The story of bourbon in the 20th Century is largely a sad one, though it started off brighter than ever. The Pure Food and Drug act coupled with the invention of standardized and mechanized bottling promised great things for the whiskey industry. And then everything changed for the worse. A series of nation-changing events, all of which were beyond any distiller’s control, combined to nearly kill America’s drink: Prohibition was followed by the Great Depression, which was followed immediately by the Second World War, from which emerged a radically different country with different values, different priorities, and different tastes; a country that wasn’t nearly so homogeneous as it had been when bourbon was king. Bourbon was forced into the wilderness, and when it emerged, it found that it had been largely forgotten in its absence.
On January 17, 1920, as a result of the ratification of the 18th Amendment*, the manufacture, transportation, and sale of all alcoholic beverages became illegal in the United States: Prohibition. At once, the entire nation went officially dry. The 5th largest industry in the country was instantly closed for business – legal business, that is. Prohibition caused an unprecedented and previously unimaginable expansion of criminal enterprise, resulting in a nationwide network of organized crime. Prohibition indirectly caused and changed so many things that it easily ranks as one of the most momentous and important periods in American history. Prohibition is a mammoth subject that requires whole books to discuss fully, so it will only get brief treatment here. Though, for the purpose of discussing whiskey, it is enough to say that Prohibition killed the American alcoholic beverage industry. Almost.
Winemakers took advantage of a religious loophole, insisting that churches still need wine for religious ceremonies like communion. Many brewers were able to survive by shifting to the production of non-alcoholic products. Distillers were not so lucky. The church had no religious grounds to demand the right to whiskey and the idea of non-alcoholic whiskey is simply ridiculous. According to Gary and Mardee Regan in “The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys,” only six distillers were granted an exemption to make whiskey for medicinal purposes, and even then it was only available with a prescription. As a result, most distillers simply went out of business. Not only were distillers prohibited from making new whiskey, but the whiskey that had already been made and was aging gracefully in rackhouses across Kentucky was, in many cases, pilfered by thieves almost immediately Prohibition began. Some of the largest distillers, however, found an alternative to going out of business. In 1920, there was no legal requirement that bourbon whiskey be made in the US (and even if there had been, it would have been rendered meaningless by the 18th Amendment), so a lucky few were able to leave the country and shift their operations to Canada or Mexico. However, even that maneuver was a poor substitute for business as usual. Tremendous amounts of Scotch and Canadian whisky were smuggled into the country and illegal stills sprang up everywhere. Prohibition-era drinkers acquired a taste for cocktails made from liquors like gin and rum that were more easily attainable than bourbon whiskey. It was simply not possible for bourbon distillers to thrive when there was so much competition and they were legally barred from competing with any of it. Paul F. Pacult notes that in the years before the First World War, there were 35 distilleries operating within the city limits of Louisville, KY alone, while Charles K. Cowdery points out that there were only 61 distilleries in the entire state in 1937, four years after repeal. Prohibition put the majority of distillers out of business, and they never came back.
A few distillers managed to survive Prohibition but it was difficult. According to Pacult, “As rich as Jim Beam” used to be a favorite expression among Kentuckians to describe a wealthy person. But by the 1930s, people stopped saying it because Jim Beam was broke, and he wasn’t the only one. A lot of people were broke in the 1930s. The Great Depression was hardly an ideal time to revive an industry. But revive the industry is exactly what the surviving distillers did, even if it meant, in many cases, merging. But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The war caused a lot of changes to American industry. Just as Detroit stopped making cars in 1942 to make tanks and airplanes for the war effort, Kentucky stopped making bourbon and began instead making ethanol and other industrial alcohols. With the production of whiskey halted, prewar stocks rapidly dwindled, leaving distillers with the same problem at the end of the war that they had at the end of Prohibition: they had no aged product to take to market. Even as production resumed, profits were not forthcoming.
It took a few years to get production back up and keep the marketplace reliably stocked with aged bourbon. And while the market did come back, it wasn’t the same. Millions of young American servicemen returned from the war with a taste for British and European goods. From the French food craze of the 1950s to the emergence of a sports car subculture, Americans who had seen more of the world were now demanding more of the world. Scotch was becoming more popular than ever and despite less-than-friendly relations with Russia, even vodka was gaining momentum. While it retained its market share in the largely rural, poor South, bourbon was no longer America’s definite go-to beverage, but had to share the stage with the rest of the offerings at the bar. Oddly, though the selection at the bar was bigger, the choice of cocktails at all but the best bars became slimmer. This was the age when a few staple cocktails conquered happy hour, and adventurous drink menus and the mixologists who could do them justice were the privilege of the few. The gin and tonic, scotch and soda, and the martini became standards. There was still whiskey and coke, and the Manhattan stuck around, but neither of those has to be made with bourbon. Only one drink may have been fine in the Old West, but superpower America, the nation that won the war and took trips to the moon, could afford more options.
The post-war era saw a tremendous amount of mergers, acquisitions and conglomeration among distillers. As bourbon’s market share dipped, the business climate simply wasn’t conducive to the survival of independent distillers. In 1966, Jim Beam was acquired by American Brands, owners of American Tobacco who made Pall Mall and Lucky Strike. According to Sam K. Cecil, that deal brought National Distillers and their bourbon portfolio featuring Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, and Old Taylor under the same umbrella as the Beams. Barton Brands (Very Old Barton, Kentucky Gentleman, et al) has had a series of owners, including Guinness, but is now owned by the Sazerac Company, which also owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery, which makes, among others, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, and Old Charter. Many distillers were even forced to sell to foreign interests. Maker’s Mark was sold to the Canadian firm Hiram Walker, but has since been acquired by Beam, Inc. Wild Turkey is owned by the Campari Group in Italy, Four Roses is owned by the Kirin Brewing Company in Japan, and Bulleit is owned by the largest alcoholic beverage company in the world: Diageo in Britain. The only independent distiller remaining in Kentucky is Heaven Hill, and with a portfolio that includes Elijah Craig and Evan Williams, they are hardly small. What Prohibition started, conglomeration nearly finished. Sam K. Cecil counted 183 operating distilleries in Kentucky before prohibition; today there are nine.
