There’s a fine art to creating a liquor brand. It involves convincing people to buy booze with stories crafted around popular notions of heritage and legacy. Today’s drinkers are familiar with the classic formulas: Rum is named for pirates or tropical islands (think Mount Gay or Captain Morgan); scotch brands enshrine beautiful but unpronounceable places in Scotland (Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Auchentoshan); and gin brands conjure pictures of the British empire sending adventurous young men to India clad in jodhpurs and pith helmets (Bombay Sapphire, Old Raj). American whiskey brands often celebrate individuals who represent idealized values—independence, pragmatism, guts—of the American frontier. It’s a patriotic formula that markets well, even though many of the stories behind the brands are false. For instance, Elijah Craig is sometimes credited with inventing bourbon and Evan Williams is often called Kentucky’s “first” distiller, even though historians have long dismissed the claims. These are little more than marketing shticks built around a romanticized stereotype: WASPs who cleared the land and made it great (with a handful of Catholic exceptions such as Basil Hayden or Henry McKenna).
In 1867, a Jewish immigrant by the name of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim arrived to America from Germany. He rode in steerage during his trip across the Atlantic and survived on potatoes—a humble beginning to the bootstrapping success story he would tell decades later, after building one of the biggest whiskey brands in the world. Despite his achievements within the whiskey industry, Bernheim was always ambivalent about the liquor business, a trade he had fallen into in 1868 after two distillers from Paducah, Kentucky, enlisted him for his bookkeeping abilities. After earning enough money to bring his brother Bernard over from Europe, the two began their own distillery in 1872. The new operation needed its own brand, which presented a dilemma: What should Bernheim call it? His decision would not only reveal how Americans filter notions of history and national myth, but also how the rich Jewish heritage of bourbon, the most iconic of American whiskies, would be lost from the drink’s traditional narrative.