American Whiskey History

The Book of Bourbon

The below information has been republished with permission of the authors, Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan. The views and opinions expressed in the following book chapters are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Distilled Spirits Council or its member companies. For more information, please visit


The origins of whiskey can be traced back to the Medieval monks of both Ireland and Scotland, but now, those two countries make their own distinctive styles of their native spirit. So it is with American whiskey--the original concept may have been imported from far away lands, but some 300 years later, American a product unto itself.

American whiskey started its life as a raw, unaged spirit that had, as its main attribute, the power to spur the courage of the first colonists. And through the years, whiskey has developed into the complex, big-bodied, distinctively American bourbons, ryes, and Tennessee whiskeys that today, are savored by connoisseurs, sipped by grandmothers, tossed back by barflies, and “discovered” by almost every American as he or she reaches that magical age of twenty-one. American whiskey, itself, has reached maturity in relatively recent years, after spending a 300-year adolescence being molded by every major event that has affected its native country. And at times, the reverse is true--whiskey has affected the nation itself.

Whiskey-making was one of the first cottage industries in the land; it was responsible for George Washington mustering federal troops for the first time, and whiskey went with the early pioneers as they traveled westward to explore new territories. Whiskey was a spirit of contention during the Civil War, and was, in part, the reason that Grant never served a third term in the White House. Whiskey spurred the women of America to lead a crusade that led to Prohibition, and has played a part in every major war this nation has seen. In short, where America has been, so has American whiskey--and where whiskey has traveled, so have Americans been influenced by its presence.

Bourbon, in fact, is so darned American, that, in 1964, Congress itself recognized it as “a distinctive product of the U.S.A.” And although straight rye, and Tennessee whiskeys haven’t attained such a prestigious honor, they too have traveled the same dusty trails that led to today’s superhighways and are as distinctively American as any bourbon whiskey.

When the first immigrants arrived on this continent, their love for alcohol in almost any shape or form led to a chain of events that would culminate in the creation of distinctive American whiskeys. By tracing the thirst the settlers wanted to slake we can plot the development of American whiskey from the early days of the settlers in Virginia and New England all the way through time to today. Furthermore, we can track the creation of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey back to their very roots--a rare opportunity when the subject is food or drink.

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The Settler’s Search for a Decent Drink

Beer was probably the first kind of beverage alcohol produced in the early settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth. The early setters brought quite a supply of ale and spirits with them from England, but when their supplies dwindled, they had no choice but to brew their own beer, using whatever ingredients were close at hand. By the early 1620s, colonists in Virginia were brewing beer that they claimed would “tide them over” until they got used to the water. Captain James Thorpe, a missionary in Virginia at that time, wrote to friends in London that he had learned to make a drink from Indian corn that was so good, he sometimes chose it over English beer. Was Thorpe actually distilling corn whiskey at the time? Though that possibility is not unthinkable, it’s more probable that he was making corn beer. Whatever his product actually was, however, was strong enough to get a whole bunch of native Americans so drunk that they scalped and killed him in 1622.

Further north, the Pilgrims also were making beer, and according to John Hull Brown in his book, Early American Beverages, they weren’t above adding flavorings in the form of molasses, tree barks (spruce, birch, and sassafras were popular), and fruit and vegetables, such as apples and pumpkins, to their brews. Though many types of grapes were native to America, the wines they produced were unlike the ones the Europeans were used to, and the colonists tried to cultivate European strains. However, European Vitis vinifera grapevines didn’t fare well on the East Coast. Undeterred, they turned their talents to fermenting other fruits--and even vegetables. They made “wines” from elderberries, parsnips, pumpkins, and the like--if it fermented, they turned it into some form of beverage alcohol or other.

The first settlers imported some alcohol too--wines, brandy, and fortified wines such as Madeira, “sack,” and “Canary.” But they really wanted to become as self-sufficient as possible, and although imported wines and liquors have always held that “if it comes from France, it must be good” image, the self-sufficient Pilgrims and those who followed them soon started to make all kinds of drinks from the abundant native ingredients.

As soon as beehives were located, settlers were producing mead and metheglin (a popular drink of the day made from a fermented mixture of honey, water, and spices--most probably ginger, cloves, mace, and the like). And once their orchards gave fruit, cider and perry (pear “cider”) were added to the menu.

But still, these early Americans weren’t content. They wanted their own liquor. Stills had been commonplace on Scottish farms since the mid-1500s, usually little more than barrel-size (or smaller) enclosed copper pots with a metal pipe that emerged from the top and coiled down to a receptacle that caught the condensed spirit. And although it is possible that some early settlers built their own from imported raw materials, most were probably imported from Europe. Like the first beers and wines, the first liquors made here used a variety of ingredients--berries, plums, potatoes, apples, carrots, and grain--anything that had the power to attract yeast and then ferment. The spirits they made were probably not the smoothest of potions, mind you--but they were liquor all the same. Two of the more popular American spirits during the first century and a half of colonization were peach brandy, made mainly in the Southern colonies, and applejack (a brandy distilled from cider), which probably originated in or around New Jersey.

The still-popular Laird’s Applejack can trace its roots to Scotsman William Laird, most probably a whisky distiller, and most definitely from the Highlands of Scotland. Laird settled in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in 1698 and set about applying his knowledge of distillation to apples rather than barley malt. Interestingly enough, cider-makers who didn’t possess a still would, during the winter months, leave cider outside to freeze. The following morning they discarded the frozen portion, leaving them with very strong cider--the alcohol content was concentrated in the liquid that didn’t, or couldn’t, freeze. Since the distillation of beverage alcohol is, in simple terms, the separation of alcohol from water, they were actually performing a form of distillation by freezing instead of heating.

In 1640, William Kieft, the Director General of the New Netherland Colony, decided that liquor should be distilled on Staten Island. His master distiller, Wilhelm Hendriksen, is said to have used corn and rye to make liquor, and since the Dutch didn’t develop a formula for gin until 10 or so years later, he must have been making some form of whiskey.

But until the mid-eighteenth century, whiskey was made in relatively small quantities, mainly by farmer-distillers, and without distinctive or consistent techniques. Though they were producing whiskey, its quality had to have been questionable. However, it’s interesting to look at why so many farmers in the century preceding independence were also distillers. Distillation is not an easy process. Aside from having to follow a complex, multi-step recipe, distilling beverage alcohol in those days meant creating a highly flammable liquid over a heat source of open flames. Thus, even though flavor wasn’t of primary importance, distillers always ran the risk of blowing themselves to kingdom come should a still decide to explode. Distilling wasn’t merely a case of, “Oh, I have some extra grain, might as well make some whiskey.” It was a much bigger decision than that.

Think about this: Early farmers, from time to time, must have had a bumper crop of grains. What could they do with all the leftover grain after all their neighbors had bought or bartered enough to keep them in their daily bread for the next year or so? First, they made beer. And beer was made in relatively copious quantities in the 1600s. But in those pre-pasteurization days, beer didn’t keep too long, so they brewed only as much beer as would be consumed in the very near future. They used grains to feed their cattle or farm animals--if they had them. But still, there was grain left over. The choice was simple: Let it mold and rot, or change its form as the ancient alchemists did and produce the “water of life.” (The word “whisky” is derived from the Gaelic word uisgebaugh, [WEEZ-ga-bochh] meaning “water of life.” If you say the word quickly enough--or with a substantial quantity of whiskey in your system--it becomes, with a little shortening, “WEEZ-ga,” a word that was Anglicized to become “whisky.”)

Distilling grain gives farmers two distinct avenues for profit-making: The distillate, by virtue of having a high concentration of alcohol, can be stored almost indefinitely, and liquor is relatively easy to transport--much easier than huge sheaves of corn or rye. (One horse could carry about four bushels of grain or one 60-gallon barrel of whiskey--the product of 24 bushels of grain.)

The farmers simply chopped down a few trees from their land, got the local cooper to make some sturdy barrels (every self-respecting settlement had a cooper or two since barrels were used to store and transport most products, from foodstuffs to hardware, at that time), and after bartering as much as possible with his immediate neighbors, he could easily send off a wagon load of whiskey to thirsty buyers further afield. Since there wasn’t a great deal in the way of entertainment back then, almost everyone was interested in a dram of whiskey. Furthermore, the solids left behind from the distillation process were usable as cattle feed, thus, for farmers, producing whiskey made darned good business sense. (A wonderful twentieth-century example of this process can be seen in the case of A. Smith Bowman, a farmer in Virginia who, in 1935, produced Virginia Gentleman Straight Bourbon Whiskey using grains grown on his farm, made barrels from the trees on his land, and used the residues of his distillate to feed his farm animals.)

But these enterprising farmer-distillers, much like the earlier distillers of plums and berries, were distilling whiskey more or less for themselves and neighbors. Another liquor was far easier and much less expensive to produce, and it was about to become one of the first industries in America.

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The Spirit of America--Rum?

The first liquor to be made in quantity and to have a major impact on the colonies was, in fact, rum. Starting in the mid-1600s, sugar, and molasses were exported from the West Indies to New England where the colonists made their very own variety of rum. Of course, settlers in the islands made their own rum, and that, too, was exported to the American Colonies, ready for immediate consumption. In those days, rum was known by many different names: Rumbullion, rumbustion, rumbowling, kill-devil, rhumbooze, and Barbados water were all common terms for the distillate of sugar cane or molasses.

The English were going through a bit of turmoil on their home turf at this same time. Cromwell had won the civil war and ruled the country from 1649 until 1660, but by the early 1700s, the monarchy had been restored in England and the government was paying a little more attention to their colonies. One of the first acts to upset the American drinker, designed to raise money for the crown, was the taxation of the sugar, molasses, and rum being imported *from the “any of the colonies or plantations in America, not in the possession of or under the dominion of his Majesty.” Although not mentioned by name, the tax was directed specifically at the main competition for British traders in the Caribbean--the merchants of French West Indies. The same products from British colonies in the West Indies were not taxed, it was just a little gentle goading to remind the colonists where their allegiances should lay. Buy British--or else. It’s somewhat astounding that there was never a Boston Rum Party, but on the other hand, the rum-loving colonists of the time would have never thrown good liquor into Boston Harbor. The Molasses Act of 1733 levied five shillings per hundredweight of sugar, six pence per gallon of molasses, and nine pence per gallon of rum. The colonists, however, found an ingenious way of coping with these new taxes--for the most part, they ignored them.

In the mid-1700s, New England rum sold for around three shillings (£0.15) per gallon and was actually used in lieu of currency in what was known as the “triangle trade” with Africa and the West Indies. Here’s an example of how it worked according to Martin Gilbert, author of American History Atlas, 1968: In 1752, by which time there were at least 30 legitimate distilleries in Rhode Island alone, a ship called The Sanderson left Newport, with 8,220 gallons of rum on board. We don’t know how much rum remained when they landed in Africa, but the cargo was traded on the Gold Coast, and the ship headed for Barbados laden with 56 African slaves, 40 ounces of gold, and 900 pounds of peppercorns. After trading the slaves, gold, and pepper in Barbados, the ship returned to Rhode Island carrying 55 hogsheads of molasses, 3 hogsheads of sugar, and over £400 in bills of exchange.

The manufacture of rum continued to be big business in America right through until 1808 when the U.S. prohibited the importation of slaves from Africa. The triangle trade was broken, but by that time, whiskey was well on its way to becoming the native spirit of the United States.

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The Early Years of American Whiskey

In 1777, the newly formed United States of America adopted the Stars and Stripes as the Continental Congress flag, and George Washington was concerned that his troops didn’t have enough liquor. The father of our country really knew how to look after his children; he actually suggested that public distilleries be constructed throughout the states citing that, “The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed.”

Washington knew all about distilling liquor. He had erected stills at Mount Vernon in the 1770s in order to produce rum, and a little later on, James Anderson, his Scottish plantation manager, is said to have been the man who persuaded him to plant rye with a mind to producing whiskey. And Washington did, indeed, make whiskey. During the year before his death in 1799, it has been estimated that he earned a considerable profit from his distillery, and had upwards of 150 gallons of whiskey left in storage.

Meanwhile, during the late 1700s, the Scots-Irish, a huge group of immigrants from Northern Ireland began arriving in the United States. These people had a long history of moving (or being moved) to new lands, coping with hardships, battling adversity, and establishing thriving communities. Their arrival in America came at a time when the country was struggling to become self-sufficient. There was plenty of farmland, a demand for liquor, and the strong backs, tenacious characters, and intimate knowledge of the still, made the Scots-Irish perfect people to help carve out a new nation--and lay the foundations for the whiskey industry.

Over the whole of the eighteenth century, about 250,000 Scots-Irish Ulstermen and Ulsterwomen came to America. Most of them didn’t linger long to mingle with the settlers on the coast--they had left Ulster to “go west” and go west they did. They settled in western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, western Virginia, and the western parts of North and South Carolina. They were not, however, the only group of immigrants to have a major impact on the whiskey industry, the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania and became known as the Pennsylvanian Dutch were also well versed with the alembic, and by 1775, there were just as many Germans here as Scots-Irish. The mostly Lutheran and Calvinist Germans had been victims of religious persecution in their homeland and were of hardy stock--perfect people to help form a new nation and build a whiskey industry.

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Whiskey and the Colonization of the United States

Daniel Boone first ventured into the eastern part of what would become Kentucky on a hunting expedition in 1767, and due, in part, to his reports of its bounty, the land soon acquired a somewhat idyllic status. According to Roseann Reinemuth Hogan in her book, Kentucky Ancestry, a churchman of the time referred to heaven as a “Kentucky sort of a place.” Well, any old place with decent topsoil would have sufficed for the farmer-distillers of Virginia at the time. Since they didn’t yet use any kind of crop rotation, the land they were farming was tired and worn out after seven or eight years. Consequently, some at least were repeatedly looking for new land to farm.

In 1776, Kentucky County was carved from the massive western part of Virginia previously known as Fincastle County, and a law known colloquially as “corn patch and cabin rights,” was issued by the Virginia General Assembly. The law allowed settlers to lay claim to 400 acres of land provided that they build a cabin and plant a patch of corn prior to 1778. After that time, surveyors and prospectors offered land for sale at very reasonable prices to pioneers heading west. Most settlers from Maryland and Pennsylvania started their trip to Kentucky in Pittsburgh and floated down the Ohio River on flatboats into Kentucky. Virginians and pioneers from North Carolina, on the other hand, usually made their way to what became the Bluegrass State through the Cumberland Gap--a route that took them through the Appalachian Mountains on the “Wilderness Trail.”

