Before Prohibition, there were very few straight American whiskeys, Bourbon or Rye, that were bottled at less than 90 proof. The whiskeys were full-bodied and full of flavor. This comes out of the tradition of consumers getting their whiskey straight from the barrel. Distillers entered their whiskey into the barrel at a range between 90 and 105 proof. The consumer would bring their own flask or jug to the liquor store or saloon to purchase the whiskey from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered. When bottles became economically feasible, distillers bottled whiskey at a proof between the same range with some slightly higher or lower proof depending upon the angel’s share. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 made 100 proof the standard for straight whiskey in a bottle.
Prohibition required all legal whiskey to be bottled in bond and sold at 100 proof. As Prohibition lingered on, the stocks of whiskey became older and more barrel driven in flavor. Some became too influenced by the barrel and tasted like chewing on a burnt piece of wood. When repeal happened in late 1933, there were very few barrels of whiskey in the warehouses compared to the demand and those barrels were all controlled by the six companies that owned the consolidation warehouses during Prohibition.
After repeal, the United States market became flooded with aged whiskeys from Canada, Scotland and to a lesser extent, Ireland. These whiskeys were, for the most part, blended whiskeys bottled at 80 proof. American distillers could make their stocks of mature whiskeys go further by introducing their own blends. New distilleries without mature barrels, had to bottle very young whiskeys to start making back part of their investment in building distilleries. The Second World War prolonged this cycle as the government required distilleries to stop making beverage alcohol to produce high proof grain alcohol for the war effort. During this 12 year period, 1934-1946, the consumer became used to drinking lighter spirits of blended whiskey. By the early 1950s, when the distilleries had aged whiskies, they found it harder to sell 100 proof bonded labels. The answer, according to marketing, was to lower the proof and make a lighter version of their bonded labels. The 86 proof version of many labels soon entered the market. Some started calling 86 proof “Kentucky Proof”.
American distillers did not want 80 proof to be their standard as it was in Canada and Scotland. Those drinking bonded Bourbons and rye wanted flavor, so 86 proof became a good compromise. The whiskey was not as thin and still had flavor while at the same time a lighter whiskey on the palate. The consumers agreed and 86 proof versions of labels began to sell in the 1950s. Not all brands introduced lower proof versions at that time. Julian Van Winkle at Stitzel-Weller refused to sell Old Fitzgerald as anything other than a bonded product. He would tell people that if they wanted a lower proof, they could add their own water. Why should they be paying him to add the water for them? It was not until after his retirement in 1964 that Stitzel-Weller introduced the 86.8 proof Old Fitzgerald Prime label. The proof level on straight whiskey then began a slow decline over the next several decades as distilleries wanted to lighten their brands to compete with vodka and blended whiskeys in the 1970s and 80s. They also wanted to introduce brands into overseas markets where Scotch would be their main competitor. They felt that those consumers would not like the higher proof of American straight whiskey brands, so they lowered the proof to 80. Soon those same brands in the United States went from 86 to 80 proof. Today there are still a few brands at 86 proof, but not many.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller