The Reawakening of the American Whiskey Business
When prohibition ended, not everyone was happy about it. Dry Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, one of the authors of the Eighteenth Amendment, had delivered a speech on January 16, the eve of the date that Prohibition went into effect, every year since 1920. In February 1933, he conducted what Time magazine described as "a pathetic one-man filibuster against Repeal" His oration lasted over eight hours but nonetheless, the Senate voted the following day to take up the Repeal resolution by 58 votes to 23. Prohibition finally ended at 5:32 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, on December 5, 1933.
During the months preceding Repeal, speculation was rife about how the liquor industry would handle the expected new business. One thing was certain: There would be major changes in the way the industry conducted itself Once again, it would be those with deep pockets who could afford to cope with the new regulations that came with Repeal.
The whiskey producers of America were somewhat nervous that much of their audience was gone. Since good straight whiskey was hard to come by during the dry years, the public had become accustomed to gin. Why gin? Mainly because gin was what the bootleggers had decided to make, with good reason: It is relatively simple to take unaged spirits straight from the still, add a little oil of juniper and create gin-not London Dry Gin, a distinctive spirit with a host of natural flavors lovingly distilled into it, but a very crude form of what is now called "compound" gin. a less expensive substitute. During Prohibition, not only did the aromatic juniper help disguise just how poorly the liquor had been made, it also gave the drinking public what they wanted-a highly flavorful spirit. Since most people were used to the bold body and heady flavors of good whiskey, gin was far preferable to vodka, a spirit that was virtually unknown in America at the time. Even by 1939, when Charles H. Baker Jr.'s excellent book The Gentleman's Companion was published, the author noted that vodka was "'unnecessary to medium or small bars."
There was, however, another factor that worried the post-Prohibition whiskey men: their supplies of aged whiskey were critically low. December 1933 saw an America with only about 20 million gallons of whiskey on hand, compared with the more than 60 million gallons of surplus whiskey when Prohibition began. Most of what there was had been distilled just the previous year or so during the "distilling holidays" allowed by the government once Repeal was in sight. The Canadians and the Scots, on the other hand, had plenty of aged whiskey, and they were champing at the bi, to ship it into the United States. One immediate solution to the American distillers' problem was to sell blended rather than straight whiskey, thereby "stretching" the good stuff with neutral spirits and flavorings. The hope was that it would tide them over for a few years until they had enough aged straight whiskey to please the public. What they weren't considering, of course, was that once the public grew accustomed to blended whiskey, chances were they would never return to the "pure" stuff. Here's a list of the whiskey distillers still remaining in the game after Prohibition ended:
- The biggest whiskey company was the National Distillers Products Company, a reputable company formed in the 1920s that was an indirect offshoot of the disreputable Whiskey Trust of the late nineteenth century. In 1933, National owned approximately 50 percent of all of the whiskey in America along with a number of notable distilleries such as the Wathen Distillery (Old Grand-Dad, Old Taylor and Old Crow), the Overholt Distillery (Old Overholt) and three other distilleries that produced straight whiskey. The company was acquired by the Jim Beam Brands Company in the 1980s.
- The James B. Beam Distilling Company was formed in 1933. It was purchased in the 1960s by what is now the American Brands Company and is currently called the Jim Beam Brands Company. It now owns the Old Taylor, Old Crow, Old Overholt and Old Grand-Dad brand names, in addition to four small-batch bourbons-Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek and Basil Hayden's-and its signature Jim Beam whiskeys.
- Schenley, under the guidance of its owner, Lewis Rosenstiel, had acquired a number of distilleries, brand names and quite a stock of whiskey during Prohibition. By 1934, his company owned the George T. Stagg Distillery (Ancient Age) and the James E. Pepper Distillery (James E. Pepper whiskey) among others. I.W. Harper, Old Charter and Cascade (George A. Dickel) brand names were purchased by Schenley in the late 19305. and Schenley itself was later acquired by United Distillers.
- The George T. Stagg Distillery went on to become the Ancient Age Distillery and was sold before Schenley was taken over. The plant is now owned by the Sazerac Company and produces Ancient Age, Eagle Rare, Benchmark and a range of single-barrel bourbons-Blanton1s, Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee and Hancock's Reserve.
- The Stitzel distillery joined forces with the Weller company to form Stitzel- Weller. The company bought the Old Fitzgerald brand name in 1933 and went on to become pan of United Distillers in the 1980s.
- Glenmore Distilleries (Kentucky Tavern, among others) survived Prohibition well and went on to become a major producer and importer of a number of liquor and liqueurs. The company was acquired by United Distillers in 1991.
- Brown-Forman (Old Forester, EarIy Times) had a supply of aged whiskey on hand to kick off the 1933 celebrations. After the company's 1934 fiscal year didn't turn out to be as profitable as predicted, its president, Owsley Brown, did the honorable thing and offered half of his stock to his disappointed investors in lieu of a dividend, The company went on to buy the Jack Daniel Distillery in the 1950s.
- Frankfort Distilleries (owners of the Four Roses brand) survived the dry years and was bought by the Seagram company in the 1940s.
- Leslie Samuels (Maker's Mark) reopened his Dearsville distillery in 1933 and sold TW, Samuels Bourbon (named for the first Samuels to open a commercial distillery). His son, another T. W. Samuels, took over the operation after Leslie's death and ran it until 1943. After taking a IO-year sabbatical from the industry, he returned to his whiskey roots, bought a plant in Loretto that he named Star HiIl Farm and started to produce Maker's Mark Bourbon in 1953.
- The Tom Moore Distillery was reopened as the Barton Distillery after Prohibition. It was later taken over by Oscar Getz and is now owned by Barron Brands 'Whiskeys made at this distillery include Very Old Barton. Ten High, Kentucky Gentleman, Colonel Lee, Tom Moore and Barclay's.
- A. Smith Bowman, a farmer in Virginia who had been in the whiskey business prior to Prohibition, started making Virginia Gentleman Bourbon in 1935.
- In 1935, a group of investors opened the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown. The Shapira Family, owners of this distillery, now produce Heaven Hill, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, J:r.s. Brown and Mattingly & Moore bourbon as well as Pikesville Supreme Rye Whiskey.
- Also in 1935, the Austin Nichols company; previously concerned solely with the food business, took an interest in whiskey and other liquors. In 1942, they introduced Wild Turkey bourbon to the marketplace.
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