The Early History of American Whiskey

The Early History of American Whiskey

Jan 23, 2023weston wang

Early Days

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, rum was the spirit of choice in the American colonies. But this started to change after the Revolutionary War as whiskey took over since rum had British roots.



The early colonists who had been making whiskey in places like Ireland and Scotland brought whiskey making to the Americas, primarily using barley. However, barley was slow to adapt to the climate and soil of New World, so they started making whiskey with the more adaptable grains. Germans brought over Rye to Pennsylvania and Maryland, which became America's primary grain for early whiskey making. People sometimes called this rye whiskey Monongahela rye. As more people migrated to the South, they came across a new grain: corn. Americans made this into the predominant whiskey grain we now know as Bourbon.


Whiskey Rebellion

The newly established United States was in huge debt after the Revolutionary War. One of President George Washington's measures was to impose a high tax on whiskey production. The distillers were outraged and staged the whiskey rebellion of 1791. They rebelled and refused to pay the tax.


Washington sent the national guard to Pennsylvania to confront the protesters, the first time America had used the army in the nation’s history. Many of the distillers then fled south and into the hills.


This "migration" from the South brought America closer to Bourbon made from corn and helped establish the moonshine culture, which produced illegal whiskey.


The Rise of Bourbon

The Americans took the name bourbon from the family house name of French King Louis XVI - The House of Bourbon, which originates from Bourbon Country, Kentucky. King Louie's France greatly helped the Americans during the Revolutionary War.


People from Bourbon County inadvertently aged their barrels of corn whiskey during their journey up and down the Mississippi River in the 19th century. Eventually, people began to call for it by its name, "old bourbon whiskey.

During this time, people developed and standardized Bourbon's unique quirks, from the charring of barrels to the sour mash process. Along with several well-known names, the bourbon industry welcomed Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Jacob Beam, and Jasper "Jack" Daniel.

Amidst the American Civil War turbulence, Kentucky found itself in an advantageous position, having Union and Confederate forces in its borders. This environment provided Bourbon with widespread recognition from both sides, setting the stage for its eventual prominence. There were still some challenges to overcome.



Following a congressional amendment, all alcohol was banned in the country. As a result, whiskey production came to a standstill. People began to use Canadian whisky to fill the void in speakeasies.


Upon the repeal of prohibition in 1934, blended whiskey became increasingly popular amongst the public. This presented a lucrative opportunity to American distillers, who had just recently been able to resume their operations. Of course, it takes time to mature Bourbon properly. They blended whiskey by combining older products with younger or unaged spirits.


Following World War II, whiskey production was suspended from utilizing distilleries to produce industrial alcohol for the war effort. Consequently, blended whiskey comprised the majority of the American market.


Following the war, Bourbon endured, but Rye disappeared. People mostly disregarded Rye as a classic drink in the 1950s and 60s. Additionally, Bourbon did not prosper, as sales dropped, and Vodka eventually became the most consumed spirit in the 1970s.



In the 1980s, there was a shift back to American whiskey. This resurgence was invigorated by the appreciation of single malt scotch, prompting distillers to introduce single-barrel bourbons and other high-end varieties. People rekindled interest in straight, unblended whiskey. It showed the way for a resurgence of cocktails in the early 21st century. As bartenders began recreating traditional cocktails in the mid to late 90s, it unlocked the potential of the long-dormant: Rye.



The resurgence of Rye on the market has been impressive, and American whiskey as a whole is seeing a significant expansion. The high demand for Bourbon has led to shortages of the most popular bottles, with some brands having to forgo their age statements of 10 or 12 years due to a lack of stocks. The craft distilling industry is making unprecedented strides in whiskey-making, bringing production to many areas of the United States and introducing a variety of whiskey styles, such as malt whiskey, to the public. For whiskey connoisseurs, the present era has presented unparalleled opportunities for exploration.

More articles