With so many whiskeys made by so few distillers one has to wonder how different the individual bottles are. The best way to find out is to simply drink different bourbons, preferably side by side so that you can immediately see the differences. But what makes them different? The first and most obvious distinction is who made it. It is not always easy to know, because labels rarely include that information. Of course, some whiskeys are obvious; Jim Beam was clearly made by Beam. With other brands, the best way to tell is to look at where it was made. The label might say it was made by Knob Creek or Old Crow, but if it says it is from Clermont or Boston, KY, then it’s Beam. If the label says Frankfort, then it’s Buffalo Trace. Unfortunately, this system is not foolproof. Barton is in Bardstown, but Bardstown is also the home of one of Heaven Hill’s old distilleries, so you might find some Heaven Hill products from there as well. Brown Forman owns two distilleries in Kentucky: the Early Times Distillery in Shively, KY and the Old Pepper Distillery in Versailles, (pronounced Versales) KY. Woodford Reserve is a product of both of those distilleries. The important thing is not to know which corporation produced the bottle in your hand, or whose shareholder your purchase enriches, but to make sure that you are getting true variety. For someone just getting into bourbon and learning how to taste, these are important distinctions because it is by getting bourbons from different distilleries that one will notice the bigger, more immediate differences between two, or more, bottles.
The next big difference is found in the mash bill of the bourbon. Obviously, different distilleries use different mash bills. There are even different mash bills within individual distilleries. What the drinker should be looking for here is the proportion of corn, and the proportions of the other ingredients as well. Rye heavy whiskeys tend to be more spicy than sweet and wheat heavy whiskeys are generally the other way around. By tasting a few whiskeys, one will acquire the ability to distinguish, which whiskeys have large proportions of a particular grain. For some help, Charles K. Cowdery advises that Old Charter is made with significantly more corn than most bourbons, Old Grand-Dad is made with more rye, Maker’s Mark is made with more wheat, and Evan Williams is pretty even with all of the above grains. Each one of those bourbons is very different even to the beginner. They are also each from different distilleries, though a single distillery can make two whiskeys that are very different from one another, because it depends on the mash bill. Beam uses two: Jim Beam and Old Grand-Dad, and those are clearly different. But what happens when more than one whiskey is made from a common mash bill? There is still a great many factors that can make a whiskey unique from its siblings.
Beam makes quite a few bourbons from their Jim Beam mash bill. This doesn’t mean, however, that those bourbons are all made from the same yeast culture or that they are all made at the same time. For instance, a small batch bourbon like Knob Creek is made from a separate distillation from Old Crow, a label at the bottom end of the Beam family. Knob Creek is also not mixed with other whiskeys from its distillery, but is cut with water down to barrel proof and set aside to age. Age, of course, is a very important factor affecting the flavor and quality of any whiskey. However, on its own, age is not a guarantee that one whiskey is better than another. If Old Crow were aged as long as Knob Creek, it still probably wouldn’t be as good. But where a whiskey is aged also has a significant impact on the quality of the beverage in the barrel. Temperature fluctuations particularly affect whiskey in the barrel and temperatures fluctuate differently from one rackhouse to the next and even from one part of an individual rackhouse to another part. Better whiskeys typically get a better spot in the rackhouse. One recent notable example of a whiskey that aged in a unique way is the Tornado Surviving bourbon from Colonel E.H. Taylor. When a tornado knocked down the warehouse, it left the whiskey barrels alone and they spent all summer in the open, making the whiskey within them different from the same whiskey in other warehouses. Aging is never as simple as parking a barrel and walking away from it for a few years. Like everything else in whiskey making, aging is a balancing act. While a whiskey can pick up good flavors, like vanilla, from the wood, it also runs the risk of picking up too much char. Some of the best illustrations of the unique effects of wood aging come in single barrel whiskeys – whiskeys that are not even mixed with other barrels of the exact same whiskey before bottling. Each barrel will be slightly different from one barrel to the next. One can experience this by buying a bottle at one liquor store and then buying another at another store down the street, because the competing stores will have bought separate barrels. Buffalo Trace has recently pushed this concept even further, with a limited run, by ensuring that whole barrels are made from only one tree, so that the drink in the bottle will only ever be influenced by a single oak.
Bourbon has come a long way from the frontier days. In some ways whiskey has lost the romance of the old days, but the quality and consistency have definitely improved. Good whiskey – even great whiskey – was available in the 19th Century, but only to a few. Industrialization and conglomeration may have killed the small independent distiller, but those things have also made good whiskey available to all of us. The wide availability of so many other options from around the world has cut into bourbon’s market share, but it has also forced the Kentucky distillers to dig deep and offer more quality products than ever before. And before we weep for the demise of the small distiller, let’s instead celebrate his reemergence. From the Anchor Steam Distillery in San Francisco to the Hudson Distillery in New York, stopping along the way at the Garrison Brothers Distillery in the Texas Hill Country, small distillers are coming back, and they are making bourbon once again. With better options from the big corporate distillers and more options from the small independent ones, bourbon is only moving up. Bourbon is, after all, America’s drink; its past challenges have been America’s challenges and its future lies with the nation the created it.
*In the first installment of the Whiskey Chronicles, I wrote that “Woodrow Wilson made it [whiskey] illegal.” That is inaccurate. The Volstead Act, the precursor to the 18th Amendment, was actually passed around President Wilson’s veto.