I am often asked as to when I think was the “Golden Age” for American whiskey. My general thought is that there is no such thing as a “Golden Age”. Every era has made both excellent whiskeys, as well as some poorly made whiskeys and has its own set of problems that tarnish their prospects of being a Golden Age. I thought I would look at the times most think of as the Golden Age.
- 1819-1861: This is often referenced as a golden age. I do admit this period has its worthiness. There was no Federal whiskey tax. Anyone with a farm and a corn or rye crop could make whiskey. Sounds good, but these were small time distillers for the most part and their product was sold only locally. By the end of this period, there were technological improvements that made the business more profitable for the distillers. The invention of the column still and steam power made big distilleries very profitable. Railroads allowed the distillery to get grains from further afield – grain needed to make beer to feed the column still. The downside of this era is that these distilleries were forcing small distilleries out of the market. They could make whiskey more economically than the small pot still farmer distiller and thus sell their barrels of whiskey at a much lower price. It all ended with the American Civil War, the return of Federal taxes and economic uncertainty.
- 1870-1920: This is the period before Prohibition and after the American Civil War. There were many large distillers making a lot of whiskey with plenty of willing consumers of said whiskey. Technology continued to improve with heated warehouses, cooled fermentation tanks, barrel racks in warehouses and machine blown glass bottles. However, this era had its own problems. Overproduction often caused a crash in the price of whiskey, causing economic hardship that often forced distilleries into bankruptcy. Federal taxes helped slow the overproduction problem by forcing smaller distilleries out of business when prices fell and they could not pay the taxes on their whiskey. There was infighting in the industry as rectifiers and distillers blamed each other for the low price of whiskey. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 helped with the problem, but it took the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Taft Decision on Whiskey of December 1909 to settle the differences. By then Prohibition was looming ahead in the future and by 1920, the whole industry was reduced to six companies selling medicinal spirits.
- 1950-1965: Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Second World War kept the 1930s and 40s from even being considered a Golden Age. By 1950, the industry had recovered and there were many distilleries producing excellent whiskeys. Consumers might have thought of 1950 as a Golden Age. And maybe it was, but if it was, it did not last long. By 1958, overproduction by Schenley kept the price of whiskey very low and many distilleries were forced out of business because they could not make enough profit to pay the bills. The extension of the bonding period – the time whiskey barrels can age before the taxes were paid – was extended in 1958. In 1964, the United States government made Bourbon a product of the United States. At this same time, America was getting involved in Viet Nam. The generation of the 1960s turned their backs on whiskey as something their parents drank and vodka and tequila became popular spirits. Beer and wine sales increased. Whiskey started a long decline that did not end until the 1990s.
- The 21st century: If historians of the future look for a “Golden Age of Whiskey”, this may be what they land on. American whiskey production started to grow and prosper. The number of distilleries grew rapidly, not only in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana, where the surviving whiskey distilleries existed at the start of the century, but nationwide. American consumers re-discovered whiskey. More importantly, American whiskey exports made Bourbon and rye popular around the world. American whiskey has never been as popular overseas as it is today. The overproduction problem can be handled as long as the overseas market continues to grow. Smaller, artisan distilleries are popping up everywhere and changes in Federal and State laws have made them profitable. Distilling tourism is a new factor that is helping make distilling profitable, not only for the distillers, but the communities supporting them. The future is bright for American whiskey distillers.
The modern era could be the “Golden Age of American Whiskey. There are potential trends that could threaten it. Trump’s trade war which led to a reduction of sales overseas should be a lesson. The industry needs to work against this happening again. Overproduction could happen. Markets need to be expanded, not reduced. The quality of the product needs to remain at a high standard. Tourism needs to be invested in by the distillers to keep a sympathetic public. The industry also needs to keep their “drink responsible” campaigns and guard against the abuses that led to prohibition in the 1920s. The industry is doing well right now, but they should not get complacent.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl