Industry News

Fred Minnick on Tariffs, Trade Deals, and Bourbon

The award-winning bourbon writer weighs in on his recent Op-Ed concerning politics and the spirits industry.
A man holding whiskey in a snifter.
Writer Fred Minnick knows all there is to know about bourbon's rich history. Photo courtesy of Fred Minnick.

This summer, bourbon writer Fred Minnick made waves with his New York Times op-ed titled "Will Trump Kill the Bourbon Boom?" In it, he writes, "If President Trump follows through on his threat to impose tariffs on steel imports, expect to see an immediate response from the European Union — including retaliatory tariffs on, of all things, bourbon."

Minnick makes the fascinating case that this uniquely American product, which is widely successful overseas, could very well be caught in the middle of future trade deals. He draws upon a similar case in 2009, where the United States battled with the European Union on beef and cheese. Washington wanted Brussels to lift their ban on American beef, so they struck back with a 300 percent tariff on a European delicacy: Roquefort cheese. It worked.

We caught up with the recent Spirited Award winner (for Best New Spirits Book) to get a bourbon writer's take on tariffs, trade wars, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Spirited Award winner Fred Minnick. Fred Minnick won the 2017 Spirited Award for his book Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.

TOTC: So what made a whiskey writer take on trade in The New York Times?

FM: I spend a lot of time studying trade and how it impacts spirits; I've studied the various tariffs and negotiations. Some people have fun, and I read 1930's trade agreements. It's a personal enjoyment of mine to study it.

I saw the potential downside of these trade deals and what Trump would rework, and I wanted to start tracking it, because these are deals that could specifically affect bourbon.

Can you give a little more history on bourbon and trade deals?

NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] was a really good trade agreement for bourbon. It eliminated tariffs with Mexico and it helped with Canada. Canada now drinks a ton of bourbon. NAFTA opened up a lot of things for American whiskey and the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] sought to do the same thing in a lot of ways. They were going to reduce tariffs in Malaysia and Vietnam — these incredible emerging markets for bourbon.

Why would bourbon specifically be hit with a tariff?

It's a unique product to the United States, and that has an impact on our country. Not only that, but bourbon pulls on the heartstrings of Americans. We love bourbon. And the rest of the world loves it. Europeans were irate about the thought of a loss of bourbon. It's a world issue.

The other piece to the puzzle is that a majority of bourbon is made in our Senate Majority Leader's backyard. When you do retaliatory tariffs, they can hit in potential hot spots. Anytime there's a trade war, Florida will get hit because it's a swing state.

This all started over steel, so this is basically the EU floating the idea that if you tariff our steel, we'll do this. I can totally see another tariff being put on, and I can see the U.S. retaliating.

It must be difficult to discuss politics and bourbon in these politically divisive times.

Bourbon is bipartisan. Frankly, I thought my piece was pretty policy-oriented, but even after that, I had people telling me it was fake news. It's from both sides. It's not one party.
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