plantation staff today emphasizes happened here more than a year before the Pilgrims’ better-known celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts. On December 4, 1619, the group’s leader, Captain John Woodlief, led everyone to a grassy clearing to give thanks and enjoy the stale remainders of the ship’s provisions, including the aqua vitae.

This significant historic event is commemorated today with a humble brick gazebo festooned with plaques, reminding visitors that Virginia’s Thanksgiving came first, specifically “One year and seventeen days before the Pilgrims,” which can also be read to mean, “Take that, Massachusetts.”

The tale paints a far different picture of the first Thanksgiving that most Americans learn in elementary school. In the Berkeley version, the settlers make do with scraps. Every year since 1958, Berkeley has reenacted this more truthful version of Thanksgiving, although guests today have the option of swapping out the scraps for catered fare. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy even issued an official proclamation acknowledging that Virginia, and not just Massachusetts, laid claim to the nation’s earliest Thanksgiving heritage, but nobody really noticed—the story was already written.

About eighty yards beyond the first Thanksgiving site sits a large cornfield. When Thorpe first arrived in Virginia, the importance of corn quickly became evident. It grows well here, and American Indians in the area cultivated three principal varieties of the grain as an important foundation of their diet. The term maize translates to “that which sustains us,” and the crop had helped save many of America’s earliest white settlers from starving to death. Even so, many English back in London remained prejudiced against the grain. One European even wrote that maize was “fit only for beasts.”

But Thorpe embraced the corn. Part of his mission to America was to experiment with new crops, such as tobacco and silk, and corn represented a potential cash source. He learned to grow it from the natives, a group who had captured his sympathy when he still lived in London and had hired a manservant who as a youth had traveled across the Atlantic as part of the Indian princess Pocahontas’s entourage. Thorpe was impressed by the boy, and upon his arrival in America began organizing a university for natives, to convert them to Christianity and teach them about English life. Students at the school supported themselves by farming corn.

Thorpe took his role with the school seriously and, missionary zeal notwithstanding, was relatively liberal for his time. He condemned the rampant prejudice of his colonial counterparts, arguing that kindness was needed to gain the natives’ trust. Backed by the colonial government, Thorpe curried favor with the Indians in ways that bothered some of his fellow colonists. He sternly punished subordinates who offended the natives and modified the rules so Indians could roam the colony freely. When Indians complained about two rowdy English mastiffs, Thorpe had the dogs hanged in public. To attract needed support from the powerful Powhatan Confederacy tribal leader Opechancanough, a large and commanding man whose name in Algonquin means “He whose soul is white,” Thorpe replaced his traditional hut with an English-style house. The home included keyed locks that the Indian leader reportedly amused himself with for hours, locking and unlocking the unfamiliar devices hundreds of times over. Studying these gadgets designed to prevent theft and invasion, Opechancanough only could have taken them as an omen.

By this point, Thorpe had fully adopted corn as part of his new life, despite the occasional scorn of his countrymen back home. Running short of traditional ingredients to make his precious English beer, he realized that nature had gotten the last word, and decided to swap America’s abundant corn for scarce malt. As the cargo manifest of the Margaret indicates, beer was more popular with the first colonists than spirits, even though it was more difficult to ship, took up greater space, and spoiled much faster. A reminder of home, beer was worth the bother, even if recipes had to be padded with things like corn, pumpkins, parsnips, and pinecones. Thorpe wrote in a letter to friends back in London that he actually preferred his “drink of Indian corn” to proper English beer, which they no doubt considered a hick thing to say. He was becoming an American.

But the colony was a restless place, better suited for a more efficient drink that lasted longer and weighed less. Records from a year after Berkeley’s founding show beer imports falling and aqua vitae imports more than quadrupling. Medical thinking of the day held that distilled spirits were a good way to battle North American climates that were vulnerable to drastic swings in temperature. People believed that when a person sweated in warm weather, heat was drawn from internal organs and needed replacement, which hot liquor provided. In cold weather, the liquor provided warmth. Writing to his friend John Smyth back in London, Thorpe lamented the high mortality rate, the questionable water, and other colonists’ complaints about the lack of a “good drink.” This he hoped to change.

