Looking for a good read? Here is a recommendation. I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review. You do not have to agree with everything every author has written (I do not), but the fiction I review is entertaining (and often thought-provoking) and the non-fiction contain ideas worth reading.
Reviewed by Mark Lardas
August 6, 2023
“Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskey,” by Andrew Braunberg, State House Press, 2023, 202 pages, $16.95 (paperback)
Texas and whiskey go back to its beginnings. The Cherokee name of the Republic of Texas’s first President, Sam Houston, was “Big Drunk.” He did not get drunk on Chablis. He drank whiskey.
“Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskey,” by Andrew Braunberg tells the story of Texas and distillation. He starts at the beginning and takes the story forward to the present.
It starts earlier than most might imagine. Braunberg shows the first tipple distilled in Texas was brandy, starting in the 16th century. The product of Spanish vineyards along the Rio Grande it was big business through the end of the 1700s. Whiskey came later, after rum. It arrived with the Old 300, Moses Austin’s first Anglo colony. Sugar-based rum lost out to whiskey, because grain was easier to produce in Texas.
Braunberg describes what happened over the next century. The manufactories of the 19th century were small, undercapitalized enterprises, run by sole proprietors. The process involved steam engines (then little understood), volatile gases and manufacturers occasionally sampling the wares as they made them. Fires and explosions – with the resulting bloodshed – frequently resulted. Everyone was going to get rich making whiskey, but wealth rarely followed.
Braunberg takes readers into the mysteries of distilling. Part of the book describes the history of whiskey-making and the changes in the process developed during the 19th century. This includes a discussion of the role aging in charred barrels play. (Prior to aging all whiskey was “white lighting” a clear spirit with a mule’s kick.)
He shows the place whiskey played in Texas society. He presents its saloon culture, showing how whiskey mixed with and became part of the cowboy folklore. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the earlier parts of the book, most whiskey consumed in Texas between the Civil War and Prohibition was manufactured outside Texas.
He also shows how abolition grew in Texas, an outgrowth of the disorder caused by drunken behavior accompanying Texas’s saloon culture. The reaction was inevitable. Carry Nation, a leading abolitionist, started her crusade in Texas. Texas was one of the leading states in the movement, banning alcohol even before Prohibition.
While the book largely ends at Prohibition, Braunberg adds a small coda ending the book, showing the rise of the microdistillery industry in Texas. “Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed” is and entertaining and informative book. Braunberg shows readers an underappreciated part of Texas history.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.