Bourbon Renewal: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America’s Native Spirit

Despite prohibition, changing palates and charlatan whiskeys, this national drink has made a comeback

A Manhattan, mixed using Maker's Mark bourbon
A Manhattan, mixed using Maker's Mark bourbon Image courtesy of Flickr user mhaithaca

We are halfway through the month of September and I would be remiss if I neglected to note that it is National Bourbon Heritage Month. This American-born beverage is a type of whiskey (not whisky, and yes the “e” makes a difference) made from corn mash and aged in oak barrels, producing a sweet and spicy, amber-colored spirit that can be enjoyed on its own, used in cocktails or in home cooking. But it’s also a drink with which Americans have had a complicated relationship.

Fruit brandies and rums were initially the libations of choice in Colonial America, but once corn, rye and wheat farming became widespread, so did whiskey production. Bourbon originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, where farmers would ship spirits in oak barrels, and the journey aged liquor enough to give it its distinctive flavor. And with America’s population booming in the 19th century, more people began drinking whiskey.

But the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol, changed America’s relationship with bourbon. First and foremost was the issue of how consumers could procure supplies of a banned product. Some American bourbon producers, who had stockpiled spirits for when prohibition took effect, found loopholes that allowed them to legally market their liquor. Their solution? Sell it to drug stores and say the stuff could be purchased for its supposed health benefits, which was perfectly legal. (However, prescriptions could only be filled once.) The Wathen brothers, makers of Old Grand-Dad, recast themselves as the American Medicinal Spirits Company, and eventually brought nearly sixty other brands of bourbon under its wing, selling their products to pharmacists.

But Prohibition also altered the national palate. Imbibers began showing a preference for lighter spirits such as gin and vodka that could easily be produced on the sly—stereotypically in one’s bathtub. It was during this time that bourbons distilled in Canada were smuggled into the United States, and these liquors were typically a mix of whiskey and neutral spirits, lacking the robust flavor of whiskies produced in the United States. When prohibition was repealed, distilleries were unable to immediately place aged liquors back on the marketplace, so they copied the Canadian model and provided consumers with underaged bourbons. (The Manhattan cocktail was originally mixed with rye whiskey, but that spirit was not as readily available after the repeal and was consequently supplanted by bourbon.) With the weak-flavored charlatan whiskeys on the market, this former darling of the American liquor cabinet fell out of favor. “The lowest, bottom-shelf stuff being made today is better than the best whiskey made in 1947,” Makers Mark master distiller David Pickerell remarked to Forbes magazine a few years ago.

But in the 1980s, there was a shift in American consumer patterns and people were willing to shell out more money for better products. This trend was noted by distilleries, and aged, bolder bourbons began to resurface, with premium bourbon sales skyrocketing, raking in $767.5 million in 2003.

And how will you mark National Bourbon Heritage month? For me, it will be enjoying a well-mixed Manhattan. But for hardcore aficionados wanting to get the full experience of Kentucky’s best, check out the Bourbon Trail, a hit list of six distilleries you can tour to see how America’s native spirit is made.

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