Between the first Thanksgiving site and the cornfield lies a grassy plot near a spring where Berkeley’s staff speculates Thorpe kept his still. Marking it today is a whiskey barrel converted into a drinking fountain, alongside a sign that reads, “First Whiskey Distillery 1621.” Other than this, the distillery is a ghost—records indicate that Thorpe had a copper still and make vague references to distilling, but are spare with finer details.

Similar distilling operations from the era, however, give us a pretty good idea of how Thorpe might have made whiskey, which follows a similar process today. He would have begun by drying his corn and then grinding it into a flour resembling cornmeal. Then it was time for cooking, the flour mixed with hot water to become a thin porridge that distillers call a “mash.” The mash sat until wild bits of yeast landing in it turned the liquid into a bubbling broth called a “sweet mash.” This process of fermentation can last for a few days, and when it peaks, the surface of the mixture is alive and warm as yeast spores furiously devour sugars and convert them into alcohol. During this stage, thousands of small bubbles explode on the surface. They release fumes that, from a distance, smell like fresh bread. Move in closer, and the smell gets more tangy, like sourdough starter. Stand directly over the frothy mix, and the little exploding bubbles release fumes so barely alcoholic they’ll gently sting your eyes.

Of course, this is what happens when the process goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. In Thorpe’s time, the primitive nature of equipment and methods sometimes prevented the magic from happening. Temperature was often an issue, and to keep the fermentation warm in cold weather, steaming manure might have been packed around the vats. If a batch resisted fermentation, it wasn’t out of the question to add the carcass of a dead animal to kick-start the process.

But for now let’s just assume that everything went well for Thorpe. Once the bubbling was finished, the fermented mash—resembling a thin-tasting beer absent of the lightly bitter flavor of hops—was ready for distillation. It went into a pot still sealed at the top with a thin piece of copper tubing called a worm that extended out and passed through a barrel of cool water. A low, even fire was built underneath the contraption, vaporizing the alcohol and pushing it through the worm, where it cooled and condensed back into a liquid. This clear liquid was likely distilled again through the same still to increase the alcoholic concentration, although more sophisticated stills today usually have a second distilling piece called a “doubler”to do this.

The clear liquor emerging from the second distillation is commonly referred to as “white dog.”* It’s an artful term that gives a pretty good impression of how it tastes. The nose carries the husky aroma of concentrated corn, and the taste has a hot bite that can force a sputtering cough from drinkers. The distiller’s goal when producing white dog is to capture the cleanest middle portion of the distilling run, separating it from the ends, which contain chemical compounds such as congeners and aldehydes that enhance flavor when present in small quantities, but can also ruin it if there are too many. (The middle portion of the run is sometimes called “the hearts,” while the ends are referred to as “heads,” “tails,” or “feints.”) When white dog is done right, grain notes shine through and the spirit is drinkable, but that takes skilled knowledge and a lot of practice. Like most things, it’s hard to get right the very first time, and most modern drinkers would probably find Thorpe’s whiskey about as pleasant as getting stabbed in the mouth by a screwdriver used to pry the lid off a gas can. He wasn’t making it for connoisseurship, he was making it to survive. The thinking of the day considered spirits a form of medicine, their alcoholic content a guard against unsafe drinking water. Surpluses of it could also be traded—for anything, really, but particularly for the Indians’ land, as many of Thorpe’s fellow settlers would soon learn.

A few years of aging in wood barrels greatly improves white dog, and it’s at this stage that whiskey acquires its brown color and much of its flavor. The original set of colonists at Berkeley included a cooper, who might have made barrels for storing and transporting whiskey, although we can’t know if they were ever used for that purpose. (Thorpe’s spirit was likely stored in ceramic jugs, which lose less to evaporation than porous wooden barrels.) Even if barrels had been used, they probably weren’t charred on the inside, which greatly improves flavor by caramelizing sugars in the wood that are later absorbed by the liquid (the technique wasn’t widely common for aging whiskey until the nineteenth century). Thorpe’s rough whiskey was probably made palatable by adding fruit or spices.