Whatever brought settlers to Kentucky and however they arrived, the hardy souls who arrived after the “corn patch and cabin rights” deal was over bought or bartered small parcels of the large tracts of land held by speculators. The story of a fairly typical arrangement of the time is detailed in Nelson County Kentucky: A Pictorial History by Dixie Hibbs, a very knowledgeable Bardstown historian.

It seems that a certain William Bard, an agent for David Bard and John C. Owens, who as partners had laid claim to 1,000 acres of land in Kentucky County by 1780, held a lottery that same year in which the 33 lucky winners would be awarded lots on the land. They had no points to pay on the closing, no smooth broker taking a percentage, and no rent to pay until the Revolutionary War ended (The Treaty of Paris, September 3, 1783). In fact, the lottery winners paid nothing at all for the property; the only requirement was that they had to clear their plot of land and build a house, at least 16-feet-square, on it. The idea was that by attracting newcomers to the town, the surrounding land, owned by the same company, would grow in value. And although the town was originally known as Salem, the settlers soon adopted the name of their benefactor, and Bard’s Town (Bardstown) was born. Not long after, many a fine barrel of whiskey was being made in the Bard’s Town area. By the turn of the century, over 350,000 people had settled in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the thirsty Scots-Irish and German distillers who settled in western Pennsylvania and Maryland had been making rye whiskey--but why rye? Barley was also grown in these states, and it was familiar to the farmers and distillers. But imported European barley took a long time before it became acclimatized to its new home. Rye, another European grain, was a hardy crop that took root and fared well almost immediately in the middle colonies, and since the Europeans were accustomed to working with rye grain, they turned to it as “the next best thing” to barley. Corn, an indigenous grain, was also cultivated, and although the immigrants weren’t used to using it to make whiskey, it was gradually introduced to the process in small quantities.

The whiskey from the middle colonies eventually became known as Monongahela or Pennsylvania or Maryland whiskey, named for its various locations, not the grain used to make it. The farmer-distillers made a more than adequate living by raising livestock, growing grain, and making rye whiskey that they could trade to fulfill their other needs. They had no ruling monarch to worry about, could practice whatever religion they darned well pleased, and didn’t have to pay any excise taxes, but that wasn’t going to last too long--the nation had some debts that needed to be paid.

By 1790, George Washington had been inaugurated in New York City, the new country’s temporary capital, and after the long years of fighting the Revolutionary War, it was time to set up business. Up until this point, cultural and agricultural needs and feasibilities had dictated the production of America’s whiskey, but a major event was about to occur, just a decade after the Declaration of Independence was issued, wherein whiskey would have a direct affect on the nation itself.

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The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791, George Washington approved an excise tax on liquor. He certainly wasn’t the first to take out his frustrations on whiskey-producers, just four years earlier Britain had introduced a prohibitive tax on Highland stills in Scotland and declared that the whisky produced there couldn’t be distributed outside the Highland region. Everyone seemed to have it out for the distillers.

But Washington had his reasons, and although he was himself a distiller, he listened to Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, who proposed that the newly formed country should pay off its debts from the Revolutionary War. To accomplish this, Hamilton persuaded Congress to introduce tariffs on imported goods, tax spirits, and charter the Bank of the United States, which would hold the government’s revenues and stimulate economic growth by investing in American businesses.

Hamilton had estimated the national debt at about $54 million, and on July 1, 1791, the government started to enforce an excise tax on all spirits--imported and domestic. Rates were based on the alcoholic strength of the product, spirits made from home-grown products were taxed less than those made from imported goods (rum, made from imported molasses, therefore, was more-heavily taxed than whiskey), and an annual tax was levied on each still, dependent on its capacity.

Liquor, beer, and wine have long been popular targets of taxation for governments in need of a few extra dollars for two very simple reasons: Beverage alcohol is produced from food, be it fruit, sugar, or grain, but it is not necessary to sustain life. Therefore, strong drink is a luxury that takes food from the mouths of all people. Add to that the fact that, in some circles, drinking is also a sin, and it becomes relatively easy to convince a nation that drink should be taxed. But the 1791 tax on American whiskey was, of course, very unpopular among the farmer-distillers.

We should take time here to understand exactly what these new taxes meant to the farmer-distillers of the time--these guys didn’t have any cash. They might have been making a decent living, but many, indeed, most transactions at that time were conducted by barter. It’s a grand way to do business: Pop into the town center with a few quarts of whiskey, trade one to the local seamstress in return for a new dress for the missus, another to the fishmonger who will supply you with dinner for the next four Fridays, and when the landlord is passing by, maybe you can persuade him to take a gallon of your finest whiskey in lieu of a few months rent. The scene and the amounts are merely hypothetical, but it gives you a rough idea of why the farmers had empty pockets.

Not all farmers had stills, mind you, since stills were very expensive pieces of equipment. But “them as didn’t” would bring their grain to “them as did” and have it made into whiskey. The supplier would receive a percentage of the whiskey, the distiller keeping the rest for his trouble. But still, no hard cash was changing hands.

Distillers throughout the country were vexed about these new taxes, but nowhere did their anger turn into violent revolution as universally as in Pennsylvania. Oh, the guys in Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia weren’t too pleased about the taxes either--there were skirmishes and demonstrations, and tax collectors were burned in effigy--but it seems to have boiled down to Washington choosing to quell one area to set an example for the rest of the country. Not only did the geographical aspects of Kentucky make it a tough area to invade, if Washington had decided to pick on Kentuckians rather than Pennsylvanians, he would have run the risk that the state would up and leave the union and join up with the Spanish, who controlled the land west of Kentucky.

Aside from having no cash, the distillers in western Pennsylvania were also exasperated because, when summoned to court to answer their charges, they had to make their way to Philadelphia. For some of them, this meant traveling a couple of hundred miles through dangerous country where native Americans were wont to attack, and it also meant leaving their farms for relatively long periods when there was work to be done--and whiskey to be made.

The Pennsylvania whiskey makers decided to revolt. They held public meetings to discuss the matter, one of which resulted in a declaration that anyone trying to collect the taxes would be viewed as an enemy of society. According to Gerald Carson in his book, The Social History of Bourbon, one such tax collector, who had employed the services of a dozen soldiers to guard his house, had it burned to the ground nonetheless. At one point in 1791, a mob of over 5,000 men advanced on Pittsburgh threatening to burn down the whole city, but they were met by town officials who managed to dissuade them from their mission by promising to banish certain officials and plying the mob with food and, of course, whiskey.

The following year, 1792, the government reduced the taxes a little (down to around 7¢ per gallon from 11¢, dependent on proof), and Kentucky finally became a state. The word “Kentucky,” just by the by, as translated from the native American Iroquoian, is proposed to have two meanings: Some say it means “meadowland,” whereas others say that the word means “dark and bloody ground” and was so-called to commemorate the native American wars fought within the area.

Skirmishes continued between whiskey-makers and the tax collectors and resulted in a few revenue agents being tarred and feathered and others terrorized into handing over their excise books to the delinquent taxpayers, but the revolt didn’t really come to a head until 1794. In that year, after further reducing the taxes but still not getting cooperation from the Pennsylvanians, George Washington, for the first time in the history of the United States, rallied federal troops to quell the uprising.

Washington’s written proclamation on the Whiskey Rebellion, August 7, 1794, gives us his views on the uprising. He claimed that the ringleaders had “encouraged the spirit of opposition by misrepresentation of the laws calculated to render them odious,” and had sought “to deter those who might be so disposed from accepting offices through fear of public resentment and of injury to person and property, and to compel those who had accepted such offices by actual violence to surrender or forbear the execution of them.” He went on to say that the distillers had been “inflicting cruel and humiliating punishments upon private citizens for . . . appearing to be friends of the law” and just to round out his argument, Washington claimed that “many persons in the said western parts of Pennsylvania have at length been hardy enough to perpetrate acts which I am advised amount to treason.” However, several historians hypothesize that one of the goals behind Washington’s rallying federal troops to quash the Whiskey Rebellion, was to see whether or not the troops would muster. This was, after all, the first time that Washington had ever enforced federal law in the United States, and in order to persuade men to fight their fellow countrymen, Washington needed to prove he was a strong leader. And since around 13,000 men turned out to do battle, Washington’s authority was firmly established.

Pardons were offered to anyone who agreed to comply with the law henceforth. Others--those who continued to defy the tax collectors--had their property plundered, their backs lashed, and were carted off to collection centers to settle their debts. Eventually, the distillers gave in to Washington. They had fought the law. And the law had won.

During the Whiskey Rebellion, some Pennsylvania farmers fled to Kentucky, adding to the number of distillers in the new state. And many of the soldiers who had been dispatched to Pennsylvania, on hearing about the Bluegrass State’s fertile soil and sweet limestone water that were perfect for corn-growing and whiskey-making, decided to flee the army and settle in Kentucky. Rye whiskey had been born in Pennsylvania, and Kentucky was about to give birth to a whiskey that would become known as bourbon.

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The Whiskey Men of Kentucky

When the Pennsylvanians arrived in Kentucky, they were met by other masters of the still who had preceded them by a couple of decades and started some new whiskey-making traditions. Since 1776, when corn cultivation in the area had been encouraged by Virginia’s “corn patch and cabin rights,” the pioneers had found that, not only was corn a relatively easy grain to cultivate, but it also made a distinctive style of whiskey. Kentucky whiskey was somewhat lighter than the rye whiskey from the East, and it was a product they could call their own.

So who was the first whiskey man in Kentucky? We might as well ask who was the first person to bake bread. No one knows the answer. One report states that General James Wilkinson built a distillery at Harrodsburg, the earliest permanent settlement in Kentucky (1774), but that report is probably untrue since there is no record of Wilkinson being in the area until about 10 years later. Other accounts say that Wattie Boone, a relative of Daniel’s, and a certain Stephen Ritchie both made whiskey in Nelson County, Kentucky in 1776, and this is probably accurate.

A man named Evan Williams actually built a whiskey distillery in Louisville in 1783, and this is the first recorded mention of a commercial distillery that we can find, although that doesn’t mean that Boone and Ritchie weren’t selling or bartering their product. In fact, it’s very unlikely that anyone with the equipment and knowledge required to make whiskey would produce only enough for himself and his family.

During the same period of time, names of other whiskey distillers crop up, and many of them have faded into obscurity. Men such as William Calk, Jacob Meyers, Joseph and Samuel Davis (brothers), James Garrard, and Jacob Spear are mentioned in various documents, but either their families didn’t follow in their footsteps, or if they did, their products weren’t good enough to become long-lasting brand names of whiskey. One man whose name has certainly not been forgotten was the notorious preacher, Elijah Craig, who arrived in Kentucky in 1786 and was making whiskey three years later. Craig’s family didn’t keep up the tradition of whiskey-making that Elijah started, although a whiskey has since been named for the man.

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A Few Other Whiskey Men Who Appeared in Kentucky Before 1800

All of these families helped bring the tradition of American whiskey-making into the nineteenth and right through to the twentieth century. (Not all these people personally produced brand names that are now familiar to us, but they did establish a whiskey-making tradition in their respective families--the whiskeys with which these families became connected are noted.)

  • Elijah Pepper (James E. Pepper and Old Crow Bourbons) settled in Old Pepper Springs, Kentucky, in 1776. Within four years he was selling whiskey.
  • Robert Samuels (Maker’s Mark Bourbon) arrived in Kentucky in 1780 and probably set up his still shortly thereafter.
  • Jacob Beam (Jim Beam Bourbon) came to Kentucky in 1785 and reportedly built his first distillery three years later. Beam family members, however, not being the sort to lay claim to falsehoods, say that their records indicate that it was 1795 before their forebear actually sold his first barrel of whiskey.
  • Basil Hayden (Old Grand-Dad Bourbon) settled in Kentucky in either 1785 or 1796, depending on the source.
  • Henry Hudson Wathen (whose family kept the Old Grand-Dad label alive in the late nineteenth century) began distilling whiskey in Kentucky in 1788.
  • The Brown family (Old Forester Bourbon) settled in Kentucky in 1792.
  • Daniel Weller (W. L. Weller Bourbon) floated into Bardstown on a flatboat in 1794.

By 1786, the whiskey we now call bourbon was known as “Kentucky” or “Western” whiskey--just so people could distinguish it from Pennsylvania, Monongahela, or Maryland rye whiskey. Also in that same year, Bourbon County was created from a large chunk of what was previously Virginia’s Fayette County, and around this time, when Spain permitted it (they still had control of the Mississippi), Kentucky whiskey first started being shipped down river to thirsty people in St. Louis and New Orleans. Bourbon whiskey was about to acquire its name.

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The Very First Bourbon Whiskey

For some reason, everyone seems to want to know the name of the very first person to make bourbon. The truth is no one knows. The Reverend Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, is often recognized as being the “inventor” of bourbon, but that claim is completely unsubstantiated. We do know that he was a whiskey distiller in the late eighteenth century, and that his whiskey was probably known as Kentucky whiskey or maybe even bourbon, but there’s no real evidence to prove that he was the first person to make bourbon. In fact, according to Mike Veach, archivist at United Distillers, it is more probable that Elijah Craig’s name was used to fight the prohibition movement in the late nineteenth century simply because he was a Baptist minister. Smart marketing has been around for millennia--what could be better than declaring a good Christian as the “inventor” of bourbon when the distillers had to argue against forces that quoted the Bible to further their cause?

Another bone of contention on the Craig theory is the fact that since Craig never actually lived in Bourbon County (he was based slightly to the west of the county border), some people claim that this discredits him completely from ever having made a whiskey known as bourbon. However, just to give Craig the benefit of the doubt, if “bourbon” whiskey had a good reputation down south (he did ship his whiskey down there), he may have *called his product “bourbon” even though he didn’t there.

Any search for the first bourbon whiskey should begin with a look at what made Kentucky so darned perfect for such a whiskey to have been created there: Kentucky was an area with plentiful trees (17 varieties of oak are native to the state), pristine, limestone-filtered water, and arable land. So here we have a perfect place to make whiskey--the cultivation of corn was encouraged and therefore became the predominant grain, the water was perfect for distillation, and the settlers had plenty of wood from which to make barrels.

All of the ingredients needed for whiskey-making were available to these early Kentuckians, but in a quest for the origins of a specific style of whiskey, it’s necessary to work backwards. Before 1800, Kentucky whiskey was known as bourbon, but the chances that we would recognize it as bourbon today are very slim indeed. To match today’s style of bourbon whiskey, we must use today’s standards as our guide: Bourbon must be aged for at least two years in charred oak casks (folk may tell you they must be white oak, but government specifications don’t designate a type), and contain more corn than the sum of all *other grains used. Therefore, to find the creator of bourbon, we must for the character most likely to have put them all together. The corn question is relatively easy: Since corn was the predominant grain within the state, the majority of distillers in Kentucky most likely used corn to make their whiskey. It was economical. The aging factor needs a little more investigation. Whiskey has always been stored in wooden casks, but not always for very long, and not always in charred barrels. And then there’s the sour-mash component.

