It’s hardly news that military men and women have been known to enjoy a stiff drink. “American service members carried whiskey into battle from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, Manila, and Da Nang,” John C. Tramazzo writes in Bourbon & Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press, 296 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). It “bolstered their courage, calmed their nerves, and treated their maladies.”
Less well known is the significant role that this country’s veterans have played in whiskey production. That’s the subject of Tramazzo’s entertaining book, which is packed with fascinating details.
During the 1960s, many young people “rejected everything their parents stood for, including their alcoholic beverage of choice,” Tramazzo—a U.S. Army captain who has served in Afghanistan—notes. “Bourbon nearly disappeared from the American drinking scene. However, overseas sales helped keep bourbon afloat, thanks in particular to sales on military bases.”
Tramazzo, who runs the bourbonscout.com website, recounts a story the famed Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway told about riding in a helicopter during the siege of Plei Mei Special Forces Camp. “When the Huey landed, a sergeant major ran up to Galloway along with an angry field grade officer. [Galloway said,] ‘The dialogue goes something like this: Who the hell are you? A reporter. Son, I need everything in the goddamn world from food and ammo to water, medevac, [and] reinforcements, and I wouldn’t mind a bottle of Jim Beam. But what I do not need is a goddamn reporter!’”
That was in 1965, the year the Army drafted Bob Stillnovich, who later led a platoon in the Thirty-Fifth Infantry Regiment and served nearly eighteen months in what Tramazzo calls “the most dangerous jungles of South Vietnam.” Afterward, Stillnovich pursued several lines of work, eventually co-founding the award-winning Golden Distillery (now part of Old Line in Baltimore).
Another entrepreneurial Vietnam War veteran, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., was a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine battalion north of the Da Nang Airbase in 1968. During the battle of Khe San, Bulleit asked himself: “How can men come to this?” Nineteen years later, a successful lawyer, he established a bourbon company, now part of London-based Diageo. In 2016, Bulleit bourbons won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Amid this celebration of booze, Tramazzo sounds a cautionary note: “[W]hile whiskey has comforted and intrigued me and played an important role in the American military community, one cannot ignore that it has been, and always will be, destructive when abused. No group understands that reality more than veterans of war do.”
He says he was “proud to discover” that a World War I veteran, Bill Wilson, co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.