Thorpe didn’t live at Berkeley long enough to refine his whiskey-making techniques or write much more about his experiments. It wasn’t his main priority, and he didn’t indicate if he sold it to other settlers or traded it. He was busy with his other pursuits, and had made promising steps to improve relations with the natives. Some natives were even regularly hosted in colonial homes for dinner, although for most it was probably less an act of friendship than of cultivating a labor supply for the growing expanse of plantations.

Thorpe had also grown closer to Opechancanough, who dropped hints that he was interested in converting to Christianity. Pleased with the development, Thorpe reported optimistically back to London.

Opechancanough’s gestures, however, were a ruse—he was following the age-old practice of keeping friends close, but enemies closer, and the Indian leader was in fact inwardly seething from a decade’s worth of slights from his new neighbors. The list was long, and alcohol was involved.

Tribes in eastern North America were some of the few peoples on earth with no traditions based around alcoholic beverages (southwestern tribes, on the other hand, had been acquainted with fermented corn drinks long before Spanish explorers introduced brandy). For these eastern Indians, such as Opechancanough, their first sips of the intoxicating liquid must have been as startling as watching the first masts of European ships puncture the horizon. Many tribes invented new words to describe alcohol’s effect, but unfortunately those initial experiences were rarely positive. One of the first came in 1607, when Jamestown settler Christopher Newport—a university would be named for him many years later—sailed upriver toward the eventual Berkeley site and shared some of his liquor with a local chieftain. The chieftain fell into a stupor and thought he had been poisoned. Seizing the opportunity, Newport pretended to mumble some magic words over the Indian leader and told him he’d be better by morning. After the chief sobered up, Newport was billed as a miracle worker. Similar forms of trickery eventually evolved into a ritual of drunken trade negotiations that often ended with Native Americans giving away huge tracts of land for little in return. Years later, one settler put it bluntly: “When the object is to murder Indians, strong liquor is the main article required, for when you have them dead drunk, you may do to them as you please, without running the risk of losing your life.”

During the next decade, Opechancanough watched as whites pushed 140 miles up the James River, the edges of their plantations creeping like high tide. He bided his time through 1621 and into the early months of 1622, but the writing was on the wall. Letting the new neighbors stay would be cultural suicide. Despite his best intentions, Thorpe was Opechancanough’s enemy. The school he was planning was a declaration that native tradition and religion were in the crosshairs. “Integration” really meant subjugation and extinction.

On March 22, 1622, the day started as normal. Native men brought game and fur onto the plantations to trade. Some joined the colonists for breakfast. Others mingled in the fields and workshops. It was business as usual, although some of the colonists had received word from rival tribes that Opechancanough was planning an attack. Thorpe, for his part, was at home when a servant, suspicious of the natives’ behavior, urged him to get away. Thorpe casually dismissed the advice, as he often did at what he considered other colonists’ poor understanding of native customs.

It was advice he should have taken. Shortly thereafter, the natives struck, grabbing whatever tools or weapons lay at hand, and began slaughtering colonists in a coordinated attack throughout the countryside, killing at least 347 out of the colony’s total population of roughly 1,240. Thorpe was afforded special treatment, his body mutilated after he was bludgeoned to death. The note back to his family in London was carefully circumspect about the finer details, although some historians speculate he was dismembered. Some old history texts claim the natives were drunk on Thorpe’s whiskey when they attacked, a baseless claim completely rejected by Berkeley’s staff.

The colony took revenge, and their policies toward the natives hardened, spinning into a cycle of violence. Opechancanough was captured more than two decades later when he was nearing one hundred years of age and had just orchestrated another uprising. While he was imprisoned in Jamestown, his guard shot him in the back. Today the primary reminders that his culture ever even existed are found mainly in the names of the rivers, national parks, and military bases—Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Quantico—that you pass as you drive down the I-95 expressway that hugs the eastern coastline.

