Whiskey is an integral part of American History. It’s helped usher in food and drug purity laws, pushed congress to legally define and protect our native spirit (bourbon) and is responsible for the only time a sitting president has ridden onto the field of battle as the commander-in-chief. It’s been demonized, vaunted as medicine, used as valuable currency, and, more recently, collected and revered.

America and whiskey go together like apple pie and bourbon, but how did it become the ruddy brown spirit we know and love today? The short answer is through a series of interesting events, laws, and acts of Congress. The long answer is the same, but in greater detail.

There is no official start date of whiskey distillation in America, but looking at the history of distilled spirits laid out by DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), the seeds of American whiskey could have been sown as early as 1640. We know that European immigrants brought the technology and techniques with them and records indicate grain distilling attempts, but those same records indicate the dominant distillate in the mid-1600s was rum.

An early distillation set-up

However, we do know that General Washington ordered quantities of whiskey to keep his men warm in Valley Forge. That narrows whiskey’s coming-into-fashion sometime between the mid-1600s and 1777, but it wouldn’t be made at anywhere near the scale we see it today for another dozen or so decades.

Back then most of the whiskey was being created by farm distillers who used it for trade as the barter system was still a popular form of commerce in America, especially in the more rural areas. It was these farmer-distillers, located in Western Pennsylvania (Westylvania), who were responsible for starting the Whiskey Rebellion, which was in response to the first major law affecting American whiskey.

The Whiskey Tax of 1791

After the Revolutionary War, our country was in debt to European banks and needed to make some money to pay it off. This led the young federal government to levy its first tax on domestic goods and its target was distilled spirits. By this point, whiskey was the dominant distilled spirit in America and it came to be known as the “whiskey tax.”

Those previously mentioned farmer-distillers didn’t take too kindly to that tax for several reasons. For starters, the tax was required to be paid for in cash and, as previously mentioned, they didn’t deal much with cash; they were all about the barter system. Mostly self-reliant, they didn’t believe they received enough federal assistance for them to pay the tax. And finally, 60-plus Pennsylvanian farmer-distillers had been subpoenaed to make a long and expensive journey to Philadelphia to stand before a federal court for not paying the tax, which was an outrage.

These reasons, and more, led to a confrontation and gun battle, during which the house of the southwest Pennsylvanian Inspector of Revenue, General John Neville, was burnt down in 1794. Neville, in addition to being a politician, was a farmer and distiller of some renown and his acceptance and enforcement of the tax was likely seen as a slap in the face to his neighbors. He wasn’t the only one though. Other "tax men” were also being burned in effigy, beaten, burglarized, tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail, threatened, and more.

All of this violence and insurrection lead to sitting President George Washington riding with troops into southwest Pennsylvania. The Rebellion was ended in October of 1794 and resulted in 10 men standing trial for high treason. Two of these men were convicted and sentenced to death, but they were pardoned by President Washington.

Washington and his troops march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion 

Meanwhile, down in Kentucky nobody could be bothered. Nobody could be bothered to pay the tax and nobody could be bothered to collect the tax. It was a seemingly mutual “couldn’t care less” mentality that resulted in 175 distillers being convicted as tax dodgers, but nothing was really done about it on either side. In the end the tax act was repealed in 1801 and never collected in full. It did, however, ensconce whiskey as an American symbol.

At this point, you might be inclined to clutch your favorite bottle of American whiskey and say “damn right this is worth fighting for,” but it’s important to note that the whiskey they were drinking was unlike the refined and complex spirit we know and love today. It was instead the unaged, clear stuff we see distilleries, especially young craft ones, putting out over the last few years.

New make, white dog, white whiskey, silver whiskey, “moonshine” - whatever you want to call it - is what was being put out back then. If you’ve ever tasted some it’s very different from the fully-matured product and is often overly sweet, overly grainy, or overly bitter, depending on how it’s made. Which is why back in ye olden times it was often flavored with fruit, spices, herbs, and even peppers.

