Bourbon and Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service
John C. Tramazzo
Potomac Books, 2018
Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America
Brian F. Haara
Potomac Books, 2018
Neither book really rises to anything beyond cocktail facts. Bourbon Justice does well to show how distillery laws augmented and often set the groundwork for other legal cases having nothing to do with spirits, yet it fails to engaged the topics with any force or depth, merely saying ‘it’s because of bourbon.’ Bourbon and Bullets is able to present a deep collection of intense and curious connections between our armed forces from the very beginning of the nation and the whiskey industry, but it never attempts to rise up beyond mere trivia or compendium. These are both books that ought to be in every bourbon lover’s library and will certainly be read with the comparable pleasure one gets from sipping whiskey. If you are not an aficionado, you’ll likely find these works tedious.
Bourbon and Bullets never really asks why soldiers need bourbon, thus ignoring any moral issues. It quietly skirts the notion genuine courage doesn’t need to be bolstered by spirits, medicating yourself to the point of numbness so to murder is at the very least mildly problematic, and many and most soldiers continue drinking after their time in battle due to intense trauma. However, in Bourbon and Bullets, we learn the distilling industry will always be there to profit. “America was built, and occasionally damaged, by firepower and whiskey,” is the closest Tramazzo gets to the notion there might be a flicker of culpability with the industry.
Also not a few passages are written in a style and tone reminiscent of the reports composed by ambitious first-year college students: “The nation’s mood changed dramatically during the Vietnam War. A generation of young drinkers rejected everything their parents stood for, to include their alcoholic beverage of choice. Young people turned to clear, exotic spirits like vodka, gin, and tequila. Bourbon nearly disappeared from the American drinking scene, forcing large distilleries to dramatically cut production.” This kind of paragraph with its sweeping generalizations, random assertions, and lack of support reads like a paper Tramazzo lifted from a first year composition course.
Like Tramazzo’s book, Brian Haara’s Bourbon Justice is a compendium of quirky whiskey facts only this time centered around how legal precedent was established or, if you will, distilled by the whiskey industry. Haara does an excellent job linking major legal issues to the whiskey industry–branding, product and consumer safety, and intellectual property rights. However, often legal cases are presented as being parallel to the issues and judgments we’re familiar with and less analyzed as having genuinely contributed to the broader decision-making. Such a tactic leaves it to readers to assume a concrete connection, a move with places most of Haara’s diligence into the category of trivia.
While thoroughly researched and compiled, Bourbon and Bullets conveniently ignores how whiskey was used as a key pillar to orchestrate the genocide of the U.S. indigenous population. While Tramazzo is happy to talk about Old Crow, it never occurs to him to talk about Jim Crow, and there’s utterly no time for an exploration of how distilling deep ties with the military also led to endemic domestic abuse (the foundational reason for the temperance movement). Similarly, Bourbon Justice acts as if these areas have no legal standing and are of the few bearing zero impact from the whiskey industry (such is obviously not the case). These blindspots allow the connection between bourbon, the US military, and our legal system to be told as a romance–jingoistic, revisionist, and celebratory.
Of the two books, Bourbon Justice is the more compelling and relevant as it is not just a history but an attempt to show how our legal world is spun from our everyday wants and needs. In Haara’s case, he settles in on bourbon as the device to accomplish this and does a solid job. Tramazzo’s Bourbon and Bullets is able to accomplish something similar, but his work is more akin to a reference manual allowing connoisseurs to participate in that delightful pasttime of tracing lineage and marking pedigree. Both works, however, suffer from the same major flaws.
Whiskey lovers and enthusiasts will find both of these books fascinating as they celebrate their avocation.
About the Authors
John C. Tramazzo is an active duty Army officer and veteran of several deployments in support of the Global War on Terror. He is also an American whiskey enthusiast, Kentucky Colonel, and the founder of the popular blog bourbonscout.com.
Brian Haara is a public speaker and legal writer, and he practices law as co-managing partner of Tachau Meek PLC, a business litigation firm. He writes about bourbon history and law on his blog Sipp’n Corn and was featured in the documentary Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon. For more information about the author visit brianhaara.com.