Whiskey Guide – History of Whiskey


Whiskey has a long and distinguished history, sometimes sordid actually. Farmers have a big bumper year. They can’t sell everything locally. They can’t store, because cereals go bad in a hurry and they get really nasty when they do. It can make you really sick. There’s an incentive to take that and make liquor out of it, because you’re essentially taking a bunch of excess product, excess crops, and you’re refining it and turning it into a value added product. You’re condensing it in size making it easier to transport. And it won’t spoil.

Corn growing farmers in the southeast could take all their excess crops. Distill it. You put it in barrels so it matures and gains value over time. And you can ship it further distances. You can send it up to Mississippi, to Kentucky, to Chicago where it can go out on rails all across the country.

Whiskey was the major spirit consumed in America for a very long time, right up until Prohibition, actually, when the Volstead Act passed and we had our great experiment. Which, I’m sure you’re aware, failed miserably. You see a rise in white spirits because they’re faster. They don’t have to barrel age, so you can go quicker from the still to the market, hence bathtub gin and all those other wonderful things.

But whiskey never stopped being made in Canada. It was a bootlegger’s paradise because it’s the longest undefended border in the world. So you have people making whiskey up in Canada. Crown Royal is a great example. It’s a higher rye content, because rye grows better in colder, hardier climates like Canada. You can make your rye up there. They never bothered to stop it because there was a huge market. Scotch took advantage of this as well. You would run scotch over to Canada. Then people would fill up boats and run them down the coast, then redistribute from there.

After Prohibition was struck down Canadian whiskey had a cache. Rye whiskey had new fame. People started to go back to some of the classic American brands. But because bourbon takes as long as it takes to make, you know, it has to spend two years in its barrel, minimum, people started drinking whatever they could get their hands on – unaged spirits, moonshine. With the opening of the Soviet Union after World War Two vodka became a much bigger thing. Vodka is now the largest selling spirit in the world, biggest part of the alcohol market share.

Whiskey kind of spent a while being sort of what your grandfather drank. But bourbon picked back up starting in the fifties, the sixties. They returned to some of the old, traditional ways, and they started making newer and better products. As people started to see that they stopped drinking so much light domestic beer. There became a market for these things.

In the last thirty, twenty, fifteen years there’s been a big resurgence in microdistilleries and artesanal distilleries in America both because of beneficial tax breaks and legal codes and because people really are just out there trying to make a better beverage. They’re asking themselves, does whiskey really have to be kind of bland, does it have to just taste like the barrel. So you see a lot of people doing newer and interesting things, and we’re all better for it. Expanded market share, a rising tide lifts all boats, and that tide smells like liquor.