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Who Burned the Casks?

The straight wooden staves that are used to form a barrel must be heated in order to bend the wood into the familiar barrel shape. This shape is used, primarily, so that the bands that hold the barrel together can be tightened around the wider mid-section of the barrel, thus pushing the staves closer together and forming a watertight--or whiskeytight--seal. From time immemorial, coopers have been forming barrels over fire, and therefore “toasting” the staves while they were making them bow. Wine is aged in toasted barrels, and indeed bourbon casks are toasted before they are charred. A popular anecdote has it that a careless cooper accidentally let his staves catch fire and conveniently “forgot” to tell the distiller who bought the barrel about the mishap. The whiskey man noticed an improvement in his liquor, figured out what had happened, and from that day forth charred barrels were preferred by whiskey-makers. It’s just an old story, but there could be a grain of truth in it.

Fact is that the distillers needed to store their whiskey in “tight” or leakproof barrels, and at that time, tight barrels were used to store just about everything from water to molasses to linseed oil to tar. Tight barrels were valuable, and recyclable, and used barrels were less expensive than new ones. Maybe as a matter of routine, distillers who invested in used cooperage would set fire to the interior of the barrel to rid it of any lingering odors or dirt, and once again, at some point, charred barrels were recognized as having a good effect on whiskey.

A book in the United Distillers’ archives in Louisville mentions charred barrels, but unfortunately, the cover is missing and there is no date printed on its pages--just a handwritten note that includes a reference to the year 1854. The book is full of questions and answers on many different subjects, one of them being: “Q: Why are water and wine casks charred on the inside? A: Because charring the inside of a cask reduces it to a kind of charcoal; and charcoal (by absorbing animal and vegetable impurities) keeps the liquor [liquid] sweet and good.” But this document, assuming the 1854 date is within fifty years of the publication date, is from the nineteenth century. Were charred barrels being used before that date? Most probably, but the chances of them being used exclusively by one distiller are very remote.

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Down the River on Flatboats

In the late 1700s, when a distiller made whiskey, he wanted to sell it as quickly as possible. The distiller needed money, and the rest of the town needed whiskey to take the edge off the hazards of living in new territory surrounded by natives who seemed to think they had every right to live on their own land. So when did the whiskey-makers start aging their products? When whiskey spends time in a barrel, it may seem to be sleeping, but in actuality it is growing up. Its body gets bigger, its soul develops character, and the sharp, childish bite of *young, raw whiskey become deep, somber declarations of maturity. There must have been cases of individuals who stored whiskey and realized that it tasted better as time went by, but nevertheless, the practice of choosing to keep whiskey “in the wood” so that it would mature didn’t become commonplace until sometime during the early- to mid-nineteenth century.

The theory that whiskey improved with age was proved once a whiskey-maker tasted his product after its journey downriver to New Orleans. In Voyage à l’ouest des monts alléghanys, dans les états de l’Ohio, du Kentucky, et du Tennessee, 1804, French botanist, François André Michaux, explained that since he had missed the spring season when the water was high, he had to travel some 80 miles on land before boarding a boat in Pennsylvania to take him to Kentucky. This was typical of the time. Boats from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee, would wait for the rivers to rise before embarking on their journey downriver. In those days (and right up until fairly recently), most distilling was done during the cool autumn months, right after the crops had been harvested, and the whiskey men would have to wait until spring before they could launch their flatboats. So, if the whiskey was produced in, say, September or October, and it couldn’t begin its trip to the Big Easy until, say, April, by the time it made its way to Bourbon Street, it could have been eight to nine months old. Certainly that was not enough time in the wood to soothe its soul completely, but undoubtedly, it was long enough for the whiskey to have gained some color and mellowed sufficiently for quaffers to notice the difference.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, both John Ritchie and Elijah Craig were shipping whiskey on flatboats to New Orleans, and they probably weren’t the only ones. But whether or not they were shipping their product in charred casks is highly debatable; we know only that that particular practice became popular in the fifty-some years that followed.

There is solid evidence, however, that by the mid-1800s, some whiskeys were being aged long enough to give them a decent amount of color. In a personal recollection of a meeting between Lincoln and Douglas in 1854, James S. Ewing referred to a decanter of red liquor, “red liquor” being a term for bourbon that would become widely used by the end of that century. When whiskey is first distilled it is clear--it looks exactly like vodka. Only time in wood gives it color, and only time in charred wood results in the crimson-hued tint that is peculiar to bourbon. So, we can draw from Ewing’s reference to red liquor that in the mid-nineteenth century, some whiskey was being aged in charred casks, and it was aged long enough for it to gain bourbon’s characteristic crimson hue.

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Put ’em Together and What d’Ya Got?

Okay, we have whiskey made using corn as the predominant grain, and we have some of that whiskey being aged in charred barrels. Some canny souls of the period between, say, 1800 and 1840, probably savvy distillers who managed to put two and two and two together and eventually arrive at six, must have noticed that, not only was this aged whiskey smoother than the raw product straight from the still, but also that the stuff that came from expensive brand new casks didn’t have quite the finesse of that from the used casks that had been charred to clean them up. Was it a specific person on a specific date? It’s doubtful. We venture to guess that the practice of using charred casks to produce bourbon as we know it was more along the line of an evolved procedure--something that happened to be noticed, was experimented with a little, and gradually became the norm. However, we are still left with that nagging question of the sour-mash process.

Every straight bourbon produced today is a sour-mash whiskey, in which a portion of the residue from one batch of mash is used to start the next, much as sourdough starter is used to start more batches of dough. Therefore, if we want to know who first produced bourbon whiskey as we know it, sour mash must enter the picture. Dr. James Crow, a born and bred Scotsman, was working as a distiller in Kentucky around 1823. Crow was a man of medicine and a man of science, and it was he who experimented scientifically with using setback (sour mash) to control certain aspects of his whiskey-making methods. His whiskeys, Old Crow and Old Pepper, were very popular during the Civil War, and he has always been hailed as the man who not only made good bourbon, but also knew exactly why his bourbon was good. He had the scientific knowledge to be able to tinker intelligently with various aspects of his processes in order to make a better whiskey. He made whiskey using corn as the predominant grain, he insisted on aging it in charred casks, and he used a sour-mash starter. For those who insist on having a name, we say James Crow “invented” bourbon sometime between 1823 and, say, 1845.

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The Formative Years

In the years between the settling of Kentucky and the Civil War, many minor and a few major events started to affect the whiskey business in America. While the United States was searching for an identity, certain families were forming the basis for what were to become major whiskey empires.

The Pepper family was one of the few Kentucky distillers who could afford the taxes that spurred the Whiskey Rebellion. Many others were hauled into court and fined for their lack of cooperation. In 1798 almost 200 Kentucky whiskey men were found guilty of making whiskey without a license (Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, no less, among them). Others turned to supplying grain to families like the Peppers rather than distilling their own products. It was the beginning of the American way of doing business, and many small concerns combined and consolidated into larger companies.

In 1816, a company, registered in New England, incorporated in Kentucky under the name of the Hope Distilling Company; it was a very big venture--many years before its time. The company had $100,000 in capital and bought 100 acres of Louisville land where they built a huge distillery. They installed grain-handling machinery that would do the work of 30 men; their two gigantic stills (one of them “erected on an entirely new principle” about which we can find no details) contained 10 tons of copper and produced enough “used grain” to feed 5,000 hogs. These guys meant business. The distillery operated for a few years, but Hope was shattered and forced to close when all of the capital was spent. They had the right idea, and if they just could have waited another 50 years or so, they might have made a fortune. The story is documented in A Memorial History of Louisville, 1896, and includes the comment that the New Englanders went back to their rum leaving the Kentuckians to their whiskey. The fact was, at that time the public wouldn’t buy whiskey that wasn’t made in small, old-fashioned pot stills. It just didn’t taste the same.

Another major development of this era was the 1825 “invention” of “The Lincoln County Process” by Tennessean Alfred Eaton. This is the all-important filtration system, in which whiskey is dripped, through a minimum of 10 feet of sugar-maple charcoal before it is put in barrels for aging. It is the process that is still used today and distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon and all other straight American whiskeys. Tennesseans, however, were not the only whiskey men to use charcoal filtration; one document in Louisville’s Filson Club, written prior to 1820, describes filtering whiskey through layers of white flannel, clean white sand, and pulverized charcoal made from “good green wood such as sugar tree hickory.” However, the Kentucky distiller who detailed these instructions, used only 18 to 20 inches of charcoal, not even close to the 10-plus feet described in Eaton’s process. (Although the Kentucky notes do advise that the process be repeated until the whiskey was “pure.”) Since Eaton is said to have noted that his “Lincoln County Process” took a long time, some historians have taken his words to mean that he was aging his whiskey as early as 1825. However, since it takes 10 full days for the whiskey to travel through all of the charcoal, we think he was referring to his new, though slow, method of filtration.

It’s important to remember that the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. was well on its way at this point. The first cotton mill in America had opened in 1789, and when America signed a treaty with Spain in 1795, the Mississippi River became the old man whose back would carry goods for sale or trade with no hindrance from the Iberians. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added Missouri, Arkansas, and parts of Louisiana to the U.S., as well as a huge expanse of land that would eventually become Iowa, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, most of Kansas, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Colorado. The adventurous and the curious started moving farther away from the East Coast, boosting the whiskey business as they progressed westward. Fact was, the farther away from the coast people traveled, the more expensive it was for them to make rum from imported molasses; in reaction, more people turned to whiskey for solace.

Even before the turn of the century, the rum business had been winding down. Frenchman Jean Pierre Brissot wrote of his 1788 trip to Boston (Nouveau Voyage dans les États-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale, 1791), “The rum distilleries are on the decline since the suppression of the slave trade, in which this liquor was employed.” Then, in 1807, the Embargo Act restricted the importation of molasses from British ports, and the following year, the importation of slaves was made illegal altogether, completely destroying the “triangle trade” among the U.S., Africa, and the West Indies. The rum business in the United States was doomed, but its demise created plenty of room for the up and coming whiskey industry.

The Industrial Revolution, both in the U.S. and Great Britain, saw inventors and inventions coming out of the woodwork, and more than a few people tried their hands at devising new types of stills. None, however, were as successful as Aenaes Coffey, who, in 1831, patented his perfected continuous still in Britain. Coffey’s invention would greatly affect the whiskey business in Scotland, but its effects on the American whiskey industry would have to wait until after the Civil War.

In fact, although pot stills were used by most of the legitimate distillers, some poorer folk were still “running it on the log.” This was a backwoods method of distillation that seems rather convoluted--but it worked. The process is partially described by Gerald Carson in The Social History of Bourbon, and although we have added the description of the lid, the still must have looked something like this: A distiller would take a log, split it lengthwise, hollow out each half, and bind it back together. The log was then stood upright and filled from the top with fermented mash. A lid of sorts must then have been fitted onto the top of the log. It was probably similar in shape to a Hershey’s Kiss, with the “top knot” narrowing into becoming a pipe that would carry the vapors to a vessel where they would condense. Somewhere, close to the top of the log or in the lid itself, must have been a hole fitted with the copper pipe that carried live steam into the still from a nearby kettle. The steam would, in time, heat the mash and vaporize the alcohol. Carson does mention, however, that the log stills were used only for a primary distillation, and the spirit would then be redistilled in a pot still. The final product was called “log and copper whiskey.” Joseph Dant, whose family would later be responsible for giving Yellowstone and J. W. Dant bourbons to the world, was using the “log” method in 1836 to make his first Kentucky whiskey.

During the first decades of the new century, science began to play a part in the manufacture of whiskey--due to a large extent to James Crow’s sour-mash methods. But Kentucky whiskey-makers already had started refining and improving their methods. They had found that by using only the “center cut” of their distillate, and returning the “end of the run” back to the still for redistillation (a method still practiced today), they could remove unwanted bitter flavors from their whiskey. Bourbon was becoming a little more sophisticated.

Other major changes that affected the whiskey industry in the early 1800s included the actions of that marvelous gourmet, President Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1802, repealed the excise tax that had caused the Whiskey Rebellion and thereby lightened the financial load on the distillers. Not that Jefferson was a whiskey man, he was much more enamored of imported wines. At one point he advocated reducing taxes on such products saying that nations where cheap wine was available for the common man did not suffer the same insobrieties as those where whiskey was the least-expensive ardent drink. Jefferson once asked the question, “Who would drink whiskey if wine were cheap enough?” Well, those who lived in the Bluegrass State might have argued the point. In 1804, François André Michaux wrote, “Kentuckians have preserved the manners of the Virginians. They carry the passion for gaming and for spirituous liquors to an excess. . .. The public houses are always crowded, especially so during the sittings of the courts of justice.” However, Jefferson did stop those excise taxes on American liquor, and apart from the few years between 1813 and 1817, when taxes were levied in order to pay the costs of the War of 1812, whiskey wouldn’t be taxed again until 1862.

By 1820, over 25 percent of the total U.S. population lived west of the Appalachians, and by that time, steamboats had replaced the flatboats and were plying the Mississippi laden with Kentucky whiskey. New markets were opening up, and the whiskey business was becoming more and more profitable. Over 2,000 barrels of whiskey were shipped out of Kentucky in 1820, and it was widely known as bourbon. In Kentucky Bourbon--The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, Henry G. Crowgey describes an 1821 newspaper advertisement for bourbon whiskey, so it’s fairly safe to assume that the distiller of that time knew that the readers would understand what it was he had for sale. Bourbon was here to stay. Here’s a list of prominent whiskey men whose products hit the shelves between 1800 and 1860 (The current-day whiskeys with which these families became connected are noted.):

  • Abraham Overholt (Old Overholt Rye Whiskey) established his distillery in western Pennsylvania in 1810.
  • J. W. Dant (Yellowstone and J. W. Dant Bourbons) set up his still (the famous log) in 1836.
  • Oscar Pepper (James E. Pepper and Old Crow Bourbons) built the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in 1838.
  • George T. Stagg (The Ancient Age Distillery) opened his first distillery in 1840.
  • Taylor William Samuels (Maker’s Mark Bourbon) was operating a commercial distillery in Deatsville in 1844.
  • W. L. Weller (W. L. Weller Bourbon), whose grandfather, Daniel, had owned a distillery in 1800, formed a wholesale whiskey business in 1849, using the slogan “Honest whiskey at an honest price.”
  • David Beam (Jim Beam Bourbon) was working at the Old Tub Distillery in 1850, and his son, David M. Beam became distiller there in 1853.
  • John H. Beam (Early Times Bourbon), David’s other son, was co-owner of the Early Times Distillery in 1860.
  • Henry McKenna (Henry McKenna Bourbon) started making whiskey near Bardstown in 1855.

