Boozy Book Review: Bourbon and Bullets

photo  by Maggie Kimberl

photo by Maggie Kimberl

This book shines a light on America’s long tradition of military veteran distillers.

“Perhaps it is almost justice dad that we should have to go through war every so often to pay for the peace years - so filled with plenty and pleasure as compared with other people on Earth. That sounds harsh but it is true that war brings forth in people a certain vitality, spirit and a mettle that lies dormant in the serene years.”

Julian P. Van Winkle, Jr. wrote that in a letter to his father, Pappy, during his time serving in the Pacific theater in World War II. He would return from that war to the family business, where it is said he ran the Stitzel-Weller distillery like a military operation and often hired veterans for his sales force. When you take a tour at a whiskey distillery, sometimes you will hear footnote stories about soldiers who were paid one week’s pay for every month they served in a war, or about a revered Master Distiller’s service before answering their whiskey calling. The fact is, many distilleries employ veterans in some capacity, or have founders who are veterans, or are named for veterans, or somehow have veterans somewhere in their long and storied histories. Now many of these stories have finally been captured in John C. Tramazzo’s Bourbon & Bullets (Foreword Fred Minnick).

At Buffalo Trace, Elmer T. Lee began the career that would lead to his elevation to Master Distiller after returning from WWII, under the guidance of Colonel Blanton. Before the war, Jimmy Johnson, Jr., father of the recent Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee Freddie Johnson, was already hard at work when he took a leave of absence to enlist in the military to build runways for military planes in war zones in a segregated unit. He received one week’s pay for every month he served, and was guaranteed his job back when he returned from the war. Johnson and Lee worked together at the distillery for decades after the war, and while this is probably the best known story of military veterans returning to the distilling industry after their service, there are far more stories than you can imagine.

The late, great Dave Pickerell was a West Point graduate who eventually returned to his alma mater to teach chemistry before leaving the military to start his journey in the distilling industry. Dick Newman, who went from his tenure at Austin Nichols to partner with Joe Magliocco to help revive the Michter’s brand was a veteran of the Korean War.

But even in many of the more obscure distilleries there are veterans who envisioned distilling while deployed overseas, including Kevin Kurland of Smoky Quartz Distillery who, while reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about distilling during an indirect fire attack, thought to himself, “That sounded a lot more fun than what I was doing at the time.”

We’ve also heard the stories of how Jim Beam came to dominate the global bourbon market by following the U.S. military everywhere it went, but there are actually many different stories about how soldiers came to find their pieces of home wherever they happened to be.

This book is more than just war stories about famous distillers, though there are plenty of those as well. It’s about the spirit of of America as told through the lens of distilled spirits as far back as the Revolutionary War, when whiskey was a standard part of rations. It’s about dreams of better days ahead and honoring those who came before. Whiskey has always been a part of American culture, and this book is a perfect example of how that presence has changed over time.