Do We Romanticize Pre-Prohibition Whiskey?

This question is inevitably asked whenever a discussion about pre-Prohibition American whiskeys comes up. Industry folks tend to be very skeptical about “the old methods.” Their doubts are understandable, though. There aren’t many references out there on how whiskey used to be made and those that are available are from before the industrial revolution. There are few options for whiskey writers to have an immersive experience with traditional distilling techniques or opportunities to do vertical tastings of 19th century Pennsylvania ryes. When the modern distilling industry is doing so many incredible things and articles are coming out every week about how some new whiskey is “a game changer” how could the old way of doing things possibly compare? Interviewers will end discussions/interviews about American whiskey making history with questions like;

“Is it possible that your opinion of pre-pro rye whiskey is a bit romanticized?”

“Isn’t it true that modern whiskeys are inherently superior? I mean, wouldn’t you agree that technology is vastly improved and product consistency is just…better?”

“If rye whiskey was so great, why isn’t it around anymore?”

Well, as far as that last one goes, that’s a long discussion and you can read about that HERE. But let’s address some of this skepticism.

The history of pre-Prohibition American whiskey is largely misunderstood. Unfortunately, the American whiskey drinking public has been learning about American whiskey history through a lens focused on Kentucky bourbon and without context. That’s like trying to learn American history by just studying WWII. You can’t understand the whiskey industry if you don’t learn about how bourbon came to be popular in the first place or how the whiskey trade functioned for the rest of the country. And let’s be clear- the rest of the country was very busy making their own spirits using their own unique traditions and methods. Just because we aren’t as familiar with Pennsylvania’s pure ryes, Indiana’s peach brandies, Missouri’s whiskeys, California’s fortified wines/brandies, or Illinois’ distilling empire does not make them any less important pieces of America’s distilling history. Now I could go on all day about the differences between modern and pre-pro production processes (the inferior grain varietals in use today, sweet mash vs. sour mash, still technology and how different still designs were employed to make very different products, the devastating loss of accumulated knowledge that came from 250 years of distilling traditions that were annihilated by Prohibition…), but all those distinctions could be debated among experts. One can always argue over flavor preferences and what caused them- a technically superior aged product with more flavor compounds may not be favored by a modern palate, and that’s a fair argument. However, there is no debating the undeniable change that has taken place over the last hundred years- the cost to profit ratio of making whiskey in America has grown, favoring profit over production. There is no denying that it was more expensive to make rye whiskey and brandy than it was to make bourbon or neutral grain spirits. There is no denying that rye whiskey was/is expensive to make. If you factor in the cost of using more expensive equipment and grain, tack on the additional fuel costs of heating warehouses, and consider the added expense of funding your own product distribution, it is very hard to compare the cost of doing business before and after Prohibition. The corporate distilling companies picked the bones of what remained after Prohibition and built a new trade. They cut almost every corner that pre-Prohibition distillers would have seen as necessary. So, whether or not you like pre-pro whiskey or see the merit in old production techniques has little to do with it. The quality of the product was going to be better because they were spending more money and taking more time to make it. Whiskey history has been spun into fairy tales by so many advertising campaigns that it’s hard to know what to believe. Which is why, I gather, there is so little faith in whiskeys manufactured before the nation turned its focus to bourbon.

It should be obvious that bourbon whiskey history is NOT rye whiskey history, but somehow, it is not. The fact that bourbon distilleries are making rye whiskey on column stills for a few weeks out of the year and are the ones instructing the nation on the history of those rye whiskey brands- well, I suppose it’s understandable that they were never going to be ideal ambassadors for the history of rye whiskey. Bourbon history has its own incredible (and largely forgotten) history that was co-opted by corporations (foreign and domestic), but it should not be talking about rye just because its parent companies bought the brands.