This unaged, white whiskey was sold or traded in barrels or ceramic jugs. The barrels were un-charred and really only used as a means to transport large quantities of the spirit. It wasn’t until sometime around 1826, per Bourbon Historian Michael R. Veach’s research, that charred barrels were beginning to be considered; taking inspiration from French brandy maturation techniques.

This act of putting new make in charred barrels sets off a whole chain of fascinating chemical reactions that ends up with us getting what we call whiskey today, but one highly noticeable effect charred wood has on it is the color. This resulted in the name “red liquor” appearing in the records after this time and references to that are still made today. Eddie Russell, of Wild Turkey, called his aged bourbon “red whiskey” when I was visiting the distillery last spring.

So, after many decades of distilling, something that resembles what we’re accustomed to drinking today began to appear and quickly became an industry with some serious monetary and trading value. It was being transported up and down rivers and around the county by humans, mules, horses, and boats, and this rising whiskey economy leads to unscrupulous folks creating and selling fake whiskey.

Using neutral spirit as a base, these fakers would mix together all kinds of flavorings and colorings to create something that looked like whiskey and then label it as such. This enraged real distillers and caused prominent distiller and politician Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. (Old Taylor Bourbon) to help create and pass the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897.

Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897

This act created what became known as “the good stuff” because Bottled-In-Bond (BiB) became a symbol of quality. It is a federally enforced statement that not only states that the contents of the bottle you’re buying is real whiskey, but that the label is also telling the truth. Which is great for the consumer, but the act also gave distillers advantages that encouraged their participation.

A man pours some whisky into a flask in this 1869 painting by Erskine Nicol.

For distilleries BiB certified the authenticity of their product, but it also meant they didn’t have to pay their excise tax until the BiB whiskey was bottled. Meaning they only have to pay the tax on what came out of the warehouse, not what was going into it. This set a precedent that helped save distilleries whose warehouses burnt down from being taxed on product that never went to market. It also meant the government had to monitor the warehouses.

For the consumer BiB means a strict set of guidelines have been followed: All whiskey in the bottle must come from a single distillery (in the U.S.), made during a single distillation season (year), aged for a minimum of 4 years in a federally bonded warehouse, bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), contains no additives except water, and the label clearly notes both the distillery and where it was bottled (if different than the distillery). These regulations still apply to the BiB whiskey you see today like Old Grand-Dad, E.H Taylor Small Batch, Rittenhouse Rye, and Jim Beam Bonded.

However, the Bottled-In-Bond act wasn’t enough. There were still fakes running amok, causing trouble and deceiving the public, but they had been dealt a serious blow. A few years later. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, laying bare the horrible working conditions of immigrants and the unsanitary practices of the meat packing industry in the early 1900s. This exposure led to a public outcry and laid the foundation for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

This act was the first serious consumer protection act rolled out by the United States government and led to the creation of the FDA. This act put a ban on mislabeled and/or altered food and drug products and gave consumers protection on products they used and relied on in their daily lives. Things like prescription drugs, meat, milk, tobacco, whiskey, and more received federal protection and required ingredients be put on the labels of certain products.

However, it didn’t immediately apply to whiskey because up until now there was no legal definition of whiskey and how can you say something was mislabeled or adulterated if it has no legal definition? After three years of debate and discussion the definition was approved by President Taft and in 1909 the term whiskey received its first legal definition in America.

For a spirit to be labeled as whiskey:

  • Be made from grain
  • If made of 100% aged grain spirit it could be labeled as "straight whiskey"
  • If neutral spirit (unaged high-proof grain spirit) was used it was required to be labeled as “blended"

This, and subsequent series of labeling and identification laws, helped give the public confidence in what they were buying and pushed unscrupulous producers further and further out of the market. Though they never fully disappeared and even still exist today, especially in "emerging markets" like India and China who either don’t have these kind of laws or are in a situation where it’s incredibly difficult to enforce them.