 • • • 

The beginning of whiskey in America wasn’t spectacular, and as Thorpe’s fate and the probable quality of spirits made from his corn drink can attest, there was still a long way to go. Thorpe would probably be gobsmacked at modern bourbon, the sweetly oaked stuff of today a vast departure from the harsh first drippings that dribbled from his still. Improvisational attempts at distilling other fermented grains into spirits had occurred long before Thorpe’s time, and remained improvisational well over a century after his death. These ancient spirits carried an assortment of names, many of them variations of the Gaelic usquebaugh that would later morph into “whiskey”: uisce betha (1405), uskebaeghe (1581), uscough baugh (1600), usquebagh (1682), usquebae (1715). One manual from 1731 gives a recipe for usquebaugh that resembles a kind of primordial gin, consisting of malted barley steeped with sugar, cloves, coriander, and cinnamon.

These spirits were made on both sides of the Atlantic but were minimally if at all aged, aside from any flavor they picked up from barrels used for transport. Other distilling manuals from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries show that Americans regularly channeled the innovative practicality that Thorpe had exhibited with corn. They experimented by fermenting and distilling whatever surplus crops lay at hand: carrots, turnips, whortleberries, maple syrup. In most cases, the rough edges of the unaged results were masked with herbs and flavorings.

In the decades before the American Revolution, however, all of these other spirits were vastly overshadowed by rum, made from sugarcane and molasses shipped from British-controlled parts of the Caribbean to distilleries in the rapidly industrializing coastal cities of the colonies. The sugarcane by-products would have gone to waste otherwise, thus making rum an essential and practical tool used by the Crown to knit together the various economies of its scattered empire. But as war between the colonies and England threatened the rum trade, whiskeys more closely resembling those we are familiar with today—made from the native grains of a nation verging on independence—shifted into position.

• CHAPTER TWO •

RYE AND REVOLUTION

In 2007, Washington, D.C., buzzed with talk about the resurrection of George Washington’s lost whiskey recipe. His distillery at Mount Vernon, only a few miles from the capital, had just been rebuilt and was holding its grand opening. The first bottle of whiskey coming off the stills was going to be auctioned to the highest bidder, and many came to watch the competition.

Washington notables roamed the event grounds alongside about fifty reporters and photographers. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, was present to cut the ribbon and promote Scottish-U.S. ties with a tribute to James Anderson, the Scottish farm manager who originally convinced George Washington to build the distillery after he returned home from the Revolutionary War. The first president was persuaded, and for a brief period his operation was America’s biggest whiskey distillery. The winning bidder for the first bottle from the rebuilt still would own a piece of history, one connecting whiskey to the most famous founding father and the nation’s earliest heritage.

Marvin Shanken, impresario publisher of Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, was there for the auction. Shanken had electrified international headlines two decades earlier when he entered a bidding war with the billionaire Malcolm Forbes for a bottle of French wine that had supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Shanken was a bushy but charming pleasure seeker, a man given to dropping serious coin in pursuit of the good life. Once, after his wife forbade him from smoking cigars in their Manhattan apartment, he bought the adjacent unit and turned it into a smoking lounge. At the auction, there was no doubt he’d go to similar great lengths to get the first bottle of Washington’s whiskey. After the bidding started, Shanken didn’t disappoint, securing the bottle for a cool $100,000. It was by far the highest price anyone had ever paid for an American whiskey.

At the time of Shanken’s winning bid, most Americans were blithely unaware that the first president had been involved in the whiskey industry at all, let alone that he was the nation’s biggest distiller. Washington’s distillery burned down a decade after his death in 1799, and a blanket of weeds soon covered the rubble. After that, it was effectively wiped from the nation’s collective memory. A few anti-Prohibition advocates tried to resurrect the memory of Washington’s distillery a century later, but were shouted down by a powerful temperance movement claiming the first president’s ties to whiskey would tarnish his reputation, although it was probably more worried that the connection would undermine its own cause.

