The Fascinating History of American Whiskey

From the whiskey rebellion of the late 1700s to the Prohibition in the early 20th Century to the craft whiskey movement of today, whiskey is deeply rooted in American history.

What started off as raw, unaged spirit has developed into complex, full-bodied, distinctively American whiskeys such as bourbons, ryes, and Tennessee whiskey.

In this post, we cover the impact whiskey has had on America and how the concept of American whiskey has evolved through the years.

The Inception of American Whiskey

As the European settlers began to arrive in America in the 16th and 17th Centuries, they brought with them the practice of distilling whiskey. It said that the Irish and Scottish immigrants who settled in the hilly states of Tennessee and Kentucky were the first to begin brewing American whiskey. 

In these new territories, they could easily find all the necessary raw materials needed to make whiskey! The pure lime-rich waters, oak wood to construct barrels and grain--the main ingredient of whiskey, were all plentiful. 

History records indicate that these early settlers made rye-based whiskey. Why? The barley they brought from Europe took too long before it became acclimatized to its new home.

On the other hand, rye was a hardy crop that took root and fared well almost immediately. Since they were already accustomed to distilling a rye-based bill mash grain, they turned to it as "the next best thing" to barley. 

Corn, an indigenous grain, was also gradually introduced to the whiskey-making process in small quantities.

Distilling whiskey offered three distinct avenues for profit-making: The distillate could be stored almost indefinitely, and liquor was relatively easy to transport.

It was definitely much easier than heaving huge sheaves of corn or rye to the market. And the solids left behind from the distillation process could be used as cattle feed.

Whiskey Rebellion

One little-known fact about George Washington is that he was a liquor tycoon. In fact, he had erected stills at Mount Vernon in the 1770s to produce rum. Shortly after his retirement in 1797, James Anderson, his Scottish plantation manager, persuaded Washington to plant rye for making whiskey.

In a letter to John Hancock during the Revolutionary War, he's quoted saying, "The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed." He also advocated for public distilleries to be constructed throughout the states citing that rum helped lift the spirits of despondent troops.

Yet, despite being in the alcohol business himself, that did not stop him from approving an excise tax on liquor in levying taxes in 1791. This was after Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, made it clear that the newly formed country had to find a way to pay off the debts from the Revolutionary War. 

To accomplish this, Hamilton persuaded Congress to introduce a set of revenue-generating measures that included a tax on all liquor. Rates were based on the alcoholic strength of the product, origin (spirits made from home-grown products were taxed less than those made from imported goods) and an annual tax levied on each still, dependent on its capacity.

The 1791 tax on American whiskey proved very unpopular among the farmer-distiller. They had a valid reason to be vexed by the new taxes! 

Until now, most whiskey has been made in relatively small quantities. Also, most sale transactions were conducted by barter trade. For instance, a farmer distiller would exchange a gallon or two of his finest liquor for a month's supply of fish or maybe offset a few months' rent with his landlord. 

Basically, hard cash rarely exchanged hands, and very few people were "making a killing" from this whiskey business. So you can understand why these taxes were met by open resistance. 

No place was this more evident than in Pennsylvania. Here the government really cracked down on the dissident whiskey distillers in an effort to set an example for the rest. 

This resulted in Pennsylvanian whiskey makers' declaration that anyone trying to collect the taxes would be viewed as an enemy of society. According to Gerald Carson in his book, The Social History of Bourbon, one tax collector had his house burned to the ground, despite hiring a dozen soldiers to guard his home.

This whole debacle came to be known as the "Whiskey Rebellion." Tired of the revolt in Pennsylvania, in 1794, George Washington ordered the army to go in and quash the Whiskey Rebellion. Many of the agitators were hauled into court and fined for their lack of cooperation.

Others fled to Kentucky, the birthplace of the whiskey that would later become known as Bourbon.

The Birth of Bourbon

When the Pennsylvanians arrived in Kentucky, they were met by other masters of the still who had preceded them and started some new whiskey-making traditions.

These Kentucky whiskey pioneers had discovered that, not only was corn a relatively easy grain to cultivate, but it also made a distinctive style of whiskey that was somewhat lighter than the rye whiskey from Europe. This was known as Kentucky" or "Western" whiskey and is the original version of what we call Bourbon today.

Some claim that Baptist minister Elijah Craig invented Bourbon in 1789 by aging the already popular unaged corn whiskey (moonshine) in newly charred oak barrels. However, there's no real evidence to prove that he was the first person to make Bourbon

Other distillers like William Calk, Jacob Meyers, Joseph and Samuel Davis (brothers), James Garrard, and Jacob Spear though mentioned in various documents in relation to Bourbon. However many of them faded into obscurity.

Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

To date no one knows really who invented Bourbon. It's more likely that many different distillers contributed to the rise of the Kentucky whiskey industry. 

The Formative Years (19th Century)

The 19th Century proved to be very crucial in the development of the American whiskey industry.

  • President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax in 1802, greatly lightening the financial load on the distillers.
  • In 1807, the Embargo Act restricted the importation of molasses from British ports. While this spelled doom to the rum business, it favored the up-and-coming whiskey industry.
  • The switch from flatboats to steamboats on the Mississippi and the rapid advent of railroad acted as a catalyst for the rapid expansion of the whiskey industry. 
  • The invention of the telegram in 1844 meant any bar owners across the different states could make their orders much faster, unlike before when all orders had to be relayed via mail.
  • The 1825 "invention" of "The Lincoln County Process" by Tennessean Alfred Eaton marked a big step forward in the whiskey-making process. This is the all-important filtration system, in which whiskey is dripped through a minimum of 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal before it is put in barrels for aging. It is the process that is still used today and distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from Bourbon and all other straight American whiskeys.

