American whiskey can be a conundrum. Many people associate American whiskey with the largely corn-based bourbon, but actually distiller recipes vary. Each mash –– the mixture of grains (corn, rye, wheat, and barley) – aged in charred-oak barrels produces its own distinct characteristics. Our nation’s history is inexorably tied to this distinctive brew, and it’s as American as apple pie. When our founding fathers laid bare their ideas for a new nation, you can imagine that many of them had a bottle of whiskey on hand to help them get through. It’s tough business forming a union.
There are as many variations on American whiskey as there are independent brewers. Every distillery has its own way of crafting a delicious bottle of the caramel-colored liquid. Broadly, we define different types of whiskey according to the combination of ingredients used. Rye whiskey contains at least 51% fermented rye. Bourbon whiskey contains at least 51% fermented corn. And malt whiskey contains at least 51% malted barley. Regardless of what type of whiskey you choose, this American classic has been a mainstay through the ups and downs of our rich history and heritage.
The Birth of an American Tradition
Who invented whiskey? The Scots and the Irish both claim it, stretching way back to the Dark Ages. But the first legal distillery in the British Isles was in Northern Ireland. The original recipes for whiskey were malt-based and bore little resemblance to the American staple that we know today. True American whiskey first became a product in the late 1800s. Settlers in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kentucky decided to create their own version of the beloved European spirit. The abundance of corn, wheat and rye crops became an instant recipe for success. Brewers used wooden barrels to store and transport whiskey to every corner of the developing nation.
The Great Whiskey Debacle
When President Washington saw how popular whiskey was becoming with the American people, he sought to impose a liquor tax to boost the infant country’s income. Needless to say, local brewers were not too pleased with the idea. Americans took to the streets to voice their opposition to the tax. Despite the will of the people, then US Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton knew that drastic measures were needed to secure the country’s future. With the national debt overblown since the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington finally succeeded by signing his whiskey tax into law in 1791.
New Regulations for an Old Favorite
It didn’t take long for the whiskey phenomenon to spread across the country like wildfire. Supply and demand steadily improved over the next one hundred years. Suddenly, with brewers in every state, whiskey became the drink of choice for millions of tavern goers. In the late 1900s, whiskey was at the height of its popularity, encouraging many entrepreneurs to cash in. Amateur brewers and tradesmen packaged and sold poorly made whiskey with little to no regulation. The true definition of what could pass as whiskey became difficult to pin down.
Once again, the government decided to intervene. Tavern owners and traders had become wary and weary of unsealed bottles without proper labels. Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr and Treasury Secretary John G. Carlise introduced the Bottled in Bond Act in 1897. As a precursor for the Food and Drug Administration that we know today, this radically new piece of legislation set the standards for what could be considered straight whiskey. With the bar raised, every bottle had to be produced over the course of one distillation season at one distillery and also had to be stored in a US-supervised warehouse for at least four years. As confining as these regulations may have seemed, the Bottled in Bond Act helped usher in the American whiskey that we know and love today.
Prohibition and an American’s Right to Drink
The 1920s were a difficult time for the whiskey industry. Notable members of society including social progressives and devout Protestants declared war on what they saw as a deplorable habit among the American people. They believed that the consumption of alcohol was a direct threat to the moral values of society. Under the Volstead Act, the production and sale of alcoholic beverages became punishable by law. Prohibition began in 1920 and lasted until its repeal in 1933. During the Prohibition Era, the number of bootleggers and smugglers nationwide became so overwhelming that it became nearly impossible for local police to enforce the new law. Antithetical to the law, drinkers were never considered criminals in most circles, and sympathy for the Volstead Act waned quickly. The overturning of the law became a testament to the true beauty of the inherently democratic nature of America.
A Crown Achievement for American Whiskey
With the Volstead Act repealed, the legal production and sale of alcoholic products resumed. Brewers and distillers thrived in the new climate. Eventually, in 1964, the US Congress decided to officially classify bourbon as a “distinct product of the United States.” This acknowledgement of the most popular of our nation’s whiskeys is a declaration of love for a product that’s uniquely American. Whiskey’s fascinating place in American history speaks to the hardworking distillers whose creations are part of the national fabric. Whiskey isn’t just a product of America, but an integral part of the country’s identity.
The next time you reach for a bottle of American-made Whiskey, take a moment to remember that every sip is a piece of history.