About ten years ago, I was able to purchase a rare book titled Kentucky’s Distilling Interests, published in 1893 by The Kentucky Distillers’ Bureau Co. I had only seen one other copy of the book and that is in the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections. It is in poor condition, so I photocopied the book for myself and donated the original book to the Filson Historical Society where it will be stored in an acid free environment and given good care. It is also available to researchers from all over the world who may be interested in using the book for their research projects. 

In the book, there are many descriptions of the member distilleries and many charts about production of whiskey in Kentucky. One of the charts is titled “Whiskey and Spirits Exported – The Product of”. The chart starts with the year 1880 ending on 30 June. It gives numbers of exported spirits for Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, the Balance United States and Total exports. It shows the growth of exports and ends in 1891 ending on 30 June.

In 1880, Kentucky had 5,310 proof gallons of exports. Pennsylvania had 42 proof gallons, the Balance of the United States had 16,760,314 proof gallons and the total is 16,765,666 proof gallons. This indicates that much of the exported spirits in 1880 was brandy, gin and rum spirits. American whiskey exports were still in its infancy. 

The next year, 1881, shows growth with Kentucky 8,039. Pennsylvania 2,212, Maryland 1,242, The Balance of the United States 15,909,989 with a total 15,921,482 proof gallons. West Virginia joins the export market in 1883. The numbers in that year are Kentucky 663,126, Pennsylvania 108,716, Maryland 64,226, West Virginia 47,452, Balance United States 4,442,907 for a total of 5,326,427 proof gallons. 

Tennessee joins the export market in 1885 with the numbers for that year being Kentucky 3,901,639. Pennsylvania 290,899, Maryland 101,854, West Virginia 34,538, Tennessee 10,502, Balance United States 6,341,686 for a total 10,671,118 proof gallons. 

These figures show the growth of American whiskeys, Bourbon and Rye at the expense of other products. In 1880, the majority of exports were mostly brandy, rum and gin. American fruit brandies – apple and peach as well as grape brandy, were very popular in the United State and were also popular elsewhere in the world markets of the time. Whiskey production increased in this decade and there were times of overproduction. The export markets were pursued to reduce this inventory of whiskey. The problem was that the British Empire was controlling many of the foreign markets and they started to enforce protective measures, such as high tariffs, for their growing Scotch whisky export business. 

This caused a decline in the exports from the United States over the next five years. In 1891, the figures are Kentucky 172,050, Pennsylvania 6,129. Maryland 22,610, West Virginia 0, Tennessee 172, Balance United States 1,475,434 for a total of 1, 676,395 proof gallons.

Whiskey exports did exist in the 19th century. They continued until Prohibition when legal exports of whiskey ended. After Repeal, the export market was slow to recover. American distillers had to rebuild their distilleries and create inventory to a level that allowed export whiskey. This was a difficult task with the Great Depression and then the Second World War

It was not until the 1950s that  a growing market begins for American whiskey in foreign markets. American whiskey began to be exported to the market where the United States had military bases. American GIs became unofficial brand ambassadors for American whiskey as they shared whiskey purchased on their military bases with the local population. It was these growing export markets, Japan in particular, that kept many brands of whiskey alive in the 1970s and 80s, while the domestic market was losing ground to vodka and tequila. The export market was growing strongly until the retaliatory tariffs were placed on whiskey because of the Trump economic policies. Let us hope that this ends better for the distilleries of today than it did in the 1890s.

Photocopies from the archives of Michael Veach