The Birth of American Whiskey

A Brief History of American Whiskey

Photo credit: King Wu
The birth of the American whiskey can be traced back to 1791, when the wildly unpopular tax on whiskey was imposed to pay down debts from the war for independence with Great Britain. 
The Excise Whiskey Tax applied to all distilled spirits, but with consumption of whiskey on the rise in the late 18th century, the tax will be always be linked to American whiskey and the rebellion set off by farmers and distillers who violently opposed the new law. 

The Whiskey Rebellion sparked by the tax on alcohol enacted to pay for America’s Revolutionary War debts

Fierce resistance to Alexander Hamilton’s tax plan was not a surprise. For the first 200 years, Americans had grown accustom to distilling their surplus rye, barley, wheat, corn––or just about anything fermentable––and selling it untaxed. Whiskey often served as a medium of exchange on the frontier and the new tax cut deep into their profits and livelihoods. 

It Started With Rye (Grain) 
Settlers cultivated rye because it was more weather resistant and grew well in acidic soil. Rye’s sturdiness also made it a go-to cover crop for tobacco farmers between harvests. The Southern- and Mid-Atlantic breadbasket colonies of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania led the way in rye farming and in distilling whiskey from surplus grain.
By 1870, the whiskey business had spread across America, and along with it the opportunity to make sizable profits
Famous politicians including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln all had liquor licenses either for sale or private use.

George Washington owned and operated the largest rye whiskey distillery in early America from his Mt. Vernon, Virginia estate. 

George Washington’s Distillery at Mt. Vernon.

Before Prohibition, most distillers did not keep records on how they made their whiskey. But some did. Evidence suggests that at least two different styles of whiskey emerged during the colonial era: The Pennsylvania or Monongahela-Style and the Maryland-Style.


The Monongahela-Style name refers to the Native-American tribe from the region where the grain had been cultivated. The Monongahela-Style was known for its ultra-high rye content and its full-bodied and spicy nature. 

Maryland Rye Whiskey History

Distillers that operated in the Southern part of America (below the Mason-Dixon) made Maryland-Stylea mixture of around 65% rye grain that also included corn. Maryland-Style rye whiskey was noticeably sweeter and more mellow than the Pennsylvania variety.



Unfortunately, there was trouble ahead for rye whiskey. Rye would soon fall out of favor as the preferred base ingredient. 



Transporting large amounts of grain was not practical in early America. Distillers made rye whiskey from the grain grown on their own farms or from farms nearby. As industrialization increased, distillers were able to ship (the less-expensive corn grain) more efficiently by rail and water. Before long, rye farmers found themselves unable to compete with corn and rye-based whiskey fell into steep decline.


The Rise of Bourbon Whiskey Made from Corn


According to The Terroir of Whisky, by Rob Arnold, The Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act of 1776 offered hundreds of acres land to any European settler who built cabins and planted corn in the area of what is now Bourbon county, Kentucky. The area that encompasses much of modern-day Kentucky and far western Virginia had been thriving with corn cultivation by Natives-American tribes for thousands of years. The same land now commandeered by European settlers with the natives forcibly removed.


In all, the rush of European settlers to plant corn, the fertile soil, and growing efficiency of rail and river transport were a boon to corn-based Bourbon whiskey.


The Era of Branded Whiskey Began with Tavern Labels 

Antique Whiskey Bottles

By the early 20th century, the use of alcohol in patent medicines was widespread; much like opium and cocaine. The labels evolved: the design focusing on the medical exception carve-out for mass-produced whiskey.


Jack Daniel’s Secret Slave Recipe 

If you haven’t heard by now, it was revealed that the recipe for one of  America’s most popular whiskeys was invented by a slave by the name of Nearis Green. When introducing Green to an 8 year-old Jack Daniel, the preacher, grocer and distiller, Dan Call proclaimed at their first meeting: 

“Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of. I want Jack to become the world’s best whiskey distiller – if he wants to be. You help me teach him.”

Historic photograph of Jack Daniel seated next to George Green, the son of Nathan
the first known African American master distiller in the country: a slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.
the first known African American master distiller in the country: a slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

We can’t change the past, but certainly can celebrate the future with this new whiskey spirit inspired by the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States. 

Prohibition was a Boom for Moonshiners

In 1920, Prohibition became law and moonshiners celebrated. Legal booze was no longer available and distilling illegal spirits became one of the most profitable businesses in America overnight. Soon, organized crime took over and illegal distillers sprung up everywhere to meet the demand. Watered-down moonshine made from sugar instead of corn or grain also began to appear.

Underground speakeasies could be found in every city in America. The good times for moonshiners would not last forever. In 1933, Prohibition was repealed and the moonshine market dwindled to a shadow of its former self. But whiskey making in the United States and Canada continued to improve.

Consumers began to reject any liquor that didn’t come in sealed bottles. Soon, sealed bottles with printed labels became the norm. By 1964, whiskey had become a staple of American culture with Congress officially proclaiming “Bourbon Whiskey” as a “distinct product of the United States.” Legal standards were then established to identify what was considered a true American bourbon whiskey.

Here’s a list of popular American whiskey brands that have stood the test of time, including Jack Daniel’s, Four Roses, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.

Established in 1870, Brown–Forman Corporation is one of the largest American-owned companies and manufactures a number of well known brands, including Jack Daniels, Early Times, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve.

Four Roses, a brand name that claims to date from the 1860s or 1888, with a distillery built in 1910.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, formerly known as the George T. Stagg Distillery and the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery, with history dating between 1775 and 1812

Jim Beam, a company that claims a distilling heritage back to 1795. The whiskey re-entered the market in 1935, just after Prohibition, and officially renamed the brand Jim Beam in 1943.

Maker’s Mark Distillery, formerly Burk’s Distillery, established 1889.

The next time you look for the bottle and label of your favorite whiskey on the backbar shelf of your favorite local tavern, you can thank those Scottish and Irish moonshiners for their dedication to the craft.




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