Bourbon and rye followed a similar timeline after the Civil War, but the foundations of American whiskey making were laid in Pennsylvania and Maryland. This, at least, is non-debatable. Rye and bourbon both morphed into becoming brown spirits around the Civil War, but the earliest aged whiskeys were ryes, not bourbons. Early texts specifically name Philadelphia and Baltimore as the origins for aged whiskeys becoming popular in America (and in Europe and Asia). New York City quickly took over as the hub of the eastern rye whiskey market by the 1880s, and this can be seen by the migration of large firms (or at least major satellite locations for rye whiskey firms based in Philadelphia and Baltimore) into New York. One can also see the Whiskey Trust’s influence in the consolidation of these liquor businesses. The 1880s and 1890s was an era marked by overproduction and market fluctuation for American whiskey producers. It also created a definitive line between “straight bourbons,” “pure ryes,” and rectified spirits within the trade* even if it wasn’t addressed by the government for another decade. A power struggle between the big and bigger producers was underway. Lobbying and advertising were growing and being used as a wedge to win market share…Now, in an interview, this is usually where someone invariably brings up the rectifying industry and the “industrialization of American whiskey.” They’ll ask, “Well, wasn’t Pennsylvania and Maryland more industrial and more focused on rectifying?” Herein lies the biggest hurdle when attempting to convince someone that old whiskey was better once upon a time.

No, Pennsylvania and Maryland were no more focused on rectification than any other state. They were not any more industrial than any large distillery operation in Kentucky. PA and MD made “pure ryes” and Kentucky made “straight bourbons.” Both were “unadulterated” barrel aged products.** Every state made rectified spirits. The only reason people don’t know that is because, again, bourbon histories are the only ones we hear. It is in their interest to promote bourbon, not rye or brandy.

I don’t know how to say this more clearly…Rectification was a legitimate and a much more historically relevant business than any other segment of the liquor industry. Before whiskeys were aged into brown spirits, white spirits were mixed with other ingredients to improve their taste and make them more profitable. Rectified spirits may have had additives or been filtered through charcoal to strip out off-flavors. Once brown spirits were introduced, the rectifying industry embraced them while they continued to make gins and other flavored spirits. They might redistill an unsatisfactory whiskey or filter it or blend a favorable barrel. They also possessed the ability (and the money) to bottle their products which the distilleries usually did not. Once rectified whiskey was embraced by the Whiskey Trust in the 1880s and used as a means to produce huge amounts of lower quality whiskey, the rectifying trade would never be the same. The Whiskey Trust flooded the market and stirred the pot. What had been a 200 year old trade involving thousands of licensed producers (many with excellent reputations) across the country was now vilified by the straight whiskey lobby through constant, slanderous propaganda. It worked so well that we still go on today about how rectifiers were putting spit and battery acid into whiskey before the straight whiskey firms dramatically saved us all! Now don’t get me wrong, there have always been bad players within every American industry. Usually, those bad players are either trying to trick you to make a sale or they are a soulless corporate entity that doesn’t see anything wrong with injuring their customers. But we’re talking about generational businesses here! Rectifiers, to put it  simply, were liquor men that purchased their liquor stocks from someone else and either blended those spirits or modified them to create something they knew their customers would want to buy. You do not keep a business in a major city with a downtown address by poisoning your customers. These rectifiers had large warehouses in major cities that held large quantities of liquor- both domestic and imported. They also had the ability to bottle their products, ship their products, and create very enviable brands within the industry. They were seen as a threat to the Whiskey Trust’s dominance over market share. The propaganda launched during the early 1900s against rectifiers was entirely funded by the reformed Whiskey Trust and managed by its public relations and advertising firm in New York. The adulteration of liquor was absolutely a real issue during Prohibition when distilling went underground, but when distilling was a legitimate and very lucrative business BEFORE Prohibition, the rectifying world was not as much a threat to public health as it was to the straight whiskey firms owned by the reformed Whiskey Trust.

