American Whiskey

American Whiskey

Alcohol production was of paramount importance to America’s first immigrants as it was the only liquid that was safe to drink; since water was much more likely to cause illness ! Rum was the first spirit made in America ; molasses was brought to New England from the Caribbean as part of the trade triangle.

With the large influx of Scottish and Irish whiskey drinkers, the country’s knowledge of distillation was taken forward and naturally favoured whiskey. However, this unusual mix of Presbyterians and Catholics were not made welcome in the puritanical north-east and they initially settled in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. These pioneering colonists soon found that, whilst barley was ideally suited to British and Irish soils and climates, corn and rye would be much more rewarding crops in their new land. Couple this with a natural disposition for independence and rebellion, and it is not surprising that American whiskey branched off in a totally different direction both in terms of production methods and taste.

Once small scale production was established, containers in which the spirit could be sold were required. Barrels made of oak took the whiskey to market and charring the inside of the barrels was believed necessary to prevent contamination. The first recorded guildsman cooper, John Lewis, started work in 1608. The north-east was still drinking rum and so whiskey went west. It soon became apparent that the further away the market, the more impressive the whiskey and so, legend has it, that maturation in charred oak casks evolved.

George Washington’s crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion (an anti tax demonstration) forced many whiskey distillers inland to Kentucky and its surrounds ; a blessing in disguise as nature had given this region everything required for good whiskey-making. Corn flourished, water supplies were abundant, oak forests provided wood to fire the kilns and to make barrels, hot summers with high humidity and cold winters-both ideal conditions for the maturation of this type of whiskey-and finally the rivers that provided a route to market. Bourbon County (named to thank the French for their assistance in the revolutionary war against the British) was established in 1785 and in the 1820’s the term bourbon whiskey was coined. The first recorded commercial distillery, belonged to Evan Williams and was founded in 1783.

No history of American whiskey is complete without the story of Prohibition. The first temperance moves began in the early 1800’s and by 1854 five eastern states were already dry. The whiskey industry itself grew in leaps and bounds ; the first massive distilleries were built in the late 1800’s, automatic bottle production followed shortly, brand names were registered, exports began to increase and the companies themselves grew into modern corporate entities.

Against this background the crusade against liquor had hardened, and by 1910 half the country was dry. In 1920 the National Prohibition Law was passed and it lasted until December 1933. Known as the Great Illusion, Prohibition denied most Americans access to alcohol, crippled many of the distilling companies and bankrupted almost all the small distillers. Many distilleries never re-opened and their brands were bought up by the few remaining companies.

Following the repeal of Prohibition large scale production is now done by only a handful of active multi-national spirit producers.

In Kentucky, there are ten large distilleries ; in Tennessee only two while Georgia and Indiana have one apiece. A number of craft distilleries operate in each state as well. Many make bourbon, corn, rye or Tennessee whiskies.


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