American Whiskey – A short history

1776

Settlers get thirsty

An old hand drwn image of early settlers 1700's America

In the late 1700’s, small distilleries were being operated in Pennsylvania, West Maryland and West Virginia. In 1776, Kentucky County was created from part of Virginia and the “corn patch and cabin rights” law was issued by the Virginia General Assembly. Settlers could claim 400 acres of land provided they build a cabin and plant a patch of corn prior to 1778. Settlers from Maryland and Pennsylvania floated down the Ohio River on flatboats into Kentucky. Others from the East, made their way to what became the Bluegrass State via a route that took them through the Appalachian Mountains on the “Wilderness Trail.”

1776

Settlers get thirsty

1778

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virgina

An early drawing of an immigrant settlement in 1700's Pennsylvania

The Scots-Irish and German distillers who settled in Pennsylvania and Maryland made rye whiskey. Imported European barley took too long to establish in this new land but Rye, another European grain, took to the land immediately.

1778

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virgina

1791

The Whiskey Rebellion

Image depicting the Whiskey Rebellion wars of 1774

In 1791, George Washington approved an excise tax on liquor to help ease the financial burden that the Government was carrying from fighting the Revolutionary war. Whiskey makers didn’t want to pay and over the coming few years there were uprisings and skirmishes resulting in Washington declaring war on the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. 13,000 troops flooded Pennsylvania and the law quelled the uprisings. Taxes were paid but many of those distillers fled to Kentucky.

1791

The Whiskey Rebellion

1800

Kentucky Whiskey Forefathers

An 1800 map of Kentucky

Who were the first distillers in Kentucky? Records show that Wattie Boone and Stephen Ritchie both made whiskey in Nelson County, Kentucky as early as 1776. Evan Williams actually built a whiskey distillery in Louisville in 1783, and this is the first recorded mention of a commercial distillery and the, now legendary, Elijah Craig arrived in 1786 and was distilling within three years. Before the end of the century, Elijah Pepper, Robert Samuels, Jacob Beam, Basil Hayden, Henry Wathen, The Brown Family and Daniel Weller were all distilling within what was now a fast-growing enterprise. Whiskey was now being shipped down the, Spanish controlled, Mississippi and Bourbon Whiskey was about to get its name.

1800

Kentucky Whiskey Forefathers

1840

Bourbon on the label

An old newspaper ad for whiskey

By 1840 the name Bourbon was appearing on bottle labels. The first instance was by distiller Jacob Spears to help differentiate it from other whiskey that he felt inferior to his.

1840

Bourbon on the label

1861

Civil War

An image of the 1861 US Civil War

The civil war of 1861 casts a dark shadow on the history of the United States. Some of the Southern states actually sat closer politically to the Union but Whiskey trade with those border states who sided with the Confederate cause had a major influence on Kentucky’s positioning. Some of the most famous distillers of the time took up arms for the Confederates Army. Kentucky whiskey played a huge part in the decision of which side to fight and in soothing the minds, and often the wounds of soldiers. The War was expensive, as wars tend to be, and in 1862, Abraham Lincoln re-introduced the hated Whiskey tax.

1861

Civil War

1865

The modernisation of production

A diagram of a Coffey Still

In the years after the war, when many distilleries were being built or rebuilt, Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey’s highly ingenious continuous still became commonplace in the American whiskey business. The stills were faster, more efficient and more output could be achieved. The use of the traditional pot still began to die out. The big distilleries built huge continuous stills and by 1900, whiskey was big business.

1865

The modernisation of production

1897

The Bottled in Bond Act

Bottled in Bond act 1897

Big business brings bad people and in the late 1800’s rectifiers were buying up large quantities of Bourbon and were watering it down with anything from water to Tobacco juice. This was bad for legitimate business and bad for Bourbon. Enter Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor Jr. EH Taylor was known as a discerning distiller who focused on the high quality of his products. Taylor was worried that the bad whiskey in the marketplace would reflect badly on the whole industry. He teamed up with then Secretary of the Treasury, John G. Carlisle and together they lobbied for the “Bottled in Bond Act of 1897.” The 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 abv.) It also stated that only “straight” whiskey could be bonded. The act gave legitimate distillers the ability to prove the quality of their products.