Once we understand the truth about rectifiers and realize that the trade was highjacked by the Whiskey Trust, we can begin to appreciate that rectifiers were an important part of the whiskey trade. Many of those pre-pro whiskey bottles with recognizable brands like “Old Crow” and “Mount Vernon” and bottlers names like “Hellman & Co.” or “Cook & Bernheimer” don’t seem to jive with the distillers we associate with those brands. It seems complicated, but it’s all just two sides of the same coin. The whiskey trade had always been a competitive industry, but those products that stood out as being superior were sought out. Companies knew then (just as they know now) that mimicking a well-known product could be profitable, but consumers ultimately determined which would succeed. Winning the trust of the public was just as difficult then as it is now. The interesting thing is that there were so many more private bottlers back then. There were more competitive production facilities making unique products that not only had contracts with these private bottlers but also sold barrels to hotels, saloons, and restaurants. Small producers didn’t have to bottle their own products as they do today, but they often helped build the clientele of a hotel or drinking establishment. And to top it all off, far more Americans drank whiskey in the late 19th and early 20th century, so they would have been far more attuned to what they would consider “a good whiskey.”

The variations in whiskey before Prohibition must have been all over the flavor chart. A single distillery’s product could have been different depending on who was buying it and who was selling it. Think of a small-scale version of MGP- where many product variations are made, and though they are all made at the same distillery, each customer buying from them will present their own sourced product differently. Think of the variations that were possible! Think of how different the same mashbill from MGP can present under each label that sells it- The particular skills of the blender working with the spirit or the addition of any flavors would make all the difference in the world. We’ve discussed how before Prohibiton, certain products stood out as being superior and earned such good reputations that they were copied. Liquor companies were forced into forming and protecting trademarks for their treasured brands. Hospitals sought out brands that had earned reputations for purity and excellence. Older whiskeys from certain distilleries were priced higher because the demand created by customers allowed it. With many hundreds of distilleries and thousands of retail liquor locations across the United States all vying for market share, there was an incredible variety of options and a very wide range of quality in these products. Not every whiskey was going to be great, but only quality products would survive in such a highly competitive atmosphere. By the time Prohibition came along, consumer choices became largely irrelevant, almost immediately.

When Prohibition arrived, the number of licensed distilleries able to bottle whiskey fell drastically. The number of warehouses able to store whiskey went from 800 in 1917 to about 30 in the mid 20s. The nation’s whiskey and its brands were consolidated. The hundreds of distilleries that held whiskey stocks were all piled upon one another. The owners of these concentration warehouses, once they were able to take ownership of it all (using questionable methods), began bottling what was left of it all in 1927 under the few brand labels they owned. So whether you were a small distillery in central Pennsylvania or from a large distillery in Illinois, chances were good that you were being bottled as a Kentucky-based brand.

The reputations of old brands belonging to defunct distilling companies were co-opted by corporate interests through the purchase of these brands. The whiskey was good, but it no longer belonged to the distiller that made it to begin with. During Prohibition, between late 1929 and 1932, only a handful of distilleries were even allowed to distill newmake whiskey that would become bottled-in-bond medicinal whiskey eventually. Most of those distilleries not only shared the same or similar production techniques, but they also used the same bulk grain sources. The dwindling stocks that remained from those defunct distilleries was bottled up and sold as quickly as possible. Not only would those distilleries never make whiskey again, whatever whiskey barrels remained with their names and reputation linked to it was bottled under a different label by an unrelated company. The whiskey that WE THINK we know as being pre-Prohibition ryes from Pennsylvania are often not even from Pennsylvania. And when they are from Pennsylvania, they may be labeled as being made by one distillery but actually be from a completely unrelated distillery. It gets confusing, yes. But the point I’m trying to get across here is that many of the folks reviewing the quality of pre-Prohibition whiskeys don’t even know what they’re drinking! It’s hard to agree that “modern drinkers are romanticizing pre-pro whiskeys” when so many of the people that have tried it and have given their opinions of it are so often wrong about where the whiskey was even from. And yes, it is important to know that because different whiskey distilleries used different processes and made very different styles of whiskey. Forming an educated opinion on product quality kind of requires knowing know made it to begin with.

