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Build upon your whiskey knowledge as BULLEIT Bourbon Global Brand Ambassador Tim Etherington-Judge’s uncovers more of the history of American whiskey…

In my last instalment I tried to squeeze the entire history of American whiskey into one article.

You can guess what happened…it didn’t work out for me.

So I went back to the drawing board, with a glass of bourbon in hand, and have since separated it into two short articles.

My first piece took you from the very beginning to the very grain that was used to begin the production of a much loved spirit.

Now it’s time to delve into what helped and hindered the industry’s growth through, what is known as its ‘Golden Age’.

So why don’t you join me and mix yourself a classic Manhattan before you sit down for more history on American whiskey…

Booming Business

The Industrial Revolution was a time of change in the distilling industry globally, particularly in America. At the beginning of the 19th Century it was a cottage industry ran by farmers, clergymen and ambitious entrepreneurs. By the beginning of the 20th Century it was a rapidly expanding factory business of internationally recognised brands.

By the 1830s, the great American railway expansion took over and by the 1860s the country was criss-crossed with locomotives hauling goods. Sitting on the banks of the Ohio River and being a centre point on the new rail network, Louisville was perfectly positioned to capitalise and before long, Kentucky’s famous whiskey was easily available all over the country.

Business was booming and everyone wanted a piece of the distilleries’ pie. It would be a triple-pronged attack of competition from an increasingly active blending industry; government taxation and regulation; and a backlash from over-consumption that was to have the biggest impact upon the category and would define American whiskey as the product we know and love today.


As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the reputation of Kentucky whiskey was known across the land and soon a thriving business grew in creating cheap copies. Rectifiers were wholesale merchants who would purchase cheap, usually unaged, whisky and then ‘rectify’ it by artificially flavouring and colouring it. Ingredients in the rectifying process included brown sugar, prune juice for flavour through to tea and creosote for colour. The result was a low grade whiskey that was cheap, easy to produce and most importantly, could be made in a matter of hours.

By the 1890s the rectifiers, who could pass off a 10 year old whiskey made in a single day, controlled the market. The distillers fought back by lobbying government and in 1897 the Bottled-in-Bond act was passed. Bonded whiskey had to be aged for at least four years, bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), be the product of one distillery in one season, and only have pure water added.

It was the beginning of the regulations that define American whiskey today.


The beginning of the 20th Century was defined by a growing movement against alcohol known as the Temperance Movement that would succeed in turning the whole country dry for 13 years (can you imagine such a long time without Bourbon?).

On January 16th 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting the sale, production, transportation, importation and exportation of intoxicating liquor for beverage purposes within the United States and its territories. The National Prohibition Act, commonly known as the Volstead Act, was passed to enforce the amendment.

Prohibition was the great social experiment that failed. Bartenders fled the country to Europe or Cuba, or stayed and risked being arrested. All but a handful of distilleries closed. The violent criminal underground exploded, giving birth to infamous gangsters such as Al Capone and Nucky Thompson.

A number of distilleries managed to stay open, licensed to sell whiskey for medicinal purposes only. But as stocks diminished, distillers were forced to sell older whiskies and by the end of Prohibition you could find 18 year old straight bourbon whiskey available on prescription.

The Worlds at War

Prohibition officially ended in 1933 but it had left the whiskey industry in tatters. Distilleries were in ruin, some were too old to start up business again and tastes had changed towards lighter spirits such as gin and Canadian whiskey.

Just as the whiskey industry began to recover, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States was drawn into World War 2. The War Production Board took over control and all distilleries were converted to produce high strength industrial alcohol to be used in making gunpowder, plastics, medical supplies and rubber tyres amongst other things. There was still a market for whiskey, however, and distillers continued to sell whatever remaining stocks they had.

The Golden Age

The 1950s were a golden age for American whiskey. There were no restrictions on supply, no wars and an exploding post war economy with an insatiable thirst for consumption of goods. A change to the tax laws allowed distillers to market much older whiskies, a slew of new brands were launched and Bourbon became increasingly international with some brands becoming available in over 110 countries. It reached a peak in 1964 when U.S. Congress recognised Bourbon as a ‘distinctive product of the United States’, in the same way that scotch, cognac and tequila can only be produced in specific parts of the world.

The Worlds at War…Again

Once again, war would have a profound impact upon the whiskey industry and the Vietnam War saw the young population rebel against their parents, including their tastes in spirits. Vodka, tequila and beer became the choice of a generation and cocktails became nothing but sweet, fruity, sugar driven concoctions.

As the single-malt market emerged from Scotland in the 1980s, American distillers were emboldened with a new confidence. The launch of Blanton’s single-barrel whiskey in 1984 showed a new desire for innovation; Tom BULLEIT founded the BULLEIT Distilling Company in 1987.

Today’s World

Today American whiskey is enjoying another golden age. Innovation abounds, demand exceeds supply, quality has never been better, new distilleries are being built at a rapid pace (including the new Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky), old distilleries, such as the legendary Stitzel-Weller, are being dusted off and refurbished and bartenders and drinkers have rediscovered their love for bourbon and rye whiskey and their classic cocktails.

It’s a good time to be in American whiskey.

To catch up on Tim’s earlier instalments click below:

American Whiskey Part 1

American Whiskey Part 2

Tim Etherington-Judge is the BULLEIT Bourbon Global Brand Ambassador. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Instagram: @gingerbitters