In her latest dark romance novel, The Bourbon Thief, Tiffany Reisz spins a disturbing, liquor-soaked narrative that centers around a family bourbon distillery. Weaving a plot that crosses generations of Kentucky natives, from old Southern gentry to contemporary con artists, Reisz approaches the oft-romanticized distilling business with a critical eye and wicked sense of humor.
Supercall talked with Reisz to learn her own thoughts on drinking, why distilling is appropriate for the Southern gothic genre, and how to burn up bourbon.
Supercall: Bourbon plays a huge role in the book. Do you ever drink while writing?
Tiffany Reisz: I once tried drinking while writing because I had aspirations of being the female Hemingway, but after a glass of wine I just wanted to sleep. Then I remembered when he said “write drunk, edit sober” it was metaphorical, not literal advice.
I was born and raised in Kentucky and lived a few years in Lexington, which is right along the Bourbon Trail. I incorporated Kentucky thoroughbred horseracing in a book, so I thought about what else was pure Kentucky. The answer of course is bourbon.
SC: What makes bourbon a good topic for a work of Southern Gothic fiction?
TR: It’s ripe for metaphor. Bourbon is known as “the honest spirit” because nothing extra goes into it. You can’t add anything artificial or flavor it with anything but the charred wood of the bourbon barrels. It also has the concept of the Angel’s Share. As the bourbon ages, it evaporates, and they say the angels drink it. All the mythos made it a lot of fun to write about. Plus, it tastes good.
SC: You deconstruct a lot of that mysticism. Distillers often discuss the Angel’s Share very wistfully, but in your book it becomes a metaphor for the tragic cost characters must pay for good fortune. Did you go into the book looking to take bourbon down a peg?
TR: By the end we have a character who is starting her own distillery. She’s trying to create an even more honest spirit. It’s impossible to separate Kentucky and bourbon from the dark history of the South and the Civil War and slavery, and the dark times of Prohibition when the distilleries were shut down. It’s a complicated history and I wanted to explore that. The drink itself is not to blame.
SC: Speaking of the dark, complex past of bourbon, Jack Daniel’s recently made changes to its official brand history to acknowledge the role of Nearis Green, a slave who taught Daniel the distilling practice. What do you think about brands addressing these aspects of their pasts?
TR: I’m glad that these stories are starting to come out, though it’s certainly belated. There’s a secret history to the South that’s been suppressed. There’s this lingering guilt a lot of people feel, but probably not enough people feel.
SC: Did you know a lot about bourbon before you started, or was this a learning process?
TR: I didn’t know much beyond my love for a good Bourbon Sour. I had a lot of fun going to a lot of distilleries on the Bourbon Trail—the tour guides are a wealth of information and gossip. I found that even though I’d been born and raised in Kentucky, I’d taken the area for granted, so it was exciting to learn more.
SC: What was your favorite distillery?
TR: Buffalo Trace was interesting because the distillery has flooded in the past. It’s right near the Kentucky River, putting it generally where the fictional Red Thread distillery would have been in the book. I got to talk to one of the tour guides about the flood. He recalled wading through chest-high water and seeing rats swimming for their lives around him. I love these little details that come out when you talk to the people that work there.
SC: Did any other brand histories inspire the book?
TR: There were four distilleries that stayed open in Kentucky during Prohibition for “medicinal purposes.” Doctors were writing millions of prescriptions for alcohol for people who supposedly needed it as medicine. I pretended Red Thread was one of the handful that stayed open.
This might be giving away a little bit, but there was a fire at the Heaven Hill distillery in 1996 which inspired me. Bourbon burns very, very hot. There are newspaper articles about it that say, even 500 feet away, the firemen’s helmets were starting to melt. No one knows what started it because there was no evidence left after everything burned.
SC: Your book follows two strong female protagonists, who are often underestimated and patronized by men. Did you get a chance to speak to any women in the spirits business?
TR: Unfortunately, no. It’s very male-dominated. There is one historical example that leaps to mind: Margie Samuels, wife of William Samuels of Maker’s Mark. She designed the logo, and the red wax seal was her idea. She was incredibly important to the history of Maker’s Mark. Overall, though, it’s a very macho business. It was fun to create a fictional character that gets her own distillery in the end.
SC: Ultimately, this is a romance novel. How do you see the relationship between booze and romance and sex? Where does alcohol fit in?
TR: The place of alcohol in the story of Tamara and Levi is very atypical. They’re not big drinkers, but they own a distillery that is fraught with drama and peril. But it was also fun to have some of my characters meet at a bourbon bar. Plenty of great relationships have started at bourbon bars. And plenty have ended there too.