Thus the distillery sat dormant until archaeologists stumbled upon the old site in 1995. By then, Prohibition was a faded memory and whiskey was starting to enjoy renewed popularity. Its cultural cachet restored, Americans no longer had qualms about linking whiskey to the most famous founding father, who personally helped engineer the nation’s transformation from a country of rum drinkers into whiskey drinkers. The whiskey industry’s chief lobbying group, no doubt sensing the powerful appeal of reestablishing a deep connection to George Washington, quickly made plans to rebuild the distillery as a working museum and tourist attraction.

The rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon sits a couple of miles away from Washington’s main home so its gristmill can utilize the passing currents of a nearby stream. The entire operation was originally part of an eight-thousand-acre working plantation that made the first president one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Construction of the main house began in 1757, shortly after Washington suffered his second major defeat for election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Sizing up his losses and pondering his next steps, he blamed the defeat on his failure to effectively accomplish what many called “swilling the planters with bumbo.”

What this meant was that he had failed to ply voters with alcohol, a common if illegal practice that politicians from the era referred to as “treating.” The colonies inherited the habit from England, and it became an essential part of the American political process well into the nineteenth century. James Madison, who lost an election in 1777 to a candidate who gave out more free alcohol to voters, would later write that voters traveling long distances to polling stations expected their trips to be rewarded with more than just democracy. Washington was savvier when he ran again in 1758. He swilled the planters with enough booze to win Frederick County with 310 votes to his opponent’s 45.

“Bumbo” wasn’t a nickname for whiskey or even a generalized term for alcohol. It was a rum-based drink made with sugar and spices such as nutmeg or cinnamon. Rum dominated the colonial drinkscape before it was usurped by whiskey following the Revolution, and tavern records from the time regularly show it outselling all other drinks combined. It was both the colonists’ favorite drink and a perfect symbol of colonial economics and politics. Made from sugarcane and molasses shipped from British-controlled parts of the Caribbean to commercial distilleries popping up in rapidly industrializing parts of New England, rum provided a mechanism for the Crown to integrate its empire by pairing the distinct talents of its far-flung points—New England had the customer base and distilleries, the Caribbean had an abundance of cheap molasses. By 1763, Boston brimmed with more than thirty rum distilleries, and nearly a thousand ships each year brought the drink in and out of its harbor. Rum and molasses composed 20 percent of the city’s imports, making it the region’s leading industry.

The brisk trade, however, was plagued by imbalances, and colonists relied on British imports more than the reverse. The colonists paid for their imports with gold and silver, then suffered currency shortages when England didn’t buy anything in return. Credit was one answer, but English financiers hesitated to invest in remote projects, forcing many colonial merchants to barter using rum when cash was short. The spirit was easy to make, relatively simple to ship, and maintained a value that fluctuated less than paper money.

As colonists increasingly used rum as a barter tool for international trade, the British soon introduced tariffs to ensure they got a fair share of the growing profits. The Molasses Act was passed in 1733, prompted by British sugar planters who pulled strings in Parliament to establish duties making colonial imports of French and Spanish molasses more expensive than British molasses from the West Indies. Unfazed, colonists shrugged off the duties and spent the next three decades simply smuggling the cheaper molasses. Corrupt British customs officials usually doctored the paperwork.

In 1764, England became more serious when it passed the Sugar Act. The measure increased the price that New England rum distilleries paid for molasses by further curtailing foreign imports, and was once again a maneuver by Parliament to help its cronies in the Caribbean. But whereas the colonists had considered the Molasses Act a mere nuisance, the Sugar Act touched a nerve. It landed amid an economic depression, closing many distilleries and forcing the rest to muddle along, enduring higher costs. Colonists began carving time out of their busy smuggling schedules to protest and begin writing pamphlets. One title breathlessly said it all: Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act as It Will Be Prejudicial to the Trade Not Only of the Northern Colonies But to Those of Great Britain Also.

