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Whisk(e)y in the USA

by Hans Offringa, 09/06

This is a two-part feature. Go to part I

Part II: the prohibition years and beyond

Gangsters like Al Capone made a fortune from the illegal trade in whiskey that was smuggled into the US via Canada and the Bahamas. The most famous whiskey-smuggler was Captain McCoy, known for his excellent contraband. His name became a synonym for good quality whiskey. In the speakeasies people started asking for 'The Real McCoy' when they wanted some of the Captain's finest uncut whiskey.

Ultimately, Prohibition only caused the opposite of what was intended. People actually drank more than ever during those dark years. For the Scots it wasn't dark at all, because they overthrew the Irish and American whiskey monopoly by shipping huge quantities of blended whisky to Canada and the relatively safe Bahamas. One of the brands Captain McCoy became famous for was Cutty Sark.

Once Prohibition ended, Americans overwhelmingly wanted to drink Scotch. Bourbon was dismissed as rancid and belonging to the domain of cheap, badly written detective stories. Even in whiskey cocktails Bourbon lost its place to blended whisky. On top of that, the Hollywood used Scotch in most of its movies. Indigenous whiskeys were reduced to the back rooms and back shelves. Europe didn't even see Bourbon.

Remarkably enough, the rise of single malt Scotch whiskies at the end of the 1980s also signalled a turning point for the American whiskey industry. The consumer became interested in Bourbon again and discovered along the way that US distillers produced beautiful, matured whiskeys like Blanton's Single Barrel, Pappy van Winkle's Family Reserve, Knob Creek (named after Abraham Lincoln's house) and Woodford Reserve.


Some states and counties in the US are still 'dry,' including parts of Tennessee. In Moore County, where the Jack Daniel distillery is located, it is forbidden to sell whiskey. However, Neighbouring Lincoln County is allowed to sell alcohol, so people hop over to Lincoln, buy their stash and return to Lynchburg. Apparently, whilst selling the stuff in a dry county is illegal, drinking it is not.

The renewed interest in American whiskey has led to the production of 'small batch whiskeys,' some produced by micro-distilleries. They experiment with new varieties and bottle small quantities of rye whiskey, wheated whiskey and even single malts. A brief look at a few of them reveals a wider range of whiskeys than ever before.

   Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, California, originally a brewery (Anchor Steam Beer), produces a 100 per cent single rye whiskey called Old Potrero (pictured left). But this is not the only distillery in the west.

For more than eight years St James Spirits has distilled 'Peregrine Rock California Pure Single Malt Whiskey.' From Domaine Charby in nearby Napa Valley not only wine originates but also a Charby Whiskey, bottled unfiltered and offered at barrel strength (not diluted). Since 2000 Woodstone Creek whiskey has been made in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The motto 'small is beautiful' certainly applies to the farm annex distillery of Isaiah Morgan in West Virginia. Here Southern Moose corn liquor and rye whiskey has been made since 2002. In Denver, Colorado, a whiskey distiller launched Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey in 2004.

The production capacity of these micro-distilleries is small, sometimes even as little as one to three barrels a day. They are not widely available since almost the entire output is sold locally. In the rare event that you come across a bottle of, for instance, Old Potrero in another country, you will be shocked by the price. It can be equivalent to that of a 30-year-old scotch single malt!

Whiskey is s also still made in the old distilling state of Virginia. Virginia Gentleman, with no less than 85 per cent corn in the mash bill, is a sweet, smooth straight Bourbon. However, production takes place in two distilleries: the first part being carried out by Buffalo Trace (in Kentucky!) and the second by A. Smith Bowman.

George Washington's original distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia is in the process of being reconstructed, and will surely set an example for the micro-distilleries that are creating a small revolution in the American whiskey industry. Not everyone in the US listens to the 'Big is Beautiful' mantra.

Like Speyside in Scotland, Kentucky is the region with the largest concentration of distilleries in the US, and will surely remain so. The major players in Kentucky distilling also experiment with new variations and innovations. Vintage whiskeys are regularly released, and it is only a matter of time before special wood finishes appear on the US market.

According to the journalist who wrote the article in the Wall Street Journal “wood finishes are hot” in the US. Well, let them come. The whisk(e)y world will only benefit from them.


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