Occasionally, a whiskey reviewer will describe a pre-Prohibition bottle and declare it to be terrible. “This must have gone bad or something,” they say. They may not know that in the early years of Prohibition, pint bottles were sometimes unwittingly filled from barrels that had been watered down. Badly paid warehouse staff were known to replace what they were secretly siphoning off of barrels with water, and warehouse owners were more interested in moving product than they were in being careful about what they were bottling. Even the Commissioner of Prohibition bragged that less than 10% of medicinal whiskey in warehouses was adulterated in any way- as if that were worthy of bragging rights. The “terrible pre-pro whiskey” may also have been a blend that a concentration warehouse owner bottled to make use of some very old whiskey by blending it with some younger spirit. By the time whiskey barrels were being bottled in earnest in 1927, some of the whiskey in those concentration warehouses was too far gone. The point is that any number of things could have happened to that bottle of whiskey while the barrels were being transported from one place to another or while the government gaugers were looking the other way. Even if a bottle was full of delicious whiskey in 1930 doesn’t mean that 100 years of storage didn’t harm or alter it- or cause too much evaporation. But even after 100 years, the good bottles…they can be legendarily good. These bottles are why people seek these whiskeys out and swear by them. Reviewers of those bottles ask, “What were they doing different back then to make this so good?” or “Why is that bottle so bad and this one so good?” I would argue that is definitely worth knowing the history of the bottle/distillery/brand before jumping to any conclusions.

I’m happy to try to explain why a bottle of pre-pro whiskey might be so superior to anything made today or what may have caused that depth of flavor, but my answer would fall short. We just don’t know everything they knew. So much knowledge about the process of making pre-Pro whiskey has been lost to time. (I’m crossing my fingers that someone finds more distiller’s notebooks one day that will reveal helpful minutia and insight into their production methods.) I know that many will argue that modern processes are superior, but I can’t trust that opinion when it comes from within an industry that collectively didn’t even know what a 3 chamber still was 2 years ago. I think when we come to a collective realization that there was more competition in the market, there was more expertise in the industry (both on the part of the producer and the consumer), and there were businesses with as many as 6 and 7 generations of time to build a reputation for excellence…well, you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s not bias or romance. It’s just common sense.


*This is an important distinction because the acceptance of “straight” as a designation for bourbon was only ever accepted as a definition “within the trade” before Prohibition. It is often said that the Taft decision made straight whiskey a legal definition, but this is NOT ACCURATE. Taft explained the distinction between whiskey and rectified whiskey- allowing them both to continue to exist as unique styles of “whiskeys” -even as the straight whiskey interests made moves to eliminate their competition. Taft explained that the trade understood the difference and that the law was only necessary to stop false advertising and bickering.

**It should be pointed out that there were no real legal limitations on putting additives in straight whiskey before Prohibition. Bottled-in-bond whiskeys were free of adulterations, but if bottled during Prohibition, you were forced to take their word for it. The strict adherance to bottled-in-bond regulations loosened after 1920. The Medicinal Spirits Act of 1927 specifically included language saying that the “Secretary of the Treasury may by regulation permit the addition of spirits of the same kind (whether or not such spirits are the same season’s production and produced by the same producer) to other spirits, in order to raise the proof to standard.” While the Medicinal Spirits Act was not approved by the Senate to become law, there was a good deal of side-stepping of the 1897 Bottled in Bond law made possible by the Secretary of the Treasury after 1927 when bottling of many different barrels that qualified as “medicinal spirits” became necessary. This is why you see Prohibition-era bottles that read “a blend of straight whiskeys” from one distillery but bottled in another location with green BIB tax strips. It is unclear when the rules regarding “bottled-in-bond” in the TTB’s Title 27 were updated. (perhaps in 1937?)