Most whiskeys of this time were sold in barrels to retailers. The distillers also supplied bars and saloons with decanters and bottles that were branded with the distiller's brand name. 

As time went by, some retailers started buying whiskey from different distilleries and mixing them together to arrive at a consistent product. This is the early version of what we call blended whiskey today. 

All these development meant that the whiskey only got better in quality and reached the consumer faster. The repercussion of this was that Americans drank more whiskey than ever before. In 1826, a league, The American Temperance Society, was founded in Boston, and it was a society that distillers would come to dread.


As the "over-consumption" of whiskey continued to grow, people started to rally against it. Long before the American Prohibition came into act in 1922, dissent about the drinking culture had been brewing for decades.

Many states with dry counties emerged with laws restricting the sale of alcohol long before national Prohibition. Examples include Maine(1846), Vermont (1852), New Hampshire and Massachusetts (1855) and New York in 1854 (but for only two years).

The temperance movement only grew stronger, larger, and more adamant as the decades went by.

By the turn of the 20th Century, total abstinence was the goal. Advocating for moderation was deemed no longer enough. The cause for concern was completely understandable--the liquor industry was snowballing, but it wasn't well regulated.

In 1874 more than 200,000 retailers sold liquor in the US, a whopping 250% more than just a decade before.

By 1900, most of the smaller temperance societies had joined the Anti-Saloon League (1893). By this time, most saloons were unruly establishments as they served liquor to almost anyone.

It didn't matter who you were, how old you were or what time of day it was. If you could pay you could drink as much as you wanted. 

Some even become the preferred meeting point for peddlers of crime where folks could buy drugs, consort with prostitutes or hire criminals. 

In New York around the turn of the century, a law was passed that made it illegal to sell drinks on Sunday except when they were accompanied by a meal. Many saloons found an ingenious workaround to this.

They would place a sandwich on each table. The sandwich would remain untouched while the revelers drank copious amounts of liquor!

All this time, most distillers, retailers and saloon proprietors chose to ignore the temperance movement, labeling the proponents as religious fanatics. That was a terrible mistake, as they would soon come to learn. Read more about how the American Prohibition played out.

American Whiskey Arduous Resurgence 

By the end of the American Prohibition, the damage to the whiskey industry had already been done. Many of the distillers were not able to resume business, and the few that did faced another setback almost immediately. 

During the Second World War, American distilleries were enlisted to produce industrial alcohol for the war effort. Once again, the whiskey supplies began to dwindle. 

This time it was the rum industry's moment to shine. Most of the rum drunk in the united states at the time was brought in cheaply from the nearby Caribbean Islands. Rum quickly became the drink of choice of many Americans beleaguered by the shortage of whiskey. 

By 1945, Americans were consuming about three times as much rum as they had in 1941. It wasn't until the early 1950s before most distilleries were once again up and running.

On the bright side, by 1964, Bourbon was already considered an integral part of American identity, which led to the US congress acknowledging it as "a distinct product of the USA." 

They also laid out the specific regulations that are to be met in order to label a whiskey as Bourbon. (For more details, read the Rules of Aging Bourbon)

But the American whiskey industry was not out of the woods just yet. For the first time in history, 1973 saw more vodka sold in the US than whiskey. Obviously, this was attributed to many different factors, but two are with mentioning: 

1.) fancy packaging and sophisticated marketing campaigns from imported vodka brands like Smirnoff easily wooed the average American drinker

2.) the rise of a younger generation looking for a lighter drink. Sweet cocktails like Cosmopolitans and Sex on the Beach gained traction and drinkers turned toward tequila and vodka.


This forced the whiskey business into what spirits writers have dubbed "the dark ages." Many distillers either consolidated or closed, and the remaining brands did what they could to stay relevant. Jim Beam, for instance, created specialty labels to make its product appeal to drinkers on various airlines. Jack Daniel's leaned on their unofficial relationship with Frank Sinatra to try and boost sales.

Others turned to international markets like Japan. To their luck, their whiskeys were better appreciated there, and the revenues garnered helped so many of them through the lean 1980s and early 90s.

American Whiskey in the 21st Century


With a renewed focus on educating the local American consumers, the whiskey industry has been on a resurgence this Century.

For instance, The American Whiskey Trail was launched in 2004 to promote many of the historical sites and operating distilleries in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which began in 1991 as a Bourbon tasting event, has grown tremendously over the past two decades. The festival draws approximately 50,000 visitors from across the world to Bardstown, Kentucky, each year.

Famous distillers like the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg allow for whiskey tours of its operations and premises.

Then there's the craft whiskey movement. What began with a handful of small whiskey distilleries around the country in the 1990s has grown to a full-fledged industry with hundred of microdistillers.

Social media and TV shows such as Mad Men have sparked interest in the history of American whiskey. Not to forget, the trend of upscale cocktail bars and premium whiskeys has reinvigorated the demand for classic whiskey-based cocktails.

American whiskey producers have also been willing to add flavored whiskeys to their collections, something that has traditionally been avoided in the whiskey industry.

Today, American whiskey remains a drink of choice in the US. With so many great whiskey brands having stood the test of time, you can bet it's not going anywhere any time soon.

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