The untold story of the United States

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The untold story of the United States

Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America by Brian F. Haara, University of Nebraska Press, US $28.95, Pp 184, November 2018, ISBN 978-1640120853

Most of us have read or heard about the Bottled-In-Bond Act and the Taft Decision but few of us really know they are two of the landmark bourbon citations. Still fewer know that bourbon has been behind many areas of law such as trademark, breach of contract, governmental regulation, taxation, and consumer protection. If you dig a little, you will realize that bourbon and law are apparently connected in negative ways — Prohibition, illegal still and organized crime. In other words, these connections boil down to lawlessness. Lawlessness, however, is the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg for Bourbon. In Bourbon Justice, Brian F. Haara says that the real history of Bourbon is hidden beneath the surface. It is, in fact, the foundation of American commercial law and its relation to American history as a whole. In other words, Haara actually tells the history of America when he talks about the development of commercial laws, guiding our nation from an often reckless laissez-faire mentality, through the growing pains of industrialization, past the overcorrection of Prohibition, and into the tranquility of finally becoming a nation of laws.

In the past, historians have told American history and bourbon history separately, occasionally intertwined. So much of bourbon history has been lost due to various reasons. Brian F. Haara says that because of lack of traditional historical evidence, lawsuits are an abundant resource not just for information but for facts that satisfied rigorous evidentiary standards or withstood the pressure of cross-examination and were found to be reliable. Lawsuits might be the best source of facts. That explains why, a few exceptions notwithstanding, most sources cited in Bourbon Justice are a lawsuit, statute, or regulation. Brian F. Haara argues that no single commodity has contributed more to the development of American legal history than Bourbon. Therefore, bourbon and bourbon laws trace the development of the United States as a nation, from conquering the wild frontier to rugged individualism to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit to establishing a nation of laws. Bourbon — and whiskey more generally — helped shape the growth and maturation of many substantive areas of the American law, like a trademark, breach of contract, fraud, governmental regulation and taxation, and consumer protection.

Brian F. Haara says that we cannot tell this story by using brandy, rum, or even wine, which all predate bourbon and have no meaningful presence in American legal history. None of them is American while Bourbon is distinctly American. Bourbon had certainly always been uniquely American although Congress officially recognized this distinctiveness only in 1964. Bourbon is distinctly American because Americans are often celebrated as entrepreneurial mavericks.

Haara says that bourbon’s popularity subsided after it was designated as a distinctive product of the United States, and it hit rock bottom in the 1980s. Vodka and wine coolers ruled the day and there was very little interest in bourbon. But, soon bourbon was staging a comeback, and a resurgence of litigation came with it to help shape current-day trademark and commercial rights. Bourbon lawsuits now defined standards of practice for the entire spirits industry for labeling and truth-in-advertising issues. Just as there are no shortages of old bourbon lawsuits to tell the story of American history, bourbon remains at the forefront of present-day litigation. Bourbon distillers have always found the right balance between innovation and tradition and mixing Kentucky charm with cutthroat litigation, which makes telling the history of America through the lens of bourbon lawsuits all the more entertaining.

Bourbon Justice is a very revealing book. It tracks the history of bourbon and how it shaped America’s commercial law. The story of bourbon is the story of modern America and Brian Haara tells us that story. Haara dusted the old dusty lawsuits and brought out our untold story buried in those lawsuits and shelved safely away from public eyes. He gives a new and fresh perspective to look at the history of the United States and bourbon. This brilliantly-written history book is written for both historians and laypeople. Haara has made reading law and history enjoyable.

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