Even here in America these kind of low-moral characters would continue to re-emerge and, at one point, pose a real threat once again. When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was rolled out, enabling the Volstead Act - better know as Prohibition - anything alcoholic and brown could be called whiskey and sold to unsuspecting rubes by members of organized crime families.

The Volstead Act (aka Prohibition) 

Prohibition came to America in 1920 and kept its religion-fueled grip on America until Dec. 5, 1933, which is now affectionately known as Repeal Day and is a cause for celebration every year.

Championed by the Anti-Saloon League, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, protestant politicians on both sides of the aisle and other upstanding organizations like the KKK, the Volstead Act prohibited the manufacture, transportation, or sale of liquor (but not consumption, oddly enough) except for use in scientific research and other “legitimate” industries. This legal act, which curbed America’s drinking well into the 1940s, gave rise to shady characters who made the original whiskey fakers look like hacks.

During prohibition there were two main ways to get whiskey: prescription or illegal purchase. Doctors were allowed to prescribe up to a pint every 10 days and they made millions selling these prescriptions to people who were legitimately sick. Sick of the government taking away their booze.

The other option was far more nefarious and gave rise to speakeasies and backwoods bars that sourced their hooch from organized crime syndicates (the Mafia) who sold whiskey from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbeans, and Scotland. They also employed the old tactics of using GNS (Grain Neutral Spirit) that has been flavored and colored to look like, and attempt to taste like, whiskey and other liquor, but not always.

These gangsters weren’t held to any form of legal review and there was no FDA checking their bathtub gin (moonshine, etc.) for purity and as a result of that stuff that was downright poisonous. People went blind from methanol poisoning - whose ironic cure is ethanol - or died from all the random crap, like gasoline, that was being put in the illegal hooch.

Prohibition maimed America’s drinking palate and created the toehold other liquors, like vodka, needed to topple the once dominant whiskey. Since whiskey needs to be aged, and only 6 distilleries got medical distilling licenses, the whiskey industry was basically starting over and had a relatively small market presence after Prohibition. It wasn’t until the end of 2014 that whiskey would finally climbed back on top once again.

If you’re curious who the distillers who landed a medicinal license here they are:

  • A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery (Stitzel-Weller - now closed).
  • American Medicinal Spirits (National Distillers - bought by Beam)
  • Brown-Forman (alive and kicking)
  • Frankfort Distilleries (Four Roses)
  • Glenmore (Sazerac - now used for bottling & warehousing)
  • Schenley (Diageo)

The end of Prohibition and the sudden influx of alcohol and its associated tax revenue gave rise to a need to better regulate this boozy cash cow. Labels and terms needed to be defined and a governing body to monitor it all needed to be created. These are just a few of the reasons why the Federal Alcohol Administration Act came into existence in 1935 and it is arguably the most influential of all the laws.

Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935

This act created the Federal Alcohol Administration, which was initially nestled inside the Department of the Treasury. Through various government shifts and changes this group would become the ATF in the '70s and then in 2002 it would become the TTB when the Homeland Security Act split the ATF. 

The most important part of this piece of legislation is the creation of even more specific definitions of what exactly constitutes a rye whiskey, bourbon, etc. and also created the requirement for new charred oak barrels to be used for “straight whiskey”.

There’s a lot of discussion about who exactly got the new oak requirement passed through, but the one thing that stays the same is that it apparently stems from lobbying done by the Coopers union and was meant to secure jobs. It also may or may not have had connections to the Arkansas lumber industry back then. Either way, it secured the use of "new oak containers” in the creation of certain types of whiskey, which was already common practice by the time Prohibition hit.

It also laid the foundation for other the specific requirements, labeling, process, etc. that are responsible for the way specific whiskeys (bourbon, rye, blend, spirit, etc.) are created, labeled and marketed today. It laid out the basis for a standard set of terms we could all communicate through and know exactly what they mean.