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What’s in the Bottle?

During the period leading up to the Civil War, some brand-name whiskeys were becoming popular. Those distillers whose whiskey had gained a good reputation started to give their product a name, and deserving of mention here is Oscar Pepper who, in 1838, built the Old Pepper Distillery, hired James Crow as master distiller, and marketed their whiskey as “Old 1776--Born with the Republic.” The name referred to Oscar’s father, Elijah, who settled in Kentucky in 1776 and made whiskey shortly thereafter; it’s one of the earliest references to whiskey men “marketing” their product.

Most whiskeys of this time was sold in barrels to retailers. The distillers supplied bars and saloons with decanters and bottles that bore the distiller’s name and could be used to pour their product, but it wasn’t at all uncommon for cheap whiskey to be poured from its cask into decanters that advertised a more-expensive product. A bottle exists today, produced in 1848, that bears the word “bourbon” and the distiller’s name, M. Bininger and Company of New York. Bininger, as far as we are able to ascertain, was a dealer in bulk whiskey who bottled some of his product. But not until 1870 would the company headed by George Garvin Brown (Old Forester) sell its whisky (without the e) only in sealed bottles. Brown’s goal was to assure the public that they would finally know exactly what whiskey was in the bottle.

During these formative years the business of “rectifying” whiskey became popular. Most rectifiers were--and are--reputable wholesalers who bought whiskey from different distilleries (or a selection of casks from just one distillery) and mingled them together to arrive at a consistent product they could call their own. Some of them filtered the whiskey they purchased in bulk in order to “rectify” it, taking out some impurities and rendering the whiskey somewhat smoother. However, there was yet a third group of so-called rectifiers who had an eye on a fast buck. These scalawags blended small amounts of straight whiskey with huge quantities of flavorless neutral grain spirits (distilled out at a very high proof in Coffey’s continuous still) and a few flavorings; and yet they sold their product as “straight whiskey.”

These days what they produced is called blended whiskey, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention just how good blended whiskeys can be. Not only are they, in many cases, less expensive than straight whiskeys, but the act of blending whiskey has now become an art form and results in a softer dram that is ideally suited for use with mixers, with some of the more expensive blends being complex enough to be savored for their own intricacies. However, most of the first blended whiskey producers (before the term “blended whiskey” was used) were merely trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Although these rogues would grow more prevalent during the latter part of the century, by 1860 there was already at least one book on the market that gave instructions on how to make imitation liquors and wines. This was by no means an uncommon practice. A Treatise on the Manufacture, Imitation, Adulteration, and Reduction of Foreign Wines, Brandies, Gins, Rums, Etc. Etc. included instructions on how to make imitation whiskeys such as “Old Rye,” “Old Rye Monongahela,” and “Old Bourbon.” The author, John Stephen, M.D., who billed himself as “A Practical Chemist and Experienced Liquor Dealer,” noted that his methods, known as “the French System,” were almost unknown in this country and accused previous rectifiers of adulterating liquors with “poisonous and deleterious compounds.”

Stephen’s “French System” of making imitation whiskey, however, was, as he predicted in his book, to become the standard method of making less-expensive whiskey. There are three recipes for making imitation “Old Bourbon” in Stephen’s book, one calls for 20 gallons of “proof spirit” (neutral spirits diluted to 100? proof), five gallons of pure bourbon, one pint of simple syrup (sugar water), one ounce of spirits of nitre, and some burned sugar for coloring. The other two formulas use less straight whiskey but add flavorings such as tinctures of cloves and allspice. The book also gives recipes for the various tinctures and instructions on how to make a “Bead for Liquors,” calling for a two-to-one mixture of vitriol and sweet oil, one drop of which is sufficient to put a bead on a quart of liquor. (If you shake a bottle of whiskey, the bubbles that form on top, known as the “bead,” are an indication of the amount of alcohol in the whiskey.)

The book serves as an indication that a number of cheap whiskeys were being produced just before and (in larger quantities) after the Civil War. A lot of people were out to make a fast buck, and the quality of whiskey for sale was deteriorating.

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Trains and Boats and a New Look at Drinking Habits

The whiskey business in the U.S. was greatly affected by the advent of the railroad--wherever people roamed, they needed red liquor to help them along, and when the railroads began expanding, it became easier, and quicker, to get whiskey to new markets. In 1830 fewer than 50 miles of railway tracks existed in the United States; 10 years later there were almost 3,000 miles of railroad, and by 1850 you could travel over 9,000 miles on steam-engine trains. So, along with the steamboats on the Mississippi, the whiskey industry now had railroads to take its product south. And west. And north. And even east--to exotic ports such as New York City where, according to Luc Sante, author of Low Life, Lures and Snares of Old New York, for under a nickel, you could drink all the whiskey you could manage by sucking it through a rubber tube until you had to stop to take a breath.

And telegraph wires were all the rage in this period, too; by 1850 over 50,000 miles of wire was strung up all over the place. So, if a saloon owner in the west needed whiskey in a hurry, he could now order by telegram and get a few barrels on its way to him the very next day. To have lived during this period must have been similar to people who were born in the 1930s; one minute you get your first telephone installed, and before you know it, you are accessing information from libraries in Budapest.

But while all this technology was helping people reach out and touch someone, other events were starting to bode badly for the whiskey men of America. In 1826, a league, The American Temperance Society, was founded in Boston, and it was a society that distillers would come to dread.

According to an “approximate” guide in the Dictionary of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries by William L. Downard, the consumption of pure alcohol (200? proof) in 1825 was seven gallons per person over the age of 15. This figure, of course, is somewhat difficult to comprehend until you learn that the same table estimates that, using the same criteria, in 1970, consumption was at 2.5 gallons. Americans in 1825 were drinking almost three times as much alcohol as the people living in the somewhat wild days of 1970.

8During the first half of the nineteenth century, America also saw a vast increase in immigration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany--all countries whose inhabitants are generally regarded to be fond of a drink. According to Oscar Getz in Whiskey, An American Pictorial History, by 1860, on a per-capita basis, Americans were drinking over 28 percent more spirits than they had consumed just a decade earlier.

Lest you suffer under the misapprehension that Prohibition never reared its ugly head until 1920, you should know that various states introduced the noble experiment, in statewide or local-option form, way before then. Maine was made dry in 1846, Vermont in 1852, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 1855, and New York in 1854 (but for only two years--New Yorkers just don’t put up with that kind of behavior). In Europe, the first temperance organization had come into being in Ireland in 1818 (later known as the Ulster Temperance Society), and similar organizations sprung up in Scotland, England, Norway, and Sweden in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the U.S., almost one million people had signed the pledge by 1840, and the angst about “over-consumption” continued to grow.

For many proponents of temperance, however, the word meant “moderation,” not complete abstention. One such society in New York state allowed its members to choose between swearing off liquor only--giving them ample leeway to get rip-roaring drunk on wine or beer--and signing the pledge to abstain from any and all beverage alcohol--total abstinence. Those choosing to give up all forms of booze had their names marked in the register with a “T” for Total--they were the world’s first tee-totalers.

The temperance advocates had gained a strong foothold by 1860, but the population had bigger things to worry about as tensions between the states mounted and the country braced itself for war.

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An Uncivil War and Its Aftermath

*The Civil War toe the whiskey-making states apart. Pennsylvania was solidly in the Union, but Kentucky, and Maryland were two of the four border states in which slavery existed and was legal, yet whose political leanings were mostly with the Union. However, many of the residents of these states sided with the Confederate cause--state’s rights. Since the late 1700s when whiskey was first shipped down south, a number of Kentucky’s whiskey makers had come to rely heavily on Southern states’ demand and market for their products. Hence, people such as John Thompson Street Brown, father of George Garvin Brown (Old Forester), and the Weller brothers (W. L. Weller’s sons), along with many other Kentuckians, served in the Confederate Army.

Over the course of the war, some distilleries were destroyed, some distillers died, and the rest survived as best they could. But, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln was forced to reintroduce the excise tax on whiskey to help pay for the Union war effort. Once again, just as in the case of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, whiskey was being made to help finance the armed forces.

Whiskey had great value during the Civil War. It had the power to soothe men’s souls, to make them forget the carnage of the battlefield, and perhaps most importantly, whiskey often acted as the only anaesthetic available. A paper, written in 1993 by Mervel V. Hanes, M.D. of Louisville, points out that, although quinine and laudanum were used medicinally in the mid-1800s, few other medicines, apart from whiskey, were available. Even aspirin, which was discovered in 1849, wasn’t used medicinally until the end of the century. So, during the Civil War, more than a little red liquor was poured over a wound to clean it and much, much more was poured down parched throats to depress awareness and ease the pain of countrymen fighting countrymen on their own land.

According to Gerald Carson in his book, The Social History of Bourbon, since the Northern soldiers had more money than their adversaries, they could buy more whiskey. Well, that makes sense, but although officers were allowed to buy whiskey, enlisted men had to rely on rations as their legitimate source of liquor. (The army had stopped daily rations of liquor some 30 years previous, but it wasn’t unusual for some commanders to issue whiskey to their troops.) Needless to say, however, soldiers on both sides were, for the most part, hungry, cold, frightened, and sorely in need of solace wherever they could find it. If temporary refuge from their plight lay in a slug of whiskey, they would find a way of getting it.

The Union troops procured their whiskey from wherever they could, having it sent by their families, dodging the guards and finding their way to a local grogshop, and in the case of one whole regiment during the Christmas celebrations of 1864, making a full 15 gallons of bad whiskey all by themselves. The Confederate troops, on the other hand, didn’t get their fair share of whiskey, not only due to their lack of hard cash, but also because the South couldn’t afford to use what valuable grain there was to make such frivolous stuff as whiskey; people were wanting of the basic necessities just to exist.

Not all Northerners believed that their soldiers were drinking more than the Southern troops. Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, when recording the 1863 arrival of the Sons of Temperance at the White House, noted that the group blamed the defeats of Union troops on intemperance among the soldiers. But Hay could not believe it, “the rebels drink more and worse whiskey than we do,” he wrote.

Whatever the reality of “who was drinking more,” the Southern populace needed food more than they needed whiskey. The Confederacy, therefore, declared prohibition, on a state to state basis, and tried to buy up all the available whiskey to use as medicine, for Navy rations, and in certain instances, for soldiers who needed a “medicinal” boost. States reacted to the prohibition with varying degrees of complicity. Carson states that one colonel from Georgia was actually making whiskey himself--prohibition be damned. The fact was that since Jefferson Davis had made whiskey hard to come by, its value had increased by leaps and bounds. The black-market price for whiskey was, in 1863, about $35 per gallon, compared to about 25 cents for the same amount at the end of 1860. Black marketeers who had the means to make whiskey simply couldn’t restrain themselves.

Overall, the Civil War’s effect on the whiskey business, by no means negligible, was to whittle down the number of whiskey distilleries and distillers--a fact that probably didn’t upset temperance advocate--and onetime tavern keeper--Abraham Lincoln.

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The Lad from Kentucky

Did Lincoln enjoy the warmth of an occasional glass of whiskey? More than a few accounts suggest as much, but as far as can be ascertained, it just isn’t true. Two quotes from Lincoln often are used out of context and make him sound like a drinking man; both are taken from a speech he made to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society in 1842. The first cites Lincoln’s saying that intoxicating drinks were commonly the first draught of the infant and the last draught of the dying man. Indeed, Lincoln said just that; but he was not applauding the use and enjoyment of liquor. Instead, in the context of the speech, he was merely describing a common practice of the times, implying that if people were made aware of the evils of alcohol, such foolishness would stop. In effect, Lincoln was urging the temperance group to enlighten the public.

In the second example Lincoln often is erroneously quoted as saying that injury from alcohol arose from the abuse of a good thing rather than from the use of a bad thing. Again, the quote has been twisted over the years to make Lincoln sound as though he were defending drinkers. What he actually said was that although many people were injured by alcohol, they didn’t seem to believe that it was from the use of a bad thing, and that they thought it merely from the abuse of a good thing. Lincoln himself implied that he believed that the injuries were a direct result of the use of liquor--a bad thing.

In this same speech Lincoln stated his belief that people would be more likely to stop drinking if, instead of being preached to about the evils of alcohol, they were shown examples of how sobriety would enhance their lives. In the twentieth century, Alcoholics Anonymous went on to prove his point.

To cap off the Lincoln question, two more instances give insight into his views: In 1854, after Lincoln refused to partake of whiskey on a particular occasion, Stephen Douglas asked him if he were a member of a temperance society. Lincoln replied that although he wasn’t a member of any such society, he personally didn’t drink. Later, in 1861, he did, however, add his signature to a temperance declaration that already bore the names of John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and John Tyler.

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Reconstruction--of the Country

When Reconstruction began, President Andrew Johnson faced huge problems. His policies were bitterly opposed by the Republican majority in Congress, which unsuccessfully initiated impeachment proceedings in the Senate, and he was chided for supporting Seward’s Folly, the purchase of Alaska (and its yet undiscovered gold) from Russia for $7,200,000. When Grant was elected U.S. president in 1868, the whole country’s relief was palpable.

Grant’s magnificent military might, however, didn’t prepare him for the presidency. After taking office in 1869, the politics of Reconstruction plagued him, and his administration was beset by scandal after scandal. One embarrassment was Jay Gould and James Fisk’s 1869 attempt to corner the gold market. They had “conned” Grant into becoming an ally, and the scheme backfired. Another humiliation occurred after Grant’s re-election in 1872, when Vice President Schuyler Colfax was investigated for taking bribes. And then came the whiskey scandal.

The Whiskey Ring, as it became known, involved some cohorts of President Grant’s skimming more than a few tax dollars from the whiskey men--and the country. However, to some extent, Grant was directly involved with this scam: One of its main culprits, who was never convicted of any wrongdoing, was protected by Grant, and rumor at the time had it that Grant’s son Fred and brother Orvil had directly profited from the fraud. These were to be trying times for the President.

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Whiskeygate--the Tale of the Infamous Whiskey Ring

The major players in what became known as the “Whiskey Ring,” were General Orville E. Babcock, Grant’s secretary; John A. McDonald, the regional superintendent of the Internal Revenue, headquartered in St. Louis; and Benjamin Helm Bristow, the man who initiated the investigation into the affair when he became Secretary of the Treasury in 1874.

