Book Review: Angels' Share by James Markert
Often when you tour a bourbon distillery in Kentucky the subject of Prohibition comes up. Most of the larger distilleries survived Prohibition in one way or another, but some shut down either forever or for many years. Some are just starting to make a comeback. There are entire towns in Kentucky, like Tyrone, which were almost completely wiped off the face of the map because of Prohibition. Distilleries were the lifeblood of many communities. It was a difficult time for everyone for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which were economic. The true stories of how distilling families survived this hardship are interesting enough, but have you ever caught yourself wondering about the stories behind the stories? Louisville native James Markert did just that in his historical fiction work, Angels’ Share. The story poses the question of how distilling families survived during Prohibition and just what it took for them to take the chance on getting back into the family business.
Most distilleries and brands will not own up to any illegal activity during Prohibition, while others proudly display photographs of notorious bootlegger George Remus right on the walls of their visitor centers. Just how much participation there was in the illegal market may never be known.
Angels’ Share takes place in the fictitious town of Twisted Tree, Kentucky, so named for two trees grown together in a mangled twist near the Old Sam Distillery where patriarch Sam McFee had hung himself in despair over the ratification of the Volstead Act. Shut down for Prohibition, the family did not immediately set out to reopen it when the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933. There were tragedies that had almost ripped the family apart, postponing the reopening of the family distillery. Bourbon finally began flowing again after a series of mysterious events which had brought the family closer together.
The storyline is full of folklore and historical places in Kentucky, including several mentions of the Rose Island Amusement Park, a central location in the plot, which was wiped out completely in the 1937 flood. William McFee, grandson of Sam McFee, is an aspiring reporter for the Courier-Journal, another central theme in the plot.
The excellent research into the history of both the distilling industry and general history in Kentucky makes this story come alive. Even if you are not a native Kentuckian, anyone who has even a passing interest in Prohibition will find this story enthralling. We all know the facts of certain distilling families choosing to reopen after Prohibition, but Angels’ Share paints a picture of the real life decisions and sacrifices that were made by some of these families- it was obviously not always a simple decision to start back into a business that could be voted out of existence again down the line.
It was a nice change of pace getting lost in a fictitious story of a distilling family almost torn apart by Prohibition and then making a triumphant comeback instead of the usual history books I tend to read. Angels’ Share is on shelves and online now.