1897

The Bottled in Bond Act

1920

Prohibition

Barrels being smashed during Prohibition

In 1917, in the midst of World War 1, the Food and Fuel Act was enacted. It was designed to preserve food supplies during the war that America had recently become drawn into. The distillation of alcohol for beverages became illegal although drinking it, in some states remained permitted. Then, on the 17th January 1920, the Volstead Act was passed and the United States of America was officially dry. Over the 13-year period of Prohibition, the production, sale and use of alcohol was banned. There was, however, an exception. Doctors were allowed to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes, to be sold through licenced pharmacies. Illness became a regular pastime. Ironically, drinking was never so popular as when it was prohibited. Illegal speakeasies, bootlegging, and illicit nightlife proved to be a massive draw and hard liquor become more popular than before prohibition began. Alcohol was a hot commodity so the stronger the alcohol, the less space it took up, the easier it was to hide and transport. It’s suggested that hard liquor consumption was up 15% by the end of prohibition.

1920

Prohibition

1933

Repeal

Photo of the repeal of Prohibition

When repeal was finally lifted at 5:32 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, on December 5, 1933 the nation signed a relief. The whiskey industry, however, had challenges to face. What was a supply of 60 million gallons of good whiskey that was in store before Prohibition was now less than 20 million. The nation had also become accustomed to illegally, and poorly, produced Gin. Whiskey stocks were blended with neutral spirits in an attempt to make it go further whilst new was being distilled and aged and the fear was that the public may never return to the high quality Whiskey that they were previously accustomed to.

1933

Repeal

1941

Another war

An American Bomber in 1941

Another war By the early 1940s, the distilleries had aged enough straight whiskey to have an appreciable amount of good, aged bourbon and rye back on the shelves. Unfortunately, in the 20+ years since repeal, tastes had changed. Blended whiskeys had become increasingly popular. The 2nd World War brought bigger challenges still for the whiskey business. Once again, the distilleries were enlisted to assist by supplying alcohol for the war effort. Rum was becoming very popular, being made outside of the US, in the Caribbean, and was easy and cheap to import. In tough times, it became the drink of choice for many Americans. By 1945 Rum sales were three times the amount they were in 1941. Many whiskey brands didn’t survive the war and it was into the early 1950’s before the survivors were at full production again and with stocks of good aged whiskey.

1941

Another war

1964

The (re) birth of a nations spirit

Dedicated spirts act 1964

The official spirit of the USA On May 4, 1964 the United States Congress gathered together in Washington, D.C. and by a majority vote passed a concurrent resolution that says, “Bourbon Whiskey is a Distinctive Product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” And with that, the amber spirit made from at least 51% corn that’s been distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in a new charred oak container at 125 proof or less, became an official part of Americana and the Bourbon business was reborn.

1964

The (re) birth of a nations spirit

1984

The 80's' 90's and naughties

The 80’s and 90’s The 80’s was an odd time for alcohol consumption. It was a decade of clean living, of leg warmers and health food. It was no longer cool to spend the night at the bar, to be seen to be drinking to access. Ironically, this began to lay the path for the return of high-quality American whiskey to prominence. People still wanted to drink and off-sales numbers began to rise in fine wines and fine spirits. The distilleries reacted swiftly. Old brands reappeared and distilleries found new ways to bring Bourbon back to market. Single Barrel whiskey made its debut in 1984 with the introduction of Blanton’s, the brainchild of one Elmer T. Lee. The industry recognised a resurgence and more new terminologies began to appear. “Small Batch” started to appear on Bourbon labels such as Evan Williams’ Elijah Craig and Jim Beam’s Knob Creek and the public’s appetite for a better quality of whiskey. The whiskey drinking public began to demand knowledge of where its whiskey was being produced, the quality of its ingredients and the history of its producers. American whiskey was back in the limelight.

1984

The 80's' 90's and naughties

2004

The American Whiskey Trail

People on the American Whiskey Trail

Interest in American Whiskey was truly burgeoning and 2004 saw the launch of The American Whiskey Trail by the Distilled Spirits Council, its members and affiliate members. Appetite for knowledge of all-things whiskey drove major investment in distillery visitor centres, tours and even a resurgence of long forgotten brands.

2004

The American Whiskey Trail

2006

A bright future for America's spirit

Copper Pot stills in a craft distillery

Somewhat more excitingly, entirely new distilleries began to pop up in very healthy numbers. Wealthy business people wanted to be in whiskey, descendants of once famous distillers re-established long lost brands and craft distilleries using pot stills and traditional recipes and distilling methods began to produce some incredibly interesting whiskeys. The long and turbulent history of America's spirtit has never had a brighter future and it's exciting to know that the best is possibly yet to come.

2006

A bright future for America's spirit