- Historic Sites
The American Spirit
Bourbon whiskey has had a long, rugged ride from the frontier to the top shelf
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The biggest threat to a bourbon industry just reaching maturity and stability was what at first was called the temperance movement and grew into the Prohibition movement. In the 183Os per capita alcohol consumption in the United States was about 2.5 ounces per day—roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol in a bottle of wine—and that average included women, children, and slaves, plus men who didn’t drink. Social drinking hardly existed at the time; people tended to drink either too much or not at all, and the only public drinking places were unsavory saloons. A guidebook published for travelers heading overland to goldrush California recommended taking half a barrel of whiskey—about twenty-five gallons—per party of four. Until late in the century bourbon had virtually no cachet to counter its bad reputation.
A crusader named Neal Dow in Maine got his state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in 1851, and twelve other states had followed by 1855. In the 1870s Frances Willard founded the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and it quickly gained some fifty thousand members. It and the AntiSaloon League of America were instrumental in lining up Protestant church leaders in support of Prohibition. By the first decades of this century, liquor drinking had acquired the kind of stigma that cigarette smoking has today—as a disease pure and simple, and one whose victims were the cause of their own sickness and dangerous to those around them.
The Eighteenth Amendment, outlawing the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” was ratified in 1919 and became law a year later, after Congress overrode President Wilson’s veto. It failed to stop Americans from drinking, but it succeeded in decimating the American whiskey business. A few distillers were permitted to stay in operation to distill small amounts of “medicinal” whiskey; the great majority simply had to shut down.
As the American public directed its enormous resourcefulness toward making or getting hold of substitute liquors, Canadian and Scotch whisky moved in. Canadian poured across a three-thousand-mile border; Scotch was smuggled in via the Caribbean. Even now more Canadian than bourbon is sold in the United States, and single-malt Scotch remains the definition of truly fine whisky for most Americans. (The Irish whiskey industry, however, was hard hit by the loss of legitimate exports to America and has never fully recovered.) Meanwhile, Americans also developed a taste for gin, which could easily be homemade, and the long-standing but already waning taste for straight rye whiskey died away almost completely; it holds out today mainly where it was born two and a half centuries ago, in western Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Prohibition was the golden age for the garish fruit-based cocktail masking crude and often dangerous counterfeit liquor, but the classic mixed drinks associated with bourbon are all much older. The julep—from the Persian word for rose water—was already being enjoyed in the eighteenth century; it was described by an English writer in 1803 as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” The Manhattan, combining bourbon and sweet vermouth, is supposed to have been invented in 1874 by the bartender in charge when Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother, gave a party to celebrate the election of Samuel Tilden as governor of New York. The old-fashioned was born in the 188Os at the Pendennis Club in Louisville; according to the tradition there, a retired general who didn’t care for straight whiskey was helped along by the introduction of sugar and bitters into his glass.
When Repeal took effect, on December 5, 1933, most of the distilleries of Kentucky had been out of business for fourteen years. As Bill Samuels, Jr., the president of Maker’s Mark, puts it, “Repeal hurt us more than Prohibition did. You needed a lot of capital, you needed to rebuild plants, and then you needed years to age whiskey before it could even be bourbon. So only the cheap end of the business was left, and you couldn’t make money.” Until they could build up a stock of aged whiskey, most distilleries sold younger, less flavorful blends. In so doing, they fed a taste for those blends, undercutting good bourbon. Meanwhile the Seagram Company flooded the country with Canadian.
James B. Beam, a fourth-generation bourbon maker who had started in the family business at the age of sixteen in 1880 and taken over fourteen years later, was near seventy when Prohibition ended, but “even at that age he had unbelievable energy and know-how,” says his grandson Booker Noe. “In just four months he supervised the building of a rackhouse, distillery, and powerhouse for steam. Money was scarce back then, just a few years into the Depression, but Jim Beam was a respectable, honest man, and the majority of the distillery was built on credit. It was his hard work and dedication that kept the Beam tradition alive.”
For Jack Daniel’s the restart was even tougher. The county where it is made went dry in 1909 and has stayed that way ever since. Daniel’s nephew Lern Motlow, who ran the company from 1911 until his death in 1947, moved the oneration to St. Louis in 1910, when Tennessee went dry, and when it stayed dry after Repeal, he had to fight until 1938 for permission to make Tennessee whiskey in Tennessee. Since then Jack Daniel’s has been made back in the small town of Lynchburg, where Daniel himself set UD the business in 1866.