Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage

The history of the United States is reflected in the history of the distilling industry. One of the first constitutional crises for the new government was the “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1791-1792. As the new nation struggled to pay the debts from its war of independence the government turned to an excise tax on distilled spirits to raise the money to fund the government and pay these debts. This tax on distilled spirits lasted until 1802 when President Jefferson repealed the tax after balancing the Federal budget. The tax returned for a brief period between 1814 and 1817 as the government found itself with another war debt that had to be paid. After 1817 there was no “whiskey tax” until 1862 when the American Civil War required the government to raise money to pay for the war. The tax has been with us ever since.

America’s growth as an industrial nation is reflected in the distilling industry that started as a cottage industry with farmer distillers using open flame and copper pot stills. The invention of practical steam power allowed the industry to grow into modern distilleries with continuous column stills that require huge amounts of distiller’s beer to make them cost effective. This beer could only be supplied by the growth of the Railroads and steamships that supplied not only the raw material from the countryside, but carried the finished product to markets.

Superior Old Bourbon Whiskey Geo Welby

Superior Old Bourbon Whiskey, Geo Welby, Label, from The Filson Historical Society

As distilled spirits went from the raw corn whiskey of the frontier days of Kentucky to an aged product with a sweet taste and a smooth finish, the marketing evolved. Early sales were often in unmarked jugs. As the product became an aged product in charred barrels, distillers would brand their name on the barrel head. To protect their “brand name” the industry evolved a system of registering their “trademark” in liquor trade magazines. This started with simply showing an image of the mark on the barrelhead but quickly became more elaborate as distillers vied with one another to catch the eye of customers. With the improvements in printing came color stationary and advertisements for bourbon whiskey. Bar decanters, shot glasses, mirror art, bar trays and other items used in a tavern soon became decorated with many of the brands that were popular at the bar.

The nineteenth century saw the growth of the prohibition movement – a movement that would change America forever. Starting as a moral crusade against drunkenness in the first half of the century, it became an effort to end alcohol use completely by the end of the century. One of the first things learned was that all politics are local so the movement worked at making the country dry one precinct at a time. The Anti-Saloon League bullied its way into politics not by controlling a majority of Americans, but by controlling enough voters to swing a close election. After enough politicians lost their job to this method of campaigning, they became reluctant to stand up against the Anti-Saloon League. Prohibitionist used this power to get first an income tax amendment passed so the government would not have to rely on the whiskey tax to pay its bills and then the 18th amendment creating prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

Prohibition caused an increase in crime and a decrease in the respect for the law of the United States. When grain prices became low as a precursor to the great Depression, farmers were burning their crops in the field because it would cost more to harvest them than they could get on the market. People began to realize that these grains could be used to make beer and whiskey if it were legal. The depression caused a deficit in the Federal budget that just happened to be equal to what the taxation of legal spirits would have brought in during a single year. On December 5th, 1933, the 21st amendment was ratified, repealing prohibition.

After prohibition the industry became more regulated and the sales of alcohol more controlled in many states. The industry was creating jobs and helping the nation climb out of the Great Depression when America entered the Second World War. The distilling industry was an important war industry as they transferred their production to high proof alcohol to make gunpowder and synthetic rubber. After the war, bourbon and other American products went everywhere the American Armed Forces were located. Military bases in Germany, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere were brand ambassadors for Kentucky Bourbon. Bourbon became part of the world marketplace.

The end of the twentieth century saw first a decline in bourbon’s popularity as a generation rebelled against their parents and their choice of drink and then a rebirth as the same generation discovered that whiskey could be enjoyed for its flavors. The twenty first century has bourbon growing in popularity and a growing interest in the heritage of the product.


To learn more about these subjects and more, check out my book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, available now through the Filson Historical Society gift shop or online at

Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage by Michael Veach

Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage by Michael Veach

Mike Veach

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