WHISK(E)Y IS MORE THAN A BEVERAGE, IT'S
THE HISTORY OF WHISK(E)Y
At a time when obscure new whiskeys are appearing on cocktail menus from Savannah to Seattle, it’s hard to imagine the American whiskey industry was ever under threat. For starters, the grain-based spirit is as American as apple pie, or at least George Washington—in fact, the first president’s Mount Vernon estate was once the site of the country’s largest distillery, specializing in the Mid-Atlantic region’s famous rye whiskey. But despite its noble foundations, America’s whiskey industry suffered repeated setbacks, like our 13-year Prohibition on alcohol, which nearly drove it to extinction.
In the early 20th century, some distillers survived attacks from anti-alcohol prohibitionists by promoting the drink as an important medicine, creating a legal marketplace similar to medical marijuana today. But even after 1933, when the public got fed up with Prohibition’s silly charade, the massive diversion of resources toward World War II coupled with customers’ changing tastes in alcohol delivered further blows to whiskey distilleries, leaving the industry grasping at straws throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Noah Rothbaum chronicled the industry’s bumpy past, along with the eye-catching packaging of each era, in his new book, The Art of American Whiskey. “Throughout the history of American whiskey, you see these repeated starts and stops,” says Rothbaum, “which allowed for other types of alcohol to gain a foothold here. It’s amazing that we have a strong American whiskey industry after all of these ups and downs.”
How did whiskey get its start in the United States?
People have been making whiskey in America since before it was a country. Traditionally, people in the Northeast or the Mid-Atlantic states made rye whiskey, and those in Kentucky and some of the other Southern states made what would become known as bourbon. There were many distilleries founded in the beginning of this country, but most were run by people who had a small still on their farm and used it as a good way to turn their excess crop into something that was more shelf stable, durable, and valuable.
For a long time, if you wanted to buy whiskey, you weren’t buying bottles. When you’d go to a liquor store or grocery store, you’d fill up your own jug or flask or decanter. Bars and grocery stores would purchase a barrel of whiskey, and then they would sell that by the glass, or they’d allow people to fill up their own containers. Nothing really came in a glass bottle because it was so expensive to make them at that time.
That really changed in 1870, when the first bottled American whiskey came out. It was called Old Forester, and it’s still available today. Old Forester was marketed not at consumers, but at doctors, since they would prescribe whiskey for a range of maladies. Previously, doctors couldn’t be sure of how pure their whiskey was because there were all types of middlemen between the distiller and the final customer, or the patient in this case. Because Old Forester was sold in a bottle, you could guarantee that it was pure unadulterated whiskey, meaning it wouldn’t do more harm than good.
Around the turn of the century, a machine was invented that made bottles very cheaply and effectively, so you had a glass-bottle revolution as more spirits and other products were starting to be sold in bottles. That kicked off a real boom, not only in American whiskey production, but also whiskey advertising and marketing, because for the first time people actually had a choice of what they drank. Previously, they didn’t have many options—each bar or store would have a limited number of casks. E. H. Taylor stood out as a pioneer, putting shiny brass bands around his casks so buyers would know it was his whiskey.
1494 - Earliest mentions of Whisky Recorded in History