History of American Whiskey

Early Days

Rum was the spirit of choice in the American colonies through the 17th and 18th centuries.  But after the Revolutionary War, that began to shift to whiskey.  After all, rum had British roots.

Rye

Whiskey making was brought to the Americas by the early colonists who had been making whiskey, in places like Ireland and Scotland, primarily using barley.  But barley was slow to adapt to the New World climate and soil, so they began making whiskey with the grains that were more adaptable.  Up in places like Pennsylvania and Maryland, this was rye, which had been brought over by Germans and was the primary grain used for early whiskey making in America (George Washington made rye at his distillery in Mount Vernon, NY).  This rye whiskey was sometimes called Monongahela rye, named for the river in Pennsylvania.  But as more settlers migrated to the south, they encountered a new grain: corn, which became the predominant American whiskey grain in what know of today as bourbon.  

Whiskey Rebellion

After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States found itself in a whole mess of debt.  One of President George Washington's solutions was to tax whiskey making, heavily.  Outraged, the distillers revolted and refused to pay the tax in what became known as the whiskey rebellion of 1791.  Washington responded by sending the national guard to Pennsylvania to confront the protesters.  Incidentally, this was the first time the army had been used in the nation’s history.  Many of the distillers fled, heading south and into the hills.  This southern "migration" pushed America closer to corn-based bourbon as well as laying the groundwork the illegal whiskey-making culture of moonshine.

 

 

The Rise of Bourbon

The name bourbon comes from Bourbon Country, Kentucky which was taken from the family house name of  French King Louis XVI -  The House of Bourbon.  King Louie's France was quite helpful to the Americans, to say the least, during the Revolutionary war.  

 

Over the 19th century, lots of corn whiskey came out of Bourbon County, as traveled in barrels up and down the Mississippi River being indaventently aged as they went.  Eventually, people began to call for it by name as "old bourbon whiskey". 

During this time, bourbon's various quirks were shaped and standardized from the charring of barrels to the sour mash process.  Some familiar names also made their way into the bourbon business such as Elijah Craig, Evan Williams,  Jacob Beam,  and Jasper "Jack" Daniel.

During the Civil War, Kentucky was right in the thick of it, straddling the fence between Union and Confederate forces, so bourbon gained a lot of exposure on both sides, paving the way for its future dominance.  But there was trouble on the horizon.

 

Prohibition

Prohibition threw a wrench into everything.  By order of congressional amendment, all alcohol was banned in the United States. Whiskey production halted, and when speakeasies sprung up  it was the blended Canadian whisky being made up north that stepped in to stock them. 

 

When prohibition was finally repealed in 1934, people had taken a liking to the lighter profile of blended whiskey.  This was just fine with American distillers who were just getting going again.  You can’t make well-aged bourbon overnight of course, so any older product was turned into blended whiskey by being mixed with younger or unaged spirits to stretch them. After that, whiskey-making was halted again in World War II so distilleries could make industrial alcohol for the war effort.  This led to blended whiskey-making up most of the American market.  After the war, Straight Bourbon hung around, but rye did not.  Rye was largely dismissed over the course of the 50s and 60s as an old-timer tipple, it was nearly non-existent decades.  Bourbon did not fare well either. Sales fell and vodka took over as the nation's most popular spirit in the 1970s.

Resurgence

The pendulum began to swing back towards straight American whiskey in the 1980s.  Inspired by the newfound success of premium single malt scotch, American distillers began to release single barrel bourbons and other premium bottlings.  Interest was reignited and straight, unblended, whiskey made a comeback which poised it for the resurgence of cocktails in the early 21st century.  As bartenders began recreating classic cocktails in the mid to late 90s it opened the door for the sleeping giant: rye.  

 

Today

Rye has reentered the market in a big way, and American whiskey continues to grow on several fronts. Bourbon is so popular there are shortages of the most in-demand bottles and many bottles that once carried age statements of 10 or 12 years have had to drop them because there wasn't enough old stock to go around.    The craft distilling movement. is forging a new frontier bringing whiskey-making beyond of Kentucky to every corner of the country and bringing lesser-known styles like Malt whiskey to the fore.  There's perhaps never been a better time in history to be an American whiskey lover. 

 

 

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