July 4, 2017
Chris Maggiolo, Head Distiller
Welcome to our inaugural blog post! As I’m writing this on July 4th, our nation’s Independence Day, it seems fitting to explore a brief overview of the history of distilling as it pertains to America. Enjoy!
“As American as apple pie” is a phrase known to most of us, and while pie certainly reflects America’s agricultural past, distilling (and perhaps to a greater degree, whiskey) also has a rich and stirring history. Whiskey came to the American colonies with the first European settlers, namely Scottish and Irish immigrants, and became quickly embedded in the day-to-day lives of the colonists. During the Revolutionary War, whiskey and rum were among the most valuable commodities and were frequently used as currency. While rum was undoubtedly popular, the war contributed heavily to its decline and the rise of domestically produced whiskey. Most whiskey at this time was made from rye, though corn whiskey would develop in a region of Virginia known as “Kentucky”.
Fun Fact: In the early 1800s, Allegheny County, PA was producing a half barrel of whiskey (typically rye whiskey) for every man, woman, and child living in America.
So prolific was this spirited commerce that many tariffs and taxes were levied against the production of distilled and fermented beverages. In 1791, the “Whiskey Tax” was established as an excise tax applied to distilled spirits. This led to widespread rural unrest and eventually culminated in the aptly named “Whiskey Rebellion”. Farmers who had been distilling their surplus grain protested against the new tax and some even raised up arms against the tax collectors. President George Washington retaliated with force and eventually pardoned those “whiskey boys” who were caught.
Whiskey consumption continued to soar, peaking in 1830 with an annual rate of seven gallons per person older than fifteen. Consumption then plummeted with the advent of the Temperance Movement. 1845 saw an average per capita consumption of 1.8 gallons. With the Civil War, spirits again became a valuable economic good.
The “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition arrived with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920 and banned the production, sale, and use of alcohol in the United States. One could, however, get a prescription of medical whiskey from a doctor. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 after it failed to curb alcohol consumption, instead contributing to a rise in organized crime and binge drinking.
Did You Know? In 1964, congress declared bourbon whiskey to be the nation’s official distilled spirit.
The American Craft Spirits Association defines a craft distillery as an independently licensed distiller producing fewer than 750,000 proof gallons (a gallon of alcohol at 100 proof) annually. Founded in 1982, St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA is widely considered to be the first craft distillery in the United States. As of August 2016, there are as many as 1300 craft distilleries in operation nation-wide. With the success of the craft beer industry paving the way, craft distilling is witnessing unprecedented growth.
While “As American as bourbon whiskey” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as its Apple Pie cousin, it can’t be denied that our nation’s past is tied inextricably to that of distilling. Fireworks, barbecues, and a cold beer may still be the hallmark of Independence Day, but a nice red, white, and blue cocktail or a dram of whiskey have their patriotic nods, too. No matter which way you roll, stay classy and stay proud.
And Happy Independence Day.