For the final week of the Filson Bourbon History Series, the subject of the history portion was the post prohibition bourbon world and bourbon in the 21st century. The tasting segment of the night was the “final exam” where the students were asked to take notes on two unknown whiskeys.
When prohibition ended in 1933, the distilling industry wanted to prevent it from happening again. The distillery owners met and set up self regulations and codes of conduct. They agreed that they would not use women in advertising, no images of Santa Claus or other images appealing to children in advertising, and no radio (and later television) advertisements. In 1959 Glenmore Distillery was the first company to break one of the self regulations by using women to advertise Glenmore Gin. When there was no public uproar, other companies quickly followed their lead. The other regulations are still in place but there is movement to advertise spirits on television today.
The Great Depression made it hard for the small distillers who tried to re-enter the business. A lack of capital in this cash starved time soon forced many small distilleries to sell out to larger companies. This consolidation of the industry was quickened by America’s entry into the Second World War in 1941. Wartime prohibition halted production of beverage alcohol as the government need high proof alcohol for the war effort. The biggest use of alcohol was for synthetic rubber and Louisville’s “Rubbertown” was built during the war to be close to the source of alcohol.
After the war there was a “golden age” for the bourbon industry with plenty of distillers with plenty of bourbon to sale. The bonding period was extended to 20 years and the variety of aged bourbons increased. These good times of the 1950s and early 1960s was followed by bad times as the hippie generation refused to drink their parent’s drink of choice, and there was growth in wine, vodka and tequila consumption. The bourbon industry was hurting, and many distillers went out of business. The hard times started to change with the introduction of the “super-premium” styles of single barrel, small batch and extra aged bourbons in the 1980s. Brown spirits became something that could be appreciated for its taste and was treated similar to wine at tastings. Books and magazines dedicated to bourbon whiskey were published and the internet saw websites dedicated to bourbon whiskey. The new millennium saw the beginning of the present growth in bourbon sales and an actual shortage of some types of bourbon as growth outpaced predictions in sales.
The tasting was a blind tasting of two whiskeys. The student applied their knowledge from the classes to describe the products and take an educated guess as to what they were drinking. Nobody was perfect, and none figured out the products, but that was part of the test. It is important to realize just how hard a blind tasting is to do. The final products were Maker’s Mark and Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond. The class ended with a toast using Parker’s Heritage Collection 27 year old and some discussion of the bourbon by the class. It was a very successful experience, enjoyed by all.