Here, in very simple terms, is how the scam worked: Sometime around 1870, government agents, charged with keeping an eye on how much whiskey was being made, arranged to ignore a certain percentage of the distillate in return for cash in the amount of roughly half the money the distillery would have paid in taxes. When “straight” tax collectors who were not part of the ring were due to call, the distillers were forewarned to “play safe” and pay up.

The “Whiskey Ring” agents claimed to have a “higher” purpose in their treachery; they told distillers that the dollars they collected were going into a special fund to help re-elect Grant. Was this Whiskeygate? Although we can’t say for certain how many people believed their claim as patriotic party do-gooders, evidence points to up to 15 million gallons of whiskey a year, which would have generated a cool $7.5 million in taxes--an extraordinary amount of money at the time--going untaxed between 1870 and 1874. And Grant was returned to office in 1872.

Due to his incompetency and the number of other scandals within his administration, by the end of 1874 Grant was not a popular man. He was thinking of running for a third term--even though he had once told Congress that he was not prepared for the office at all--and people within his administration despaired of some of the people he had chosen to work alongside him. Rumors of the Whiskey Ring were rife at this point, and many upstanding aides at the White House breathed a sigh of relief when Benjamin Bristow was appointed to the Treasury--he was a very well respected man. One of his first acts was to convince Congress to grant money to investigate the alleged corruption within the Internal Revenue Service. With the help of some newspapermen in St. Louis, Bristow was about to crack the ring wide open.

The first money used for the investigation went to reporter Myron Colony, who was hired by the Treasury Department to gather evidence against whoever was responsible for misdirecting the excise taxes. Colony did a very thorough job and accumulated enough data to place John McDonald (the St. Louis-based superintendent of the Internal Revenue) at the head of the Whiskey Ring. First off, McDonald was confronted with the evidence, and he did, indeed, confess to his crimes. However, McDonald had a few cards up his sleeve, and although he offered to replace the money in return for immunity (claiming he would get it from the distilleries), he also dropped mention of Grant’s name to add weight to his plea for clemency.

McDonald was somewhat of an old pal of the President’s, having been recommended for his position by more than a couple of Julia Grant’s family’s friends. Even so, Grant, at this point, made it clear that he wanted to clear up the whole mess and prosecute whoever was responsible for stealing the money. The following month over 300 people (distillers and government employees) were arrested for their involvement in the Whiskey Ring, and everyone was certain that justice was being served. But Grant was about to have a change of heart that would rock his White House aides and change the outcome of the whole affair.

Further investigations implicated Babcock, Grant’s personal friend and trusted secretary, in the ring--but Grant refused to believe the evidence. And whereas Grant had originally claimed to have been “grievously betrayed” by McDonald, he now said that McDonald was a reliable friend, and cited McDonald’s friendship with Babcock as good enough reason to believe him innocent of the charges. However, some documents had been discovered that pointed to reasons other than friendship for Grant’s change of heart.

A series of cryptic telegrams in the Treasury Department’s possession tied Babcock to the affair. Not only did they point to Babcock’s warning McDonald of the impending investigation (dated prior to McDonald’s being accused), they bore a strange signature--”Sylph.” Was Sylph the Deep Throat of the day? No, not really, it turns out she was more a *sexual dalliance in the White House than an anonymous inside source, and that it was Babcock who wired the warning and added the odd signature. According to most reports, Sylph was a woman said to have had an extra-marital affair with Grant, and she was a woman who had pestered him ever since. Rumor had it that McDonald had helped Grant by making sure Sylph left him alone, and if the rumors were true, it was no wonder that Grant allied himself with McDonald. Why did Babcock use the name Sylph on the telegrams? Well, he certainly didn’t want to use his own name on them--they were, after all, fairly incriminating--and it seems that Babcock and McDonald used Sylph’s name as a kind of inside joke when exchanging correspondence. If trouble occurred, perhaps the name Sylph could help secure a show of friendship from the President. The ploy seems to have had the desired effect.

From there, things went from bad to worse for the investigators. According to William S. McFeely, author of Grant, A Biography, although both Grant and Babcock were confronted with this very damning evidence, Babcock insisted that the telegrams were about something other than the Whiskey Ring, and Grant sided with him. However, the treasury was not to be deterred. Even though some documents pertaining to the case were stolen (allegedly by a man in the employ of Grant himself), Babcock was indicted.

Grant’s actions in this sordid affair can be interpreted in several ways: Grant was trying to help out some old friends; he was afraid that his alleged affair with Sylph would be revealed; or members of Grant’s family--or maybe even Grant himself--was implicated in the Whiskey Ring.

Babcock was finally brought to trial in 1876, and due in large part to testimony from Grant in the form of a deposition (Grant had offered to testify in person at the trial but was persuaded that Presidents just didn’t do that sort of thing), he was acquitted of all crimes. And although Grant allowed Babcock to return to his job at the White House, officials made sure that he was replaced just a few days later. Babcock became an Inspector of Lighthouses and drowned in 1884; McDonald was found guilty of his crimes in 1875, fined $5,000, and sentenced to three years imprisonment--but was pardoned, less than two years later, by President Hayes.

Upon his release from jail McDonald accused Grant of taking part in the Ring in his book, Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring (1880). In it, McDonald maintains that his actions in the Whiskey Ring were a direct result of instructions from Babcock, and since, according to McDonald, Babcock was widely regarded as being “the President’s chief advisor,” he regarded any requests from Babcock as having “emanated from the highest authority.” Sylph, again according to McDonald’s book--and we should take into consideration that he wrote the book to throw most of the blame for the Whiskey Ring scandal on others--was a woman with whom he had arranged a liaison for Babcock, not Grant. He described her as “unquestionably the handsomest woman in St. Louis,” and went on to say, “Her form was petite, and yet withal, a plumpness and development which made her a being whose tempting, luscious deliciousness was irresistible.” Obviously, McDonald was quite taken with the woman (although a sketch of Sylph in McDonald’s book reveals her to have been more “homely” than irresistible).

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Reconstruction--of the Whiskey Business

While Presidents Johnson and Grant were going through their personal and political strifes, the excise tax that Lincoln had been forced to impose in 1862 had taken its toll on the whiskey industry. After the Civil War, many of the smaller distillers just didn’t have the capital to comply with the law since the tax was due upon production--as soon as the whiskey ran out of the still, the tax was due. And by this time, aged whiskey was preferred by far over the raw spirit that had been acceptable some 60 years previous. This was a time that really sorted out the men from the boys; unfortunately, though, many of the boys were the ones who made great whiskey, and many of the men were more concerned with business: Quantity mattered more than quality. Luckily for us, a few of the business types had deep pockets and a long-term view, and these were the distillers who continued to make good whiskey.

During the post-war years, when many distilleries were being built or rebuilt, Coffey’s continuous still became commonplace in the American whiskey business. The death knell was tolling for the slower, more work-intensive, old-fashioned pot stills. Many of the larger distilleries built massive continuous stills between 1865 and 1900; whiskey was becoming big business, and continuous stills were more economical. (We wouldn’t, however, see the very last of the pot still until Prohibition, and one die-hard distillery in Pennsylvania was using a pot still for a secondary distillation in the late 1980s.)

Not everyone was enamored of this new method, however, and some forward-thinking individuals took to actively advertising the fact that they continued to use “old-fashioned methods.” Even as late as 1891, James E. Pepper was advertising that he distilled twice over open fires (signifying the use of pot stills).

In the years between the Civil War and 1900, the very ways in which whiskey was packaged and marketed were also updated and modernized. Though the first glass factory in American was built in Jamestown in 1608, it would be 1903, when Michael J. Owens invented the first automatic bottle-making machine, before selling whiskey in bottles was financially viable for most distillers. Until then, glass bottles remained fragile, expensive, hand-blown vessels that were very dear in every way. Decorative glass and ceramic bottles containing whiskey were a novelty that had been around since the early 1800s. Some depicted Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Grover Cleveland, and Carry Nation, while others pictured tableaux, such as a jockey on horseback or a Continental soldier. One bottle, from the late nineteenth century, was shaped like a baby’s bottle, and bore the words, “Here is the Milk of Human Kindness.”

Bottles, however, were the exception rather than the rule--they simply added to the price of whiskey. Most goods at this time were sold locally by portions--the buyer knew to bring his or her own flour sack, barrel, tub, or jug to the purveyor, who filled it with flour, oats, lard, or whiskey. The jugs most often were of the “little brown jug how I love thee” variety--glazed stoneware in sizes ranging from one to five gallons* 1 pint according to veach. But, in the late 1860s the use of hinged metal molds made it easier to make glass bottles in greater numbers and at far more reasonable prices. These bottles were too costly for many distillers, but some at least, took advantage of the invention. This date coincides nicely with George Garvin Brown’s 1870 decision to sell his Old Forester bourbon exclusively in sealed bottles.

With the advent of the glassmaker’s hinged mold, came incised molds that could act as labels to display the distiller’s name, address, brand name, or another designation. Most of these were of the plainest design, though handsome in their simplicity. The advantage of this new type of packaging was that the potable became more portable.

During the years of Reconstruction more and more people, most of them experienced whiskey drinkers, went West. When they arrived, they needed whiskey, and distillers rushed to meet the demand. They were shipping whiskey to all sorts of colorful Western towns--Laramie, Tombstone, Dodge City--but it wasn’t always too good; much was completely unaged and cut with water. When a movie cowboy orders “three fingers of red-eye” (although a dictionary will tell you that “red-eye” is cheap whiskey), he is actually demanding the “good stuff”--it don’t get red until it’s aged. By the 1880s, however, when some of those travelers had amassed small fortunes, decent, aged whiskey was at last being shipped to the Wild West.

During the post-war period, the distillers were busy either going broke or going for broke. Here’s an update of a few significant people and events in the years between 1860 and 1900:

  • In 1864, David M. Beam, owner of the Old Tub distillery, was blessed with child--the one and only Jim Beam.
  • In 1865, Benjamin Harris Blanton started distilling whiskey in Leestown on the site where the Ancient Age Distillery now produces Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.
  • J. B. Dant, son of J. W. Dant, built the Cold Spring Distillery in 1865 and would soon produce Yellowstone Bourbon.
  • Jack Daniel opened his Tennessee distillery in 1866.
  • George A. Dickel, that other great proponent of Tennessee whisky (he spelled his without the e), started a very respectable rectifying and bottling operation in 1866. The Cascade distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee, was founded in 1877 and later purchased by Dickel’s company. George A. Dickel died in 1894 from injuries sustained in an 1888 fall from a horse.
  • In 1867 the Chapeze brothers founded their first commercial distillery and gave birth to a whiskey that would become known as Old Charter.
  • Thomas B. Ripy, whose sons would build a distillery that is known today as the Wild Turkey Distillery, opened his first whiskey distillery in 1869.
  • George Garvin Brown (Old Forester) and his half-brother, J. T. S. Brown, went into the wholesale whiskey business in 1870.
  • Irishman James Thompson joined George Garvin Brown (his second cousin) in the whiskey business during the mid 1870s. Thompson later formed his own company, bought the Glenmore Distillery in 1901, and introduced Kentucky Tavern whiskey to the world in 1903.
  • Frederick and Philip Stitzel built their first distillery in Louisville in 1872. Their company would later merge with the Weller company and become known as Stitzel-Weller.
  • John E. Fitzgerald, whose Old Fitzgerald bourbon would become the joy of the Stitzel-Weller brands, built a distillery in 1870.
  • Isaac Wolfe Bernheim and his brother, Bernard, started a wholesale whiskey business in Paducah in 1872. Their whiskey would eventually be known as I. W. Harper.
  • In 1876 Tom Moore and Ben Mattingly bought their first distillery. The plant produced Tom Moore Bourbon in 1879, and Mattingly & Moore Bourbon by 1896.
  • James E. Pepper built the James E. Pepper Distillery in 1879 and soon produced a whiskey that bore his name.
  • In 1882 a distillery by the name of R. B. Hayden and Company fired up its stills to make the first bottles of Old Grand-Dad bourbon.
  • Old Taylor Bourbon first hit the shelves in 1887.
  • Paul Jones introduced his Four Roses whiskey to Kentucky in 1888.
  • Jim Beam joined with Albert J. Hart to run the Old Tub Distillery in 1892.
  • In 1893, one of the most colorful characters ever to grace the whiskey industry, Julius “Pappy” Van Winkle, entered the whiskey business as a salesman for W. L. Weller and Son.
  • The distillery that made Old Grand-Dad whiskey was taken over by the Wathen family in 1899.

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Who Do You Trust?

Though the whiskey industry may have started on a small scale, during the years following the Civil War it developed into a form of commerce in which a substantial amount of money was to be made--major distilleries had been founded, whiskey families had staked their claims, and the foundations for many a whiskey empire had been laid. There was, however, another whiskey scandal looming, later in the 1800s--this time it came from within the industry itself, and had a direct effect on which brands of whiskey are available to us today.

You would think that you could trust something called the Whiskey Trust. But, no, this grand-scale scam featured a bunch of characters whose aim was to control production and prices in the whiskey industry. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had paved the way with Standard Oil and all it took after that was a few clever men in Peoria, Illinois. Very simply, these men created the Distillers’ and Cattle Feeders’ Trust (unofficially known as the Whiskey Trust) with an eye to buying up small-scale distilleries (whether or not they wanted to be bought), and thus controlling the price and quantity of whiskey on the market. Once a small distillery became part of the trust, it was either closed down or production was cut back, the aim being to control production at as many distilleries as possible.

Other such organizations within the industry existed in various parts of the country around this same time, but the distilling industry in Peoria, having started with one distillery in 1844, had actually outgrown its counterpart in Kentucky by 1880. According to William L. Downard, author of the Dictionary of the History of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries, Peoria’s whiskey business was an offshoot of the city’s active grain mills--surpluses were used to make whiskey. And although distillation of many different spirits continued in Illinois right up until Prohibition, the years that followed Repeal saw Kentucky, once again, become the whiskey center of America.

Greed, of course, was the motivating factor in all these shenanigans, and what the Whiskey Trust didn’t count on was that some of the smaller distilleries within the trust would make as much whiskey as they desired, and simply lie about their production figures. The Trust had effective ways of dealing with these offenders and with those who wanted to remain independent--they destroyed their distilleries. Russian businessman Peter A. Demens wrote about their nasty business in Sketches of the North American United States, 1895, “Several weeks ago the Illinois whiskey trust by hired agents dynamited a distillery in Chicago that refused to enter the combine.”

