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DISTILLING. It did not take long for the colonists to begin producing alcoholic beverages from fruit and grain. Settlers on Roanoke Island (Virginia) brewed crude ale from maize, and New Englanders made wine from wild grapes. Distilling more potent liquor required little more than a fire, a large kettle, and a blanket stretched to absorb the vapors of the heated wine or brew.

Commercial distilleries, with more sophisticated distilling techniques, were operating in New Amsterdam as early as 1640 and shortly thereafter in Boston (1654) and in Charleston, South Carolina (1682). Rum distilled from West Indian sugar was an important colonial industry and, along with the import of slaves from Africa, a significant component in the commerce of the British Empire.

Yet, as the nation began to expand and distance impeded access to imports, Americans developed a taste for whiskey distilled from locally grown corn, rye, and barley. Besides being a popular beverage, frontier whiskey served as a medicine, a commodity, and a cash crop more easily transported than whole grain.

By 1791, Kentuckians already had enough interest in whiskey to warrant a convention opposing an excise tax on it levied by the federal government. As only spirits distilled from American-grown produce were taxed, rum distillers were exempt. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

But the federal government eventually proved to be at least as good a customer as it was a taxing agent: the army, until1832, and the navy, until1862, provided enlisted personnel with a liquor ration, and government purchases of whiskey ran as high as 120,000 gallons annually.

Even George Washington himself had advocated for the liquid fortification of his revolutionary warriors. In 1777, Washington wrote, "It is necessary there should be a sufficient quantity of spirits with the Army to furnish moderate supplies to the troops."

Washington did more than supply his troops with liquor. In his final years, he also helped supply the nation with whiskey. He opened a distillery near the gristmill of his Mt. Vernon, Virginia, plantation in 1798. The following year, the distillery produced some 11,000 gallons of corn and rye whiskey, netting around $7,500—making it one of the nation's largest whiskey producers. Washington died later that year, however, and his distillery was shut down. In December 2000, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) announced a $1.2 million donation to help reconstruct the Mt. Vernon distillery as an historic landmark.

It could not have hurt that such an eminent American spent his final years in the distilling business. The home-grown industry was further strengthened by events in the early nineteenth century that weakened American reliance on imports for liquor. The Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812 meant that rum distilleries were blockaded from their sources of cane sugar and molasses; and rum drinkers, unable to obtain the country's traditionally favorite liquor, were forced to develop a taste for whiskey, especially Kentucky whiskey, also known as bourbon.

The greatest threat to the distilling industry in America began in the late nineteenth century with the increasingly vigorous efforts of temperance organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Foundation (founded in Cleveland in 1874) and the Anti-Saloon League of America (also formed in Ohio, in 1893). Among the early triumphs of the temperance movement was a program known as Scientific Temperance Instruction, a highly successful anti-alcohol education program that taught American schoolchildren the dangers of drinking.

The temperance movement had its share of visible supporters, among them the adventure novelist Jack London, whose book John Barleycorn (1913) preached the virtues of alcohol abstinence. Meanwhile, any candidate running for national office made a point of stumping at temperance organization rallies, to prove his moral worthiness for public service. The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869 in Chicago, devoted its entire political platform to ending alcohol trafficking and consumption in America.

By 1916, nearly half of the states had passed "anti-saloon" legislation; and in 1919, the states ratified the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, officially putting a cork in America's drinking habit with the advent of Prohibition.

Prohibition is credited with giving America many things, among them, the first solid foundation upon which organized crime flourished. AlCapone made millions smuggling liquor and the associated businesses of speakeasies and prostitution. The popularity of the cocktail suddenly soared as drinkers used flavored mixers to mask the unpleasant taste of bathtub gin. The devil-may-care culture of the Roaring Twenties was partly a byproduct of Prohibition, which turned even normally lawabiding citizens into minor criminals in order to enjoy alcoholic beverages.

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 with the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment concluded America's "noble experiment," but most of the small distillers had shut down during Prohibition. Others had switched to the manufacture of chemicals; a handful had continued operations by distilling medicinal alcohol (which had not been banned by Prohibition). As the economy sank into the Great Depression, few distillers possessed either the necessary capital or the marketing capabilities to resume operations.

The remainder of the twentieth century saw a steady return to business for distillers, despite battles over advertising placement, the drinking age, and increased public awareness of the dangers of alcoholism and of driving while intoxicated.

As the twenty-first century began, the distilled spirits industry was generating some $95 billion annually (according to DISCUS). With about 1.3 million people in America employed in the manufacture, distribution, or sales of distilled spirits, distilling remains a significant American industry.

Major mergers and acquisitions in the industry, including the 2001 acquisition of Seagrams by Pernod Ricard (makers of Wild Turkey) and Diageo (owners of such brands as Johnny Walker, Baileys, and Tanqueray), have left once-rival brands living under the same corporate roof. Even as these industry giants combined forces, small-batch makers are once again on the rise with a revival of the old-fashioned distilleries that once dominated the industry.


Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Carson, Gerald. The Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of our Star-Spangled American Drink. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Downard, William. Dictionary of the History of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. 2nd ed. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000

Lender, Mark E. Dictionary of American Temperance Biography: From Temperance Reform to Alcohol Research, the 1600s to the 1980s. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Miron, Jeffrey A. The Effect of Alcohol Prohibition on Alcohol Consumption. Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999.

Walker, Stanley. The Night Club Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. The original was published in 1933.

Zimmerman, Jonathon. Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America's Public Schools, 1880–1925. Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1999.

Laura A.Bergheim
David C.Roller

See alsoAlcohol, Regulation of ; Moonshine ; Prohibition ; Rum Trade ; Temperance Movement ; Whiskey ; Whiskey Rebellion .

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distilling Production of liquor by distillation, especially of ethyl alcohol. In wine, yeast fermentation produces a maximum alcohol content of c.15%. Distillation concentrates alcohol to a much higher degree to produce spirit. Most spirits are c.40% proof.

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