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A Truly American Spirit - Whiskey Production In North America

Features

09.10.2020

Read on to find out more about the heritage and history behind an American icon..

Jack Daniel's Distillery Team

Read on to find out more about the heritage and history behind an American icon..

Read on to find out more about the heritage and history behind an American icon..

Bourbon or Tennessee, Rye, Wheat or Corn – the American whiskey industry of today encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques. The story behind the industry is one of enterprise, ingenuity and perseverance, that not only offers a fascinating insight into the history of the United States of America but also reveals how the spirit became so deeply rooted within the hearts and identities of the American people.  

PIONEERING SPIRITS
Whiskey’s origins in North America can be traced as far back as the 17th century to the European settlers who brought with them a knowledge of distilling from their homelands. Facing toil and hardship in order to secure their new lives, these settlers relied upon whatever resources were available to them in order to survive. Production of whiskey was just such a lifeline. The resourceful farmer could use leftover grain to create a product that would store and transport easily, feed their cattle with the byproduct and, most importantly, supply demand amongst their fellow settlers.  So began the practice of distilling whiskey, one of the first cottage industries in North America. 

FUNDING AND FORMING AN INDEPENDENT NATION

Throughout the 18th century, the production, distribution and consumption of whiskey increased rapidly.  Whiskey also provided an early test for the newly independent nation.  In 1791, a federal tax was levied on imported and domestically distilled spirits to assist in reducing the debt accrued during the American War of Independence.   It became known simply as the ‘Whiskey Tax’ and was strongly resisted by farmers and distillers on the western frontier of the young nation, culminating in what was to become the ‘Whiskey Rebellion’.  A short but formative episode in the young country’s history, the ‘Whiskey Rebellion’ instigated the first mustering of a federal militia, with nearly 13,000 troops sent to western Pennsylvania led by sitting President, George Washington. 

A NATIONAL INDUSTRY

The turn of the 19th century saw the United States in search of an identity, opening out westward and eventually morphing into an industrial powerhouse. Whiskey producers were equally as aspiring, with families forming whiskey empires that would change the way that the spirit was produced, redirecting many smaller farmers away from distilling and instead supplying their grain to larger companies. States that we now consider synonymous with whiskey, Kentucky and Tennessee, came to the forefront.  It was in the first half of the 19th century that James Crow is credited with inventing Bourbon as we know it today and Alfred Eaton invented ‘The Lincoln County Process’ that distinguished Tennessee whiskey.  Whiskey truly became a national concern when, in 1897, the Bottled-in-Bond Act passed creating a standard quality and making the federal government the guarantor of a spirit’s authenticity.

ON THE ROCKS

In direct response to the proliferation of retailers selling whiskey came the Temperance movement, culminating in the National Prohibition Law passing in 1920. This law prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages and forced an estimated 250,000 alcohol industry employees out of work. Despite this a few distilleries were able to continue to function within the law, with six companies applying for a license to sell ‘medicinal alcohol’ during prohibition.  Only once faced with the grim realities of the Great Depression was America ready to re-embrace its shuttered whiskey industry again. What it could offer in terms of both employment and tax revenue became too vital to ignore and in 1933 Prohibition was repealed. Whilst the revenue did go some way to aiding the stricken country, the damage done to the industry during Prohibition was severe. The remainder of the 20th century saw the fortunes of U.S. whiskey producers wax and wane, with challenges arising from Canadian and Scotch whisky imports and a halt in production through WWII. A period of favour through the 50s and 60s was followed by a slump in the 70s and 80s as the popularity of alternative spirits increased. The industry persevered, however; adapting, consolidating and patiently waiting for the tide to turn in their favour again.  

A MODERN SPIRIT

American whiskey’s unexpected saviour came in the form of Japan. As the world opened up over the course of the second half of the 20th century, with influences and trends transcending borders more so than ever before, Japan became gripped with a bourbon fever. The country’s desire for bourbon not only helped the American whiskey market survive in the 1980s but also ultimately led America back to the spirit. It was a different industry that emerged from the lean years to meet the renewed demand of the American consumers ready to take ownership of their whiskey heritage. Drinkers had become connoisseurs seeking out well-aged, high-proof, premium-packaged, limited editions and single-barrel expressions. Today the industry is a diverse and dynamic place. History and tradition sit comfortably alongside experimentation and innovation. Smaller craft distilleries have emerged and the long established producers go from strength to strength. What comes next for American whiskey remains to be seen but it is clear that the story is far from over. 

Laura Maclaren

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