What is Rye Whiskey & Why Is It So Different Today?

Rye whiskey is very popular these days. We can clearly see the growth in market share. People talk about how unique it is, but then the occasional article surfaces that talks about how blind tastings show that no one can tell the difference between rye and bourbon. If it’s supposed to be so unique and different, why then is it so similar? What is rye whiskey anyway? This seems like an easy enough question to answer, right? There are plenty of articles out there telling us what rye whiskey is. They explain what the US defines as rye whiskey, what it’s made from, what it tastes like, why it’s what you should buying right now…but I’m here to tell you…you’re not getting the full story. What rye whiskey is today is a far cry from what pure rye whiskey used to...

Why Was the Taft Decision Necessary?

(Hint: It’s Not Necessarily Why You’d Think…) Rectifiers VS. Straight Whiskey Interests To understand why the Taft Decision was so important to the whiskey industry, one must first understand why it was necessary to begin with. And NO- it was not to decide the definition of “straight whiskey.” The reason the Taft Decision was necessary at all was because the definition of “whiskey” was being hijacked. This will not be a popular statement, but…the people hijacking the definition were the lobbyists FOR straight bourbon. Since the earliest days of whiskey-making in America, there were rectifiers. Early on, so much of the whiskey being made in pot stills was inconsistent and flawed so many retail establishments began blending and refining the...

Is Rye Whiskey Really that Hard to Make?

After the last blog post, I was reminded by a fellow enthusiast that I should have included that “rye whiskey is hard to make”. It gave me pause so I figured I better address it. I did not include that rye grain mashes can be difficult to work with because I do not believe that it was a contributing factor behind rye whiskey not surviving Prohibition. The first reason among the 8 I provided was that rye was expensive, both to grow and to purchase, but I did not make mention of how difficult it may be to work with in the distillery. After all, these difficulties are not likely something that an experienced distiller in the early 20th century would have been affected by. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you are an experienced Formula One racecar driver,...

Why did rye not survive Prohibition?

Ad from the Daily Republican, August 16, 1889. That is the big question, after all, isn’t it? Rye is America’s oldest style of whiskey. It was the most valuable and the most desirable American-made whiskey on the market before Prohibition, but it clearly does not hold the same place in America’s drinking culture anymore. What happened? The answer is complicated, but worth exploring. The near disappearance of rye whiskey from the American whiskey market was, in a nutshell, due to Prohibition. (The prelude to Prohibition is another discussion entirely.) To be clear, I don’t mean the morally driven quest for temperance that began a hundred years before politicians began using prohibition as a wedge issue to win votes. I mean that the literal act of passing the 18th...

The Creation of Concentration Warehouses and Their Impact on the American Whiskey Trade

To all those dusty Prohibition-era bottle collectors out there…The labels on those pint bottles from the early 20th century tell a story that is not often told (or explained). While they may seem rather straight forward by listing the companies responsible for distilling and bottling the whiskey (often those companies listed are different), they actually read more like “in memoriams” for all those American distilleries forced out of business by Prohibition. Beautifully designed labels with old timey brands list defunct distilling companies that would otherwise have gone on making whiskey uninterrupted had it not been for the ratification of the 18th amendment.* Even the distillery names that we do recognize can be confusing because a Kentucky whiskey label might...

The Cullen Bill and the Post-Prohibition Glass Bottle Monopoly

  “It was the keg, not the bottle that disappeared during prohibition, the heyday of the bootlegger.”– Hugh J. McMackin, Secretary of the National Wholesale Wine and Liquor Dealers’ Association (July 22, 1935) Figure 1- U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Cullen-Harrison Act, which permitted the sale of low-alcohol beer (3.2% ABV) and wine, March 21, 1933. Upon signing the legislation, Roosevelt made his famous remark, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The Repeal of Prohibition, as welcome as it was to the liquor industry, was well choreographed by the industry’s biggest players. One of the means with which these companies were able to seize control the trade was through the lobbying of government for favorable...

The Whiskey Trust

When it comes to the history of American whiskey, there is no more important topic than that of the Whiskey Trust. In fact, American whiskey history should probably be divided into 2 eras: Pre-Whiskey Trust and Post-Whiskey Trust. Even the staggering effects on the whiskey trade caused by Prohibition would not have been as impactful without the machinations of the Whiskey Trust. The story of the Whiskey Trust, as described by whiskey historians, often stops in 1895 when the company was dissolved, but it does not end there. Each iteration of the Whiskey Trust became more influential and impactful than the last. Its legacy lives on with us today and is reflected in the state of modern America’s whiskey industry. The concept of a “whiskey trust” began to congeal...

1917-1920. The Prelude to Prohibition

There is no doubt that Prohibition altered the landscape of the liquor industry in innumerable ways. The National Prohibition Act may have become established law in 1920, but other laws passed in the years leading up to its implementation began several years before. The country’s distillers had been battling temperance forces since the early 1800s, but three quarters of a century had turned a handful of fiery preachers and zealots into a nation-wide movement with its political agenda winning ground from the local courtrooms to Congress. Liquor was the first major moral wedge issue in politics.* The early 20th century saw a nation divided between the “wets” and the “drys” even if America’s citizens were more interested in being...