Like any piece of American legislation, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 has gone through a lot of changes over the years, but the foundation of the original act still exists today and its guardian is the TTB. They currently oversee and enforce the provisions set out by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 and subsequent amendments. Though, interestingly enough, bourbon still wouldn’t be recognized by congress as an “American only” product for another 29 years.

1964 Concurrent Resolution on Bourbon

This one isn’t actually a law, but it should be. This congressional resolution declared bourbon to be a "distinctive product of the United States” which led to it being a protected term around the world much like scotch. Though the American government can only truly enforce its legal use and application here in the U.S. because other governments have the power to recognize alcohol terms as they wish. Though luckily most countries we trade and engage in commerce with also consider the term protected and only allow products named bourbon to come from America.

Over the next 40 years, American whiskey would see a series of ups and downs with bourbon producers over-producing for a boom that dropped off massively in the late '60s/early '70s which resulted in a massive whiskey glut. This resulted in great over-aged whiskey flooding the market for dirt cheap, but also resulted in the near extinction of rye whiskey.

As America started “rediscovering" whiskey in the late 90’s / early 2000s tragedy struck on September 11th 2001 and paved the way for one of the most controversial legislative documents in American history. This 187 pages of paper-clipped-to-hell-and-back piece of legislation resulted in the creation of the most infamous whiskey related organization today.

Homeland Security Act of 2002

The extended ramifications of this obfuscated piece of congressional legislation are still coming to light and may never fully be expressed, but I’m not a political writer and this is about whiskey. What’s important for this article is what it did to the ATF who oversaw the system of controls, checks and balances that were responsible for the creation, labeling and distribution of alcohol in America.

In early 2003 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was split - giving birth to the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The TTB is currently responsible for checking labels and ensuring all beer, wine and spirits on the market in America adhere to their detailed legal definitions (among other things).

The TTB has come under fire recently for being lax in their level of detail when checking these labels. This apparently understaffed government entity has been allowing unscrupulous producers to pass labels which either flat out lie about the product (cough cough Templeton) or try to skirt the law via sins of omission. Things like not giving the state of distillation, saying “aged for less than 4 years,” etc.

Some of these things have been addressed with new regulations and labels are getting a closer look as the public has also began keeping an eye on what’s going into the bottles of booze we purchase. Which goes to show that even today, in the face of government regulations, there are shady people out there trying to pull the wool over our eyes - though we can all agree it’s a lot better than it was before 1906.

Without a doubt there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other factors and laws - like Reagan-era deregulations and state specific laws – that have played a role in moving American whiskey towards what it is today, but to my mind these are the key seven laws and resolutions that shaped American whiskey the most. Strung together, they give a rough historical outline of the journey American whiskey has taken from farm house distillate to the tasty, beautiful, complex, and amazing array of beverages on the shelves today.

Cheers!

Sources / Bibliography

Bryson, Lew. Tasting Whiskey: An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

"Distilled Spirits Council of the United States." History of Spirits in America. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

http://www.discus.org/heritage/spirits/#1

"Whiskey Rebellion." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

"Bottled In Bond." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottled_in_bond

"Pure Food and Drug Act." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pure_Food_and_Drug_Act

"Prohibition In The United States." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States

"Volstead Act." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volstead_Act

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_and_Tobacco_Tax_and_Trade_Bureau

"Federal Alcohol Administration Act." Dictionary of Marketing Communications (2004): n. pag. Web.

http://www.ttb.gov/pdf/ttbp51008_laws_regs_act052007.pdf

"The Chuck Cowdery Blog: Who Had Medicinal Whiskey Licenses During Prohibition?" The Chuck Cowdery Blog: Who Had Medicinal Whiskey Licenses During Prohibition? N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2014/03/who-had-medicinal-whiskey-licenses_7.html