Federal and local investigations into the Trust (which changed its name to the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company in 1890), finally forced the company into receivership in 1895. It was split into many smaller companies, but some of these companies then joined together again as the Distilling Company of America, and in 1899, that company found itself under federal investigation. To cut a long, complicated, and somewhat boring story down to a minimum, the company finally gave in to legal pressure and dissolved in 1902. A similar “trust” of that time was the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company (KDWC), formed in 1899.

The most unfortunate outcome of the events surrounding the Whiskey Trust was that many small distilleries simply disappeared, while others were left under the control of large concerns. Back in 1850, both Old Pepper and Old Crow whiskeys were made at the same distillery. Whether or not they were one and the same whiskey, bottled under different labels, is not known--but certainly possible. By the end of the century, however, because of the consolidation of so many distilleries during “the days of the whiskey trusts,” many different whiskeys emanated from relatively few distilleries, a practice still common today. We should mention, however, that some modern distillers go to great trouble to differentiate their various bottlings, either by using different recipes, and/or by selecting whiskeys that have developed particular styles during aging.

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Bonding--The Ties that Bind

Taxes have long been the bane of the whiskey business’s existence, and toward the end of the nineteenth century, demand was high for a fair policy that would benefit the country without crippling the entire liquor industry. The taxes, when they were reintroduced in 1862 to help pay for the Civil War, had been set at 20¢ per “proof gallon” (one gallon at 100? proof), but by 1865 they had risen to a whopping $2 per gallon, the exact same amount that would be levied after Repeal, almost 70 years later. It was too much for the industry to bear. Fact was, that by passing on the taxes to the general public, whiskey had become too expensive for the common man. But, as we well know, if the public wants whiskey they shall jolly well have it, and the people who profited most from this very high tax were none other than the moonshiners.

The term “moonshine” was probably coined by the Scots when new laws introduced in 1781 drove them to establish stills way up in the hills that could be operated surreptitiously, literally by the light of the moon. There are still “shiners” in America today, and apparently the greatest concentration of such people is probably in the Carolinas. But back when the government’s excise tax was raised to $2 in 1865, the moonshiners of Kentucky and Tennessee were making white lightning in abundance and cashing in on the woes of the legitimate distillers. Fortunately, however, the government rethought their actions when they realized that much of the whiskey being consumed at the time wasn’t being taxed at all. If they couldn’t get the public to pay high prices for legitimate whiskey, they would have to reduce the tax and help the whiskey business back to its tax-paying feet. And while they had the government’s attention, the distillers took the opportunity to have them look at the fact that paying taxes on unaged whiskey, a product that couldn’t yet be sold, was another problem that should be dealt with.

In 1868 Congress passed a bill that reduced the excise tax to 50¢ per gallon, required a tax stamp to be put on all American-made spirits, and gave distillers a grace period--known as the “bonding” period--of one year before having to pay taxes on liquor that was aging. During this time, the liquor was kept under governmental supervision in “bonded” warehouses. Bonding helped the whiskey men a little since it meant that they didn’t have to pay their taxes as soon as the spirit ran out of the still, but 12 months wasn’t a very long grace period considering that whiskey under two years old isn’t worth drinking, and it doesn’t really gain much character until it has been in the wood for three to four years. So, although the new law did help somewhat on the financial side, the distillers still paid taxes on their product considerably before they could sell it at a decent price.

Still, the government had made some changes and provided a modicum of relief for the whiskey industry, and the years that followed were to shape the business into what it has become today. The bonding period was increased to three years in 1879, and in 1894, after the nation had just suffered a massive depression known as “The Panic of 1893,” it was increased again, this time to eight years. (This time period remained in effect until the Forand Act of 1958 increased it to 20 years.) To further help the distillers, the government agreed that stores of whiskey could be used as collateral for taxes when they came due. Whiskey bonds became a very valuable commodity.

However, much whiskey was being sold in bulk to rectifiers and bottlers of the time, and the problem of unscrupulous wholesalers (and retailers) adulterating good whiskey just had to be tackled. Enter Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor Jr.

Taylor, the man responsible for giving us Old Taylor bourbon in 1887, was known as a discerning distiller who focused on the high quality of his products. Along with many other reputable distillers and rectifiers, Taylor was worried that the bad whiskey in the marketplace would reflect badly on the whole industry. Thus, he teamed up with Secretary of the Treasury John G. Carlisle, and together they lobbied for the “Bottled in Bond Act of 1897.”

This act stipulated that bonded whiskey must be: made at one distillery in one batch; aged for at least four years in warehouses supervised by the government, and bottled at 100? proof (50 percent alcohol.) It also stated that only straight whiskey could be bonded (although distillates other than whiskey--rum, for instance--that met the requirements could also be “Bottled in Bond”). The act gave legitimate distillers the ability to prove the quality of their products, but the fight for honest labeling had only just begun.

At the turn of the century, in Britain, blended Scotches were the cause of much controversy when single malt Scotch producers sued certain retailers of blended Scotch for selling “an article not of the nature and substance demanded.” Blended Scotch, they said, was a “silent spirit,” whereas a pure malt “went down singing hymns.” The Distillers Company (a group of blended Scotch producers) fought back, claiming that because single malts contained many more impurities (flavor-giving congeners) than blends, theirs was the purer spirit. The battle eventually was won by the blenders, but back on this side of the Atlantic, similar battles were being waged.

In the early years of the twentieth century, large food companies had already started shipping foodstuffs all over the country, and there was growing concern about the preservatives and dyes being used, as well as the sanitary conditions in the packaging plants. Laws that would properly define foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals, and help protect consumers, were, therefore, presented to Congress, and luckily for us, whiskey was one of the items under discussion. Just as their counterparts in Scotland had done, the American producers of blended whiskeys argued that their products were purer than straight whiskeys since they contained fewer impurities. They didn’t seem to care that these very “impurities” were responsible for the very flavor of the whiskey. However, they had to contend with a certain Dr. Wiley, head of the Bureau of Chemistry, a part of the Department of Agriculture, and a true believer in straight whiskey.

At one point Wiley is rumored to have taken a bottle of bad whiskey to President Teddy Roosevelt who examined the product and declared that if people could no longer get a decent glass of whiskey, it was time that something was done about it. Well, something was done, and when the law was enforced in 1907, all grain spirits other than straight whiskey had to be labeled “compound,” “imitation,” or “blended.” Consumers interpreted this language to mean that the only true whiskey was straight whiskey, and this wasn’t really fair to the producers of blended products, so when Taft took office in 1909, he decided to establish further standards of identity and clarify the definition. All whiskeys were, once again, whiskeys--some were blended, and some were straight--but the label had to declare which type was in the bottle.

It’s tempting to think that, with that law under their belts, Grant out of the way, and a somewhat standardized method of production, the whiskey men of America were able to sit back and make some money. However, those nineteenth-century temperance movements had been gaining momentum, and the whiskey industry was about to confront its most formidable enemy. Here’s what was happening to the brand names at this time:

  • I. W. Harper Bourbon won a gold medal at the Exposition Universal, in Paris, France, in 1900 and another at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
  • J. T. S. Brown and Sons (J. T. S. Brown Bourbon) bought the Old Prentice distillery in Anderson County sometime during early 1900s.
  • Cabin Still and Kentucky Tavern whiskeys were both trademarked in 1903.
  • Old Fitzgerald whiskey started being marketed in Europe in 1904.
  • In 1904, the Cascade Distillery (George A. Dickel) was enlarged, making it the largest distillery in the whole of Tennessee at that time.
  • Jack Daniel’s No. 7 whiskey won a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and the brand would soon be marketed overseas. The following year Jack Daniel injured his toe while kicking a safe and, strange as it may sound, the wound led to his death in 1911.
  • The Ripy brothers opened a distillery in 1905 that would later be known as the Wild Turkey Distillery.
  • Lem Motlow, who took over the Jack Daniel distillery when Jack retired in 1907, introduced Lem Motlow’s Tennessee Sour Mash, Jack Daniel’s No. 5 whiskey, and Lem Motlow’s Peach Brandy shortly after gaining control of the distillery. Lem’s peach brandy was made in an old pot still. He died in 1917. *motlow died in 1947
  • Tennessee enforced statewide Prohibition in 1910. Jack Daniel’s whiskey continued to be made in St. Louis and Alabama, while George A. Dickel’s whisky transferred to Louisville, where huge leaching vats were erected at the Stitzel distillery to facilitate the Tennessean “Lincoln County Process” of charcoal mellowing.
  • J. B. Dant (Yellowstone Bourbon) built a distillery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, in 1912.
  • Colonel Albert B. Blanton became plant manager at the George T. Stagg distillery in 1912.
  • In 1913, an article appeared in The Louisville Courier-Journal’s special “Southern Prosperity” edition wherein whiskey dealer S. C. Herbst proclaimed that his Old Judge and Old Fitzgerald brands were the last “Old Fashioned Copper Pot Distilled Whiskeys.”
  • Jim Beam died in 1915 *1947 and his son, T. Jeremiah (Jere) Beam, picked up where his father left off. Jere had worked with his father for two years before his death.

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Of Hymns To Be Sung and Axes To Be Wielded

According to Patricia M. Rice, author of Altered States, in 1873, Eliza Jane Thompson, a woman with a passionate distaste for the drinking classes, led 70 women to drugstores and bars in her hometown of Hillsboro, Ohio, where they stood outside and sang hymns and prayed. After news of the occurrence reached the ears of similar-minded women around the country, over 50,000 promoters of temperance followed suit. The movement became known as the Women’s Crusade and led to the 1874 formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Cleveland, Ohio.

One of the women who had joined the Women’s Crusade and was president of the WTCU. from 1879 until her death in 1898, was Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, born in Churchville, New York, in 1839. Willard fought for more than temperance; she was also involved in other “women’s issues,” such as suffrage and civil rights, and she had some further attributes that frustrated the anti-temperance folk. At that time, women involved with women’s rights often were characterized as “plain,” but Willard was anything but plain. Indeed, not only was she a very attractive woman, she was also known as an effective speaker whose ways were “softspoken and womanly.”

The famed Carry Nation (almost six feet tall and around 175 pounds) was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and her antics were recorded by Oscar Getz in his book, Whiskey--An American Pictorial History. No tale of Prohibition would be complete without a few words on this colorful woman. Carry Amelia Moore was born in Kentucky and raised there, in Missouri, and in Texas. In 1867, she married a physician and alcoholic, Dr. Charles Gloyd, and was widowed when her husband, despite her remonstrations to the contrary, reaped the rewards of drinking too much. He was buried in a drunkard’s grave. Less than 10 years later, Carry married David Nation, a lawyer and minister of the Christian church who eventually divorced her because of her slightly insane ways of demonstrating her distaste for alcohol. Not that she hated only alcohol, mind you, Carry also hated sex, tobacco, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Anyway, this woman believed that she had conversations with Jesus and that He had directed her to destroy saloons. And that is exactly what she did. In 1900, Ms. Nation gathered a group of supporters, rolled into a drugstore in Kansas (which was dry at the time), rolled out a cask of brandy, and promptly smashed it to smithereens with a sledgehammer. Not content with that destruction, Carry Nation then set fire to the contents. Later that year she actually smashed up an entire saloon in Kiowa, Oklahoma. We must give a little credit here to the lady; her tactics certainly had an effect on the illegal bars at the time--many of them closed. But it wasn’t until the following year that Carry Nation actually wielded the hatchet that became her trademark when she destroyed a saloon in Wichita. (In her spare time Nation published a newsletter called Hatchet and another known as Smasher’s Mail.)

Of course, her actions weren’t without their drawbacks, Nation was jailed in Wichita, and a few other towns, but it never stopped her from going out and smashing more saloons whenever she was released. The woman had a mission, but her ways were too radical even for the WTCU--they eventually rejected her, leaving her without financial support. Not one to be sidetracked for long, Ms. Nation took to lecturing on the vaudeville circuit to raise money, and traveled to every state in the country, breaking up bars as she went. In 1908, she even ventured to Britain and Ireland, where she spread the word of Jesus and His dislike of neighborhood taverns. Carry Nation died of a stroke in 1911.

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The Pious Experiment

“I do not care to live in a world that is too good to be genial; too ascetic to be honest, too proscriptive to be happy. I do not believe that men can be legislated into angels--even red-nosed angels.” Henry Watterson, owner and editor of the Louisville Courier Journal, wrote those words in 1913. The country could have used a few more men who weren’t afraid to voice their anti-prohibitionistic voices at the time. Decrying prohibition during that period was somewhat akin to promoting cigarettes in 1995--although it doesn’t amount to treason, it just isn’t “politically correct.”

Though temperance societies had sprung up at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and grew stronger, larger, and more adamant about their quest after the Civil War, gone were the days of espousing moderation. By the turn of the century, total abstinence was the goal. The cause for concern was completely understandable--the liquor industry was growing very quickly, and it wasn’t well regulated. In 1874 more than 200,000 retailers sold liquor in the U.S., a whopping 120,000 more than just 10 years before.

By 1900, many of the smaller temperance societies had either given their support to or had become part of the Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893. Their mission was to fight for the death of the saloon. The most influential group on the other side of the Prohibition debate was The Wine and Spirits Association, formed in 1891 to counter the propaganda of the Anti-Saloon League and all of the other similarly prohibitionistic societies. The biggest problem that faced the “wets” was that not enough people in the beverage alcohol business took the “drys” seriously--most people thought that if they ignored the drys, they would go away. However, since the majority of brewers and distillers thought of the drys as not much more than religious fanatics, they chose not only to ignore them, but foolishly carried on doing business as usual--a bad move, and one that would eventually lead to their downfall. In fact, the drys had some very serious legitimate issues that needed to be addressed.

Around the turn of the century, most saloons were unruly places that served liquor, wine, and beer to almost anyone--young or old, sober or drunk, morning, noon, or night. George Ade, author of The Old Time Saloon, noted that, in Chicago, once a saloon keeper got his license, he would throw the key to his bar into Lake Michigan so that his doors could never again be locked. It was common practice for corrupt local officials to accept bribes to assure lenient treatment of wayward tavern keepers and drunken customers alike. A good number of bars were no more than dens of iniquity where one could buy drugs, consort with prostitutes, hire strong-armed boys to do a little dirty work, or bribe voters with a few shots of whiskey. In New York, when a law was passed that made it illegal to sell drinks on Sunday except when they were accompanied by a meal, many hotels took to placing a sandwich on each table. The sandwich was never eaten--but many drinks were sold.

Of course, many respectable bars existed in the pre-Prohibition era, and one such establishment was the Old Waldorf Bar in Manhattan. The bar opened in 1897 and closed its doors when Prohibition was enacted. Albert Stevens Crockett, historian for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, detailed some of the colorful antics that occurred at this bar in The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. By his accounts, this bar was indeed one worth frequenting.

