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History of American Whiskey


American whiskey is an ancient beverage with a rich history that matches its exquisite taste and quality quite well. Whiskey has been the drink of choice for many Americans since ancient times, and bourbon has probably been their constant companion throughout history as they have gone through life-changing and trend-setting phases. Through many wars, victories, prohibition and rebellions, whiskey has continued to live on and survive. Each century has worked to add to its character and make it a lovelier product. You'll be thrilled as we embark on a historical journey to unravel the mysteries of American whiskey history.

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The birthplace of American whiskey can be traced back to Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania in the eastern part of the U.S. In 1791, whiskey began to be made as a rye based product. The then incumbent president saw the promise of increased revenue from the business and therefore tried to tax it, but was publicly resisted. This failure became known as the "Whiskey Rebellion". The Irish pioneers who settled in the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky were the first to start making American whiskey. In these states, they could easily find the necessary raw materials and other resources - which made whiskey making almost effortless! They encountered clean lime rich waters.


They came across clean, lime rich waters and plenty of wood to build the required casks for transport and storage. Corn, the main ingredient in whiskey, (51% of the total ingredient share) was also abundant. At this stage of its existence, American whiskey was further divided into two common brands: Sour Mash and Bourbon. Each of these brands, while offering different tastes and experiences, cut its own niche and has a strong reputation for being a uniquely American beverage. The sour mash brands, have stayed true to their roots and are still produced primarily in Tennessee. Not surprisingly, sour mash has become the pride and joy of this mountainous southern state.

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By 1870, the whiskey trade had become very well developed throughout the United States. Famous political figures, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and even Abraham Lincoln all had liquor licenses and in one way or another (most often privately) they were involved in the trade. At this stage, legislation tended to oversee the whiskey industry, and such regulation began to be enforced. However, the legislation was not very strict - it could not prevent unscrupulous traders from packaging and labeling non-whisky drinks in whisky bottles; this supervision was particularly difficult because transport between distillers and suppliers and customer taverns was carried out through the use of wagons and carts.


It was soon discovered that sealed and labeled bottles were the only way to ensure that fraudsters were deterred. George Barwin Brown began this practice by initially selling only to doctors and medical practitioners. Soon, however, reputable distilleries also bought into the trend of labeling bottles. After some resistance from other merchants who made their money from selling sub-standard whiskey, the trend became standard business practice (especially when consumers refused any product in unsealed bottles). Sealed bottles with printed labels became the best way to make real money selling whiskey.

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In other developments, another piece of legislation was passed in 1897 to guarantee customers the authenticity of their whiskey. This legislation, led by Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. and Secretary of the Treasury John G. Callis, was designed to impose standards on the sale of "pure" whiskey. The "Bottled in Bond" Act was born, which meant that the whiskey had to be pure (50% alcohol) and produced by one distiller in one distillation season at one distillery. It must also be stored in a federal bonded warehouse under the supervision of the U.S. government for at least four years. This bonded whiskey still has the best reputation.


Rebound and Recovery

Alcoholism led to high levels of intoxication among U.S. residents, which spurred the introduction of prohibition. This legislation targeted the main types of alcohol that were seen as detrimental to social values and character. The Prohibition era was between 1922 and 1933, and these laws prohibited the production of all alcohol; the proponents of Prohibition saw alcohol as the primary catalyst for the ills experienced in society. By 1933, however, it was clear that Prohibition would continue to be a noble experiment, as its failures were too obvious to deny. As a result, American whiskey withstood this great challenge, further forging its presence and regaining its place in the hearts of Americans.

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By 1964, bourbon had become such an integral part of American identity that the U.S. Congress recognized it as a "distinctively American product"; this declaration was a great honor, as it used the symbol of whiskey to unite all Americans. As a result, legal regulations clearly define the quality standards for true bourbon. These quality standards were set as follows: at least 51% of the corn was distilled to 80% alcohol content. Whiskey could only contain natural ingredients (i.e., no artificial additions other than water), and bourbon was to be aged in specific, charred-only oak barrels. Other American whiskey brands are required to meet additional quality control standards in terms of grain, aging and proofing in order to earn certain whiskey designations. There is no doubt that these stringent standards ensure that American whiskey remains a beverage of choice.


Some of the American whiskey brands that have stood the test of time include Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey and Eagle Rare. distilleries in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia are open for tours and tastings, allowing the public to experience the origins of true American whiskey. Distilleries like Maker's Mark even allow you to create your own mark on the red sealing wax that has become their trademark. Raise a glass to the rich history of whiskey with a whiskey glass from our Cocktail Glassware section.

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If you want to know more about other whiskies, you can click bolded words.

Editor: Rubick L.