Any discussion about the history of whisk(e)y in the United States tends to turn to a discussion about current trends and the future. We can learn a lot about where whiskey is headed by examining its past, and what comes next has the potential to be a golden age.
In the United States, the distilled spirits industry has been through a lot. Unscrupulous businessmen first threatened a fledgling industry with tainted whiskeys that contained additives to grain neutral spirits or unaged whiskeys that could be harmful, to make the whiskey seem aged. The idea was to capitalise on the growing popularity of commercially produced whiskey without the headache of waiting for it to mature. This spurred the first consumer protection laws in the United States, preventing people from being able to put things like sulfuric acid, tobacco spit, and prune juice into whiskey sold to consumers.
Just a few decades later came Prohibition, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Drunkenness had become a serious problem, and the Noble Experiment that started as a grassroots movement became national law in short order. Beverage alcohol companies struggled on in any way they could. Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky, which made stills and distillery equipment (and still does today), switched to making equipment for other industries. Some companies got into the yeast business. Some stayed the course, selling ‘medicinal’ whiskey.
More difficulties followed, from the war effort to a decline in whiskey’s popularity that dragged on for decades, but what does all of this have to do with current trends or the future? Well, we know that beverage alcohol, in general, and whiskey, in particular, has survived a lot and will continue to survive. While whole sectors of the economy are being decimated, people will always want a stiff drink, and, in fact, beverage alcohol is one of the few sectors that goes up when economies go down.
...we have a lot of room for improvement in the modernisation of our beverage alcohol laws
We also know that, in the grand scheme of things, we’re still recovering from Prohibition. The rest of the world doesn’t have to deal with a different set of alcohol laws every time you cross a line on a map, and lack of consumer awareness has meant that undoing those laws has been a low priority. That is to say, we have a lot of room for improvement in the modernisation of our beverage alcohol laws.
Laws have become modernised largely at the behest of producers and industry groups, and this painstaking process has given rise to the craft spirits boom and subsequently the craft cocktail boom. These advancements mark the start of the modern era of distilled spirits in the United States because people began to enjoy both brown-water and well-made cocktails again. It has also given rise to the future of the industry.
A distillery on every farm (or pretty close to it) was where this country started, and a distillery in every region is where it is headed. Today, most people in the continental United States are a few hours’ drive at most to a distillery, and you no longer have to visit Kentucky to find a whiskey trail. The future of distillery tourism is right in your backyard.
As far as spirits go, all these craft producers are pushing the envelope to develop the next big thing. At FEW in Chicago you can find rye whiskey proofed with cold-brew coffee – it’s not quite a liqueur, not quite a flavored whiskey. John Drew Brands was the early developer of blending two base spirits together in their Brixton Mash Destroyer, which was half rye whiskey and half rum.
A new category being created at distilleries across the country is American single malt, with regional and philosophical variations from Virginia to Oregon. It is getting so popular, in fact, that there is an entire trade association – the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission – that is tasked with getting this designation officially added to the TTB’s Standards of Identity, which govern labeling of distilled spirits in the United States.
As producers continue to push boundaries and legislators continue to undo Repeal-era laws, creativity will continue to give us things we never thought possible.