Crockett paints a wonderful picture of a fancy saloon filled with power brokers being served by no less than a dozen white-coated bartenders who were “busy all afternoon and evening ministering to an endless array of thirsts.” Mind you, respectable as this bar may have been, Crockett does give mention to customers who were “filled to overflowing and had to be either carried or led away.” It’s little wonder that a number of wives of this period were dismayed and more by their spouse’s drinking habits.

Crockett also mentions a tradition of this era that was never properly re-established after Prohibition ended--the free lunch table. Precursor to modern “happy hours,” the feast included caviar, Virginia ham, canapés, and “thirst-provoking anchovies in various-tinted guises.” The idea, of course, was to lure men there for a “free lunch” and sell them as much beer and liquor as possible in the interim. And these tables were not present only in the “posh” bars, working-class saloons offered similar meals, but the fare on their tables--pickled eggs, frankfurters, stews, and thick, hearty soups--was not nearly as sumptuous as that at the Waldorf.

There is no doubt that liquor was being abused, and one fellow, George Garvin Brown, creator of the Old Forester brand and a founder member of the Wine and Spirits Association (W S A), did take steps to counter the prohibition movement. The W S A tried to dissuade politicians and churchgoers from taking the Anti-Saloon League’s mission to its logical conclusion. Members lectured and wrote to prominent people on both sides of the issue trying to bank the fire a little. But Brown had some priorities of his own, and he decided to take on the religious fanatics who he felt were hiding behind the skirts of the pulpit.

In 1910, George Garvin Brown published a booklet, The Holy Bible Repudiates Prohibition, in which he quoted passages from the Bible that showed “divine” approval of the consumption of beverage alcohol. One such quote was from Deut. 14: “And thou shalt bestow that money for whatever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth; and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thine household.”

After quoting the passage, Brown commented, “The context shows that for the convenience of those living at a distance from the place appointed by God for feasts in His honor, authority was given to sell for money that which was required for tithes and feasts and provide the same at the place appointed by God for His worship. This passage shows the fallacy of the position taken by some agitators that even though wine was used authoritatively in Bible times, it was home-made wine only, and not bought and sold.”

For George Garvin Brown, this book was more than his way of countering the drys’ movement, it was a personal mission; he was a deeply religious man whose association with his church had been threatened because of his involvement in the whiskey business, and he honestly deplored the drys using the “word of the Lord” to promote their quest. And he was right, the Anti-Saloon League was doing just that.

The League’s 1910 yearbook contains a declaration signed by their fearless General Superintendent, Reverend Purley A. Baker, D.D.:

“The Anti-Saloon League is not, strictly speaking, an organization. It is what its name indicates--a League. It is a league of organizations. It is the federated church, and under all circumstances loyal to the church. It has no interest apart from the church. It goes just as fast and just as far as public sentiment of the church will permit. It has not come to the kingdom simply to build a little local sentiment, or to secure the passage of a few laws, nor yet to vote the saloons from a few hundred towns. These are mere incidents in its progress. It has come to solve the liquor problem.”

The yearbook goes on to note the progress that the drys had made since the League’s conception in 1893. According to this booklet, over 12,000 saloons had been closed “by various means” in the year 1909, and over 41 million Americans were living in “dry” territory. The U.S. population in 1909 was about 90.5 million; therefore, if the League’s statistics were accurate, over 45 percent of the country already was dry in 1910.

Actually, by that year, every state in the union had some form of prohibition. It was statewide in some instances, and under various forms of local option (towns, counties, municipalities, or city districts having the right to legislate and enforce prohibition) in others. It’s easy to see that national prohibition was inevitable sooner or later. Five years later (and five years before the whole country had to seek solace from illicit stills and bathtub gin), 20 states were dry: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The Anti-Saloon League had structured its tactics to make sure that a number of individual states went dry before lobbying for national prohibition, and they were succeeding at an alarming rate.

While all this was going on, the whiskey industry had been making good use of a loophole in the law by selling liquor by mail. It was a grand system that had actually been around since about 1870 when bottles became more common as a way of packaging whiskey, but as local Prohibition spread, drinkers in dry areas began writing away for whiskey like never before, and they were treated to some marvelous offers and premiums. (Mail-order liquor, of course, was not restricted to dry states, the whole country took advantage of some of the sizeable discounts the system offered.)

Advertisements in magazines and newspapers of the time gave consumers the chance not only to buy whiskey at reduced rates, but also to receive special offers, such as an “elegant gold-filled watch” sent free to “all who influence ten new customers to each order one gallon or more of our goods.” If you had only four friends, you could receive “the most beautiful set of Limoges China Dishes you ever saw” for persuading each of them to order a gallon of spirits from the Security Distilling Company of Chicago.

Rye whiskey was still very popular during the early twentieth century, and the number of bottlings of Pennsylvania Rye or Monongahela rye whiskey generally outnumbered the bourbons in advertisements of the time. And America was still producing “Pure Malt” whiskeys at the time--in 1913, a dozen bottles of Regan’s (no relation) Pure Malt Whiskey would cost a mere six bucks, whereas four quarts of I. W. Harper brought $5 on the mail-order market. A bottle of Old Crow in 1916 would have cost $2 to $3, depending on its age (the $3 bottling was distilled in 1884, the less expensive one in 1904), and rye whiskey at the time was being sold at similar prices.

Trade was brisk for the mail-order whiskey suppliers, but don’t think for a second that the Prohibitionists were going to stand idly by while thousands of gallons of whiskey were being mailed to their hard-fought-for dry states and counties. In 1913, the Webb Kenyon Interstate Liquor Act was passed, effectively preventing the traffic of liquor from wet to dry states. The mail-order business continued, but with not nearly as much spirit as before.

In Europe, the “Great War” broke out in 1914, and although President Woodrow Wilson initially declared that the country would remain neutral, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany. Along with the rest of the country, the whiskey industry braced itself for more setbacks. The Lever Food and Fuel Act was enacted later that year; designed to preserve food supplies during World War I, it made all distillation of beverage alcohol illegal. Drinking was still legal in some areas of the country--but not for too very much longer.

Just over two years later, on January 17, 1920, after the Volstead Act that enabled the National Prohibition Law, had been passed by 287 votes to 100, the nation was officially dry. That year saw the birth of yet another organization, The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, made up of many brewers, distillers, and some very wealthy and influential people, DuPont family members among them. The association felt compelled to keep the government informed of the drawbacks of Prohibition; stressing mainly, that without taxes from alcohol, the economy was suffering; that farmers had lost a market for their grains and the surplus subsequently had brought grain prices down, and that unemployment in related industries was rising steadily. It was partially due to these efforts that Prohibition would be repealed some 13 years later.

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The Roaring (Drunk) Twenties

By most accounts, Prohibition wasn’t so dry after all. The years between 1920 and 1933 are usually associated with speakeasies, bootleggers, bathtub gin, and gangsters, and, indeed, for some, those were the highlights of the decade. If you were in with the in crowd, the nightlife was sparkling, and it was in the fun-filled, mobster-run clubs of this era that the twenties roared with a hoarse throat, worn dry by bad liquor. However, it is also true that most people of the time thought that all their neighbors were involved in the antics associated with illegal liquor, when in fact, although many drinkers might have kept a bottle at home, the speakeasies were frequented by a relatively small percentage of the population.

One of the strangest, most unpredictable effects of Prohibition, however, was this: Hard liquor actually became more popular than it had been prior to the Noble Experiment. Why? Simply because it packed more alcohol into a small quantity of liquid than wine or beer, and it was, therefore, easier to transport and hide from the authorities. People who had once enjoyed a few beers at the local saloon were now tossing back shots of whiskey and drinking fanciful cocktails made with poor-quality booze. It is estimated that, although relatively little wine or beer was poured during Prohibition, consumption of the hard stuff actually increased by more than 15 percent per person. (It then declined by about 25 percent after Repeal.)

Felix graf von Luckner, a visitor to America during Prohibition, painted a marvelous scene of the effects of the experiment in his book, Seeteuful erebert America, 1928:

“Prohibition has created a new, universally respected, a well-beloved, and a very profitable occupation, that of the bootlegger who takes care of the importation of the forbidden liquor. Everyone knows this, even the powers of the government. But this profession is beloved because it is essential, and it is respected because its pursuit is clothed with an element of danger and with a sporting risk. Now and then one is caught, that must happen pro forma and then he must do time or, if he is wealthy enough, get someone to do time for him.

“Yet it is undeniable that prohibition has in some respects been signally successful. The filthy saloons, the gin mills which formerly flourished on every corner and in which the laborer once drank off half his wages, have disappeared. Now he can instead buy his own car, and ride off for a weekend or a few days with his wife and children in the country or at the sea. But, on the other hand, a great deal of poison or methyl alcohol has taken the place of the good old pure whiskey. The number of crimes and misdemeanors that originated in drunkenness has declined. But by contrast, a large part of the population has become accustomed to disregard and to violate the law without thinking. The worst is, that precisely as a consequence of the law, the taste for alcohol has spread ever more widely among the youth. The sporting attraction of the forbidden and the dangerous leads to violations. My observations have convinced me that many fewer would drink were it not illegal.”

Since, as Luckner, noted, the sleazy gin mills had disappeared, and much drinking, therefore, occurred in swank nightclubs and the homes of the wealthy, Prohibition’s other weird but wonderful effect was that drinking became more socially acceptable than it had been prior to 1920. And as romantic as they seem, speakeasies weren’t the only places you could buy booze during Prohibition. In his book, The Great Illusion, Herbert Asbury quotes a 1929 telegram that listed over 30 people and places that supplied liquor in Manhattan. The locations include delicatessens, shoeshine parlors, barber shops, delivery agencies, paint stores, taxi drivers, moving van companies, and of course, newspapermen’s associations. (Many stories might never have met their deadlines if the hard-drinking journalists of yesteryear weren’t able to knock back a shot or two.) And although the Governor of New York’s office wasn’t mentioned in the telegram, it is said that, even during the dry years, Franklin D. Roosevelt was wont to serve cocktails from his desk every afternoon at four.

The Noble Experiment also helped the drug industry of the time inasmuch as some city folk, who didn’t want to risk flouting the law, simply went down to their local tea house (a euphemism of the time) and smoked marijuana, a drug that remained legal until 1937. But these were also the days when many people were stricken with a variety of weird and wonderful maladies that needed regular treatment with frequent tots of decent, aged, “medicinal” whiskey--the product of a loophole in the law that allowed certain distillers to sell whiskey for medicinal use.

Six distilleries were given permits to sell medicinal whiskey during Prohibition--A. Ph. Stitzel, Glenmore, Schenley, Brown-Forman, National Distillers, and Frankfort Distilleries--and these companies were allowed to store whiskey and sell it to licensed druggists, who in turn, could mete it out to customers who had a doctor’s prescription. In his book, Nothing Better In The Market, John Ed Pearce says that only 10 such medicinal whiskey permits were applied for, and although the reasons for such a small number aren’t quite clear, it was possible that most people in the industry simply thought the permits not worth the bother. Further amendments to the law made it possible to actually distill whiskey (during “distilling holidays”) that would be used for medicinal purposes. This legitimate whiskey was prized for its high quality, since unless people could get hold of smuggled Scotch, most of the other available whiskeys were roughly made and seldom aged by the moonshiners who produced them.

Horrible stories about people going blind after drinking bootleg liquor are true. Some bootleggers took a shortcut and produced highly toxic methyl or wood alcohol instead of ethyl (beverage) alcohol. Methyl alcohol has a direct affect on the optic nerve, and as little as one ounce has been known to cause death. Others, either those not versed in the art of distillation or too concerned with time and money, would not adhere to the art of the distiller wherein only the center section of the whiskey is deemed suitable for consumption. Instead, they would sell the entire batch of spirits and the resultant whiskey, although it wouldn’t make you blind, was a far cry from the pure, bold red liquor that the whiskey men had fought for at the turn of the century. All sorts of ploys were used to make this rotgut at least look good. Bootleggers colored their white lightning with ingredients such as iodine and tobacco to make it look as though it had been “in the wood” for a few years.

The Volstead Act all but destroyed many of the legitimate whiskey distilleries. Most of them were dismantled, and of the 17 plants operating in Kentucky prior to Prohibition, only seven were making whiskey in 1935. Yes, all sorts of deals were going on throughout this period--distilleries without a “medicine” license were selling their stocks to those who did, others maintained warehouses where those with licenses could store their whiskey under government supervision, and an unofficial cartel sent Owsley Brown of Brown-Forman to Europe to try to sell over 20,000 barrels of bourbon--a mission that was only partially successful. But toward the end of Prohibition, those who were still producing whiskey were busy making plans for Repeal.

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The Reawakening of the American Whiskey Business

When Prohibition ended, not everyone was happy about it: Dry Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas (during Prohibition, most politicians were referred to as “Wet” or “Dry”), one of the authors of the eighteenth amendment, made a speech on January 16 (the date that Prohibition went into effect) of every year since 1920, commemorating the Noble Experiment. In February, 1933, he conducted what Time magazine described as, “a pathetic one-man filibuster against Repeal.” His oration lasted over eight hours, but nonetheless the following day the Senate voted to take up the Repeal resolution by 58 votes to 23. Prohibition finally ended at 5:32 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, on December 5, 1933.

During the months leading up to Repeal, speculation was rife about how the liquor industry would handle the expected new business. One thing was for sure--there would be major changes in the way the industry conducted itself. Once again, it would be the men with deep pockets who could afford to cope with the new regulations that came with Repeal.

The whiskey men of America were somewhat nervous that much of their audience was gone. Since good straight whiskey was hard to come by during the dry years, the public had become accustomed to gin. Why gin? Mainly because gin was what the bootleggers had decided to make--and they had good reasons: It is relatively simple to take unaged spirits, straight from the still, add a little oil of juniper, and create gin--not London Dry gin, mind you, a distinctive spirit with myriad natural flavors lovingly distilled into it, but a very crude form of what we now call “compound” gin, a less-expensive substitute. During Prohibition, not only did heady flavor of juniper help disguise just how poorly the liquor had been made, it also gave the drinking public what they wanted--a highly flavored spirit. Since most people were used to the bold body and heady flavors of good whiskey, gin was far preferable to vodka, a spirit that was virtually unknown in America at the time. Even by 1939 when Charles H. Baker Jr.’s excellent book, The Gentleman’s Companion, was published, the author noted that vodka was “unnecessary to medium or small bars.”