The colonists’ outcry convinced England to roll back parts of the act, but that did little to settle the matter. They were now talking, organizing, and warming up the presses. England, working to prevent the colonists from becoming emboldened by their victory, quickly imposed other taxes. The Sugar Act was replaced by the Stamp Act, which was an even more burdensome tax on all varieties of printed papers, including newspapers, playing cards, contracts, and pamphlets with ridiculously long titles.

Colonists responded with a shorter message: “No taxation without representation.”

On the brink of war, just two months before the battles at Lexington and Concord, a group of British soldiers marched toward Salem, Massachusetts, and were confronted by an angry mob blocking the only bridge into town. A colonist named Joseph Whicher stepped forward from the crowd and dared the soldiers to fight, pulling back the sides of his shirt to reveal his bare chest. A British soldier glanced him with his bayonet—it was just a little warning telling the colonist to back off, but enough to spill a thin line of blood down the front of Whicher’s shirt. The Revolutionary War’s first blood was drawn, and from a man who happened to be the foreman of a local rum distillery, a spirit that was about to be ousted in favor of whiskey.

 • • • 

George Washington was a moderate drinker, usually preferring the expensive Madeira or brandy favored by many in his high social class. But most Americans enjoyed the ubiquitous rum, including the regular troops serving under Washington in the war, who were given a daily four-ounce ration of the spirit for morale and health. Shortly after the war started, however, British blockades of molasses shipments from the Caribbean created shortages of the drink. When American major general Horatio Gates prepared to fight the British in South Carolina during the summer of 1780, as British troops swept up the coast from the south in a series of successful offensives, he found his rum supplies bare. He did, however, have plenty of molasses. Figuring the raw material of rum was better than nothing, Gates distributed the sweet goo among his men without realizing it was a laxative. He ultimately lost to the British.

Rum soon became a political target. In the middle of the war Congess moved to levy import duties on molasses, but the measure, which required unanimous consent, was blocked by a Rhode Island delegation protecting rum distilleries in the state. That was rum’s last political victory, however. Once the federal government was established at the war’s end, Congress, which didn’t need unanimous consent anymore, put the rum and molasses duties in place.

Rum was falling fast, and per capita consumption during the war dropped by more than half. Pushed by necessity to find alternatives, the United States began acquiring a taste for whiskey, a more patriotic alternative made from domestic grain. After patriot troops lost a well-fought battle to the British at Germantown in October 1777, Congress sent the fighters thirty casks of whiskey as a reward. The French, equally impressed by the patriots’ fighting at the battle, as well as at Saratoga, decided to assist the struggling rebellion. Americans repaid the gesture by naming an assortment of frontier areas for French towns and people. These included Bourbon County in present-day Kentucky, which in the following decades would emerge as an important whiskey-producing area.

As the fighting raged, Washington lobbied Congress for the construction of public distilleries in different states, writing in one letter that “It is necessary, there should always be a Sufficient Quantity of Spirits with the Army.” During the winter at Valley Forge, where vicious bouts of dysentery and typhoid killed around 20 percent of the twelve thousand troops, rum shortages were particularly bad, forcing Washington to constantly reallocate supplies. Eventually, he ordered the switch to whiskey. While ration orders had previously stipulated rum specifically, Washington broadened them to read, “One gill of whiskey or spirits, as or when they are available.”

America’s transition to whiskey was also sped along by backwoods settlers who became some of Washington’s favorite fighters in the war. Even as combat raged, Americans continued to migrate west, where they often protected the Continental Army’s flank by fighting Indians recruited by the British. The frontier, however, was isolated from shipments of rum or the raw materials needed to make it. In contrast, it was an ideal place for whiskey: water flowed, grain grew, and plenty of wood was available to burn under the stills. Many of the settlers were also skilled at the practice, hailing from a variety of European backgrounds—German, Scottish, Irish, Scotch-Irish—that all had strong legacies of distilling either brandy or grain spirits.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Bourbon Empire"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Reid Mitenbuler.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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