There was, however, another factor that worried the post-Prohibition whiskey men: Their supplies of aged whiskey were critically low. December, 1933 saw an America with only about 20 million gallons of whiskey on hand (compared to the 60-some million gallons of surplus whiskey when Prohibition began). Most of what there was had been distilled just the previous year or so during the “distilling holidays” allowed by the government once Repeal was in sight. The Canadians and the Scots, on the other hand, had plenty of aged whiskey, and they were champing at the bit to ship it into the States. One immediate solution to the American distillers’ problem was to sell blended, rather than straight whiskey, thereby “stretching” the good stuff with neutral spirits and flavorings. The hope was that it would tide them over for a few years until they had enough aged straight whiskey to please the public. What they weren’t considering, of course, was that once the public grew accustomed to blended whiskey, chances were they would never return to the “pure” stuff. Here’s a list of the whiskey distillers still left in the game after Prohibition ended:

  • The biggest whiskey company was the National Distillers Products Corporation, a reputable company formed in the 1920s that was an indirect offshoot of the disreputable “Whiskey Trust” of the late nineteenth century. In 1933, National owned approximately 50 percent of all of the whiskey in America along with a number of notable distilleries, such as the Wathen Distillery (Old Grand-Dad, Old Taylor, and Old Crow), the Overholt Distillery (Old Overholt), and three other distilleries that produced straight whiskey. The company was acquired by the Jim Beam Brands Company in the 1980s.
  • The James B. Beam Distilling Company was formed in 1933; it was purchased by what is now the American Brands Company in the 1960s and is currently called the Jim Beam Brands Company. They now own the Old Taylor, Old Crow, Old Overholt, and Old Grand-Dad brand names, in addition to four small-batch bourbons--Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden--and their signature Jim Beam whiskeys.
  • Schenley, under the guidance of its owner, Lewis Rosenstiel, had acquired a number of distilleries, brand names, and quite a stock of whiskey during Prohibition. By 1934, his company owned the George T. Stagg Distillery (Ancient Age) and the James E. Pepper Distillery (James E. Pepper whiskey) among others. I. W. Harper, Old Charter, and Cascade (George A. Dickel) brand names were purchased by Schenley in the late 1930s, and Schenley itself was later acquired by United Distillers.
  • The George T. Stagg Distillery went on to become the Ancient Age Distillery and was sold before Schenley was taken over. The plant is now owned by the Sazerac Company and produces Ancient Age, Eagle Rare, Benchmark, and a range of single-barrel bourbons--Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee, and Hancock’s Reserve.
  • The Stitzel distillery joined forces with the Weller company to form Stitzel-Weller. The company bought the Old Fitzgerald brand name*by 1933 veach in 1933 and went on to become part of United Distillers in the 1980s.
  • Glenmore Distilleries (Kentucky Tavern, among others) survived Prohibition well and went on to become major producers and importers of a number of liquors and liqueurs. The company was acquired by United Distillers in 1991.
  • Brown-Forman (Old Forester, Early Times) had a supply of aged whisky on hand to kick off the 1933 celebrations. After the company’s 1934 fiscal year didn’t turn out to be as profitable as predicted, its president, Owsley Brown, did the honorable thing and offered half of his stock to his disappointed investors in lieu of a dividend. The company went on to buy the Jack Daniel Distillery in the 1950s.
  • Frankfort Distilleries (owners of the Four Roses brand) survived the dry years and was bought by the Seagram company in the 1940s.
  • Leslie Samuels (Maker’s Mark) reopened his Deatsville distillery in 1933, and sold T. W. Samuels bourbon (named for the first Samuels to open a commercial distillery). His son, another T. W. Samuels, took over operations after Leslie’s death and ran it until 1943. After taking a 10-year sabbatical from the industry, he returned to his whiskey roots, bought a plant in Loretto that he named Star Hill Farm, and started to produce Maker’s Mark bourbon in 1953.
  • The Tom Moore Distillery was reopened as the Barton Distillery after Prohibition; it was later taken over by Oscar Getz and is now owned by Barton Brands. Whiskeys made at this distillery include Very Old Barton, Ten High, Kentucky Gentleman, Colonel Lee, Tom Moore, and Barclay’s.
  • A. Smith Bowman, a farmer in Virginia who had been in the whiskey business prior to Prohibition, started making Virginia Gentleman bourbon in 1935.
  • In 1935, a group of investors opened the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown. The Shapira family, owners of this distillery, now produce Heaven Hill, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, J. T. S. Brown, and Mattingly and Moore bourbons as well as Pikesville straight rye whiskey.
  • Also in 1935, the Austin Nichols company, previously concerned solely with the food business, took an interest in whiskey and other liquors. In 1942 they introduced Wild Turkey bourbon to the marketplace.

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The New Deal

On May 29, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt declared a national emergency that had been brought about by a series of events that culminated in the stock market crash of 1929 and the massive unemployment that followed. In order to “put people to work,” Roosevelt proposed a “New Deal” for the country. As part of this deal, Congress passed his National Industrial Recovery Bill that effectively suspended anti-trust laws and compelled industries to write their own fair trade codes, which would be examined by the President before approval. The idea, in general terms, was to make each industry share the available work among as many people as possible. Just over six months later, when Prohibition was repealed, the beer, wine, and spirits industries had to devise codes of their own.

Owsley Brown (Brown-Forman), Frank Thompson (Glenmore), and a group of other concerned distillers met with attorneys from the Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association in Washington, D.C. Their aim was to unite the entire distilled spirits industry, write a code of conduct (it was actually drafted by Harris William of the Department of Agriculture) that would be acceptable to all, and convince everyone to sign it. The idea was that the distillers would show their willingness and ability to police themselves from within and prevent post-Prohibition bars from becoming the seedy, unregulated dives they had been prior to 1919. To a large extent, it worked.

In December of that year the Distilled Spirits Institute (DSI) was formed in the New York offices of the Schenley Products Company. DSI went on to merge with the Licensed Beverage Industries (formed in 1946) and the Bourbon Institute (formed in 1958) to become the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) in 1973.

Also in December, 1933, President Roosevelt formed the Federal Alcohol Control Administration, an agency charged with establishing codes--separate ones for liquor, beer, and wine--to which any company in the beverage alcohol business was legally compelled to adhere. Luckily for the distillers, the FACA was controlled by Joseph Choate, a man who had been against Prohibition from the outset and who said that he intended to use “as little external control as possible.” FACA became the Federal Alcohol Administration in 1935, and the following year it issued updated classifications on all liquors. This agency eventually became part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

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America “Lightens Up”

Although many pre-Prohibition brands of whiskey made their way back to the shelves after Repeal, they weren’t always identical to their older namesakes. One great example of this was Schenley’s Golden Wedding rye whiskey, a very popular brand before Prohibition. During the dry years, Seagram had used the same name in Canada, but American bootleggers sold an inferior whiskey that they called Golden Wedding, and thus the public was still very aware of the name. When wet days returned, Schenley, which was in the same boat as most other whiskey producers who did not have enough aged product on hand, decided to mix some of their good aged whiskey with some younger straight whiskeys and market it as Golden Wedding--the first “blend” of straight whiskeys on the market.

The upshot? Public confusion. Was this a blended whiskey? No--it didn’t contain neutral spirits or added flavorings or colorings. And though Schenley tried to make that point very clear by printing on the label “It’s ALL Whiskey...No Alcohol or Spirits Added,” the result was the wrath of blended whiskey producers who said that the words were a put-down of their products. Schenley changed the wording on the label to “Whiskey--A Blend--All Straight Whiskeys,” but it was too late--the brand died.

Many of the other straight whiskeys on the market at this time were merely young--they were bottled at 12- to 18-months-old and sold under familiar labels. Meanwhile, Seagram introduced its “Five Crown” and “Seven Crown” blended whiskeys to the American public, and they were an unmitigated success. (And we are willing to bet that if you had to choose between a one-year-old straight whiskey and a well-made blended whiskey, you, too, would pick the latter.)

By the early 1940s, however, the distillers had managed to age sufficient quantities of straight whiskey to have an appreciable amount of good, aged bourbon and rye back on the shelves. But 21 years had passed since Prohibition had taken such wonderful, big-bodied, rich, flavorful whiskeys away from the public. Tastes had changed, and blended whiskeys had become increasingly popular.

All was by no means lost, however--good whiskey men never have given up that easily. Nobody stopped making bourbon, rye, or Tennessee whiskey simply because sales weren’t as good as expected; they dealt with the situation as best they could. In some instances, distillers ventured into importing, exporting, and distilling different products to diversify their lines. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the storm that would become World War II was brewing.

During the war, American distilleries were enlisted to produce industrial alcohol for the war effort, and once again the whiskey supplies began to dwindle. Even the whiskey bottles had to be made to new government standards that called for thinner glass and no unnecessary designs. Strangely enough, one of the major beneficiaries of World War II was the rum industry, the very enterprise that, in America, had fallen at the heels of the whiskey business some 150 years previous. Since rum was made nearby, in the Caribbean, and therefore was easy and relatively inexpensive to transport to the U.S., it became the drink of choice of many Americans beleaguered by both the shortage of whiskey, and a lack of money. By 1945, Americans were consuming about three times as much rum as they had in 1941. Wartime dance bands didn’t just sing “Rum and Coca Cola,” they drank it, too.

Whiskey was rationed during the war, and some brands were discontinued. Some distilleries installed newer versions of the continuous still so they could produce industrial alcohol, and others simply sent their low-proof alcohol to distilleries that could redistill it until it was strong enough for the war effort. The government did allow a couple of “distillation holidays” toward the end of the war, but it would be the late 1940s to early 1950s before most distilleries were once again up and running full force with a decent supply of aged whiskey on hand.

It’s interesting to note just how much the whiskey business helped the war effort at this time. Indeed, had Prohibition not come to an end, the government would have had enormous difficulties fulfilling their need of industrial alcohol (beverage alcohol at 190? proof). And according to various industry documents of the time, it was used in a variety of fairly astounding ways:

  • in the manufacture of rubber, antifreeze, tetraethyl lead (used in the production of aviation gasoline), rayon for parachutes, and ether, among other things.
  • 23 gallons of industrial alcohol were required in the manufacture of a Jeep.
  • 19¾ gallons were needed to produce one 16-inch naval shell.
  • one gallon was needed in order to make 64 hand grenades or two 155mm Howitzer shells.

A by-product of making any form of beverage alcohol from grain is the leftover mash, which is dried and used as feed for farm animals. Here again, the whiskey business contributed to the war effort by keeping cattle and pigs well fed when food for the general populace was at a premium. Indeed, for every 1,000 bushels of corn used to make alcohol, the leftover mash could feed 30 head of cattle and 15 pigs for 112 days, thus producing 1,000 pounds of beef and 240 pounds of pork.

So, though the public was protected and fed, in part, by the whiskey men of America, they just didn’t have enough decent whiskey to drink. And don’t think they didn’t complain. An editorial in The New York World Telegram in 1944 stated, “public and official alarm over the shortage of liquor is pathetic in a people who are supposed to be adult.”

It’s clear that the whiskey business had its problems: The swingers of the twenties preferred gin to whiskey; post-Prohibition whiskey drinkers got used to blended whiskeys; and then the demon rum reared its head during World War II. Demand was diminished--and things didn’t change a great deal until some learned spirits aficionados decided that whiskey wasn’t getting enough attention and started to shed some light on the intricacies of single malt Scotch in the 1980s. The timing was brilliant. The U.S. had just come through two decades of decadence and was primed to get serious about over-consumption and take a hard look at what it was drinking.

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Whiskey at the Close of the Twentieth Century

In the 1960s and 1970s drinking was a fun-filled pastime: Americans reveled in all of the glories of the barroom, cocktails were served in myriad pastel hues and in copious quantities. The country drank and drank, hardly knowing what was in the glass, everyone was out to achieve the high of all highs, and no one cared much how they did it.

Suddenly though, from out of the woodwork, Betty Ford, Ringo Starr, and Liz Taylor came clean, publicly said goodbye to John Barleycorn, and a new interest in sobriety was born. When groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) sprung up, the whole country started talking, once more, about the evils of drink. Happily, the atmosphere was nowhere near as oppressive as it had been for our forefathers at the beginning of this century. These groups took aim at irresponsible drinking. They were out to prevent accidents and to help those with a drinking problem take care of themselves.

But in a strange, labyrinthine manner, this new batch of concerned citizens not only did what they set out to do (for which they deserve much accolade), but they also paved the path for the return to the bold, rich flavors of straight American whiskey.

Sometime during the mid-1980s, people who were wont to throw $20 on the bar and stay there until it was gone, were no longer able to spend it on four or five Screwdrivers or seven or eight beers. It wasn’t politically correct, it wasn’t good for the body, and it was no longer a laughing matter. But these people still had the same amount of money to spend. On what did they spend it? They spent it on the “good stuff.” Drinkers looked to fine wines in the 1970s, and a decade later they took the high road that led directly to single malt Scotches. And these were not the bygone days when men were the sole decision makers, by this time women, too, had buying power--and they were discriminating consumers. The most avid of these budding aficionadas and aficionados worked at learning about their drinks. Some sat alone at the bar taking notes on the particular malt they were sampling; others assembled in groups, experienced a few different drams, and discussed and compared each one’s particular intricacies. And so it was that whisky, albeit Scotch whisky, was once again given the attention it deserved. And the American whiskey distillers took note.

Suddenly, liquor store shelves were filled with new bottlings of old brands of fine American whiskey, old-looking bottlings of new brands, and a variety of new terms were being bandied about. Finally, “small-batch whiskey,” “single-barrel whiskey,” and “wheated bourbon,” were getting their fair share of attention. Once again, people were demanding straight rye whiskey--not the blended product that had been poured as “rye” at many a bar since as far back as the 1950s.

Some distillers are resting comfortably, knowing that they have been producing fine heavy-bodied whiskeys all along, while others who had “lightened” their products somewhat in an attempt to compete with gin, vodka, and rum, are now, thankfully, rethinking their position. We will not be surprised to see one or two pot-still American whiskeys on the market within the next five years or so.

As consumers we are lucky that so many good straight American whiskeys are still left in the marketplace. The whiskeys--and the people who make them--have won a place in our hearts. Raise a glass to the pioneers and heroes of the American whiskey industry: Jacob Beam, I. W. Bernheim, Colonel Blanton, Wattie Boone, A. Smith Bowman, George Garvin Brown, the Chapeze brothers, James Crow, Jack Daniel, J. W. Dant, George Dickel, Basil Hayden, Paul Jones, Henry McKenna, Tom Moore, Elijah Pepper, T. B. Ripy, Robert Samuels, the Shapira brothers, E. H. Taylor, Pappy Van Winkle, W. L. Weller, and Evan Williams.

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American Whiskey History

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