Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

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Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Mar 04, 2005 10:57 am

Prohibition had a huge effect on the taste of the product that we call bourbon today. For 13 years people had to drink products that were distilled before 1918 (War time prohibition stopped production of beverage alcohol that year and was never repealed before national prohibition took effect). This meant the legal "medicinal alcohol" was often to old and woody by the time the consumer purchased it. The good illegal products were often cut with grain neutral spirits or water. The best spirits that could be purchased were imports from Canada or Scotland, smuggled in and expensive.

When prohibition was repealed the industry had decided that the consumer wanted a lighter product, because the "good stuff" that they were used to drinking was all lighter in flavor. This led to higher distillation proof and eventually higher barrel proof.

Another change was the regulation and definitions that were standardized after prohibition. The biggest change here is the use of only new, charred oak barrels. Every straight bourbon or rye made after 1 March 1938 had to be placed in a new charred oak barrel. It was common practice before this time to reuse some of the barrels even though the majority of the product was placed in new charred oak barrels. Remember, before prohibition there was a big market for whiskey by the barrel and you could still purchase the product straight from the barrel at your local saloon or drugstore. This meant that most empty barrels were in the hands of the consumer, not the distillery. This meant that many people were drinking single barrel, unfiltered, barrel proof product before prohibition.

Prohibition changed the way America drank its bourbon and the bourbon that they drank. I just hought it was interesting that the products that consumers consider top notch and are willing to pay the extra money for are the same products that the industry decided after prohibition, people did not want.

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Unread postby bunghole » Fri Mar 04, 2005 12:42 pm

Them there's the good old days, Professor Veach!

I'd love to be able to pop into RiteAid and buy a barrel of Bourbon for $50!

They don't call me bunghole for nothin'!

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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Jun 26, 2008 3:20 pm

I am getting ready to give a talk at the Filson tomorrow on doing business during prohibition and I thought I would look at some of these old posts. It is interesting that many blended whiskeys were "Bonded" when they went into a prohibition consolidation warehouse and were sold as "Bonded" whiskey during prohibition. They would have been 4 years old by 1926 and they would have been bottled at 100 proof, but they were not all from the same distiller and most had been flavored with caramel coloring and other such things. I do wonder what a blended whiskey aged in the barrel for about 6 years would taste like. I have had some aged for 13 years, but not 6years.
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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby PaulO » Fri Jun 27, 2008 10:46 am

Here are a few other things to think about. The machine that makes inexpensive standard sized bottles was invented around 1914. Prior to that retailers sold a lot of items in bulk. A customer might come in and have their flask or quart bottle filled from the barrel. Or the retailer would fill empty bottles they had on hand as needed. So if some one had a barrel with whiskey in it, it kept aging pretty much the same as in the rick house. I realize there were companies that sold bottled and labeled whiskies prior to 1914. After the automatic machine this was more common. Another concern for consumers back in the day was watered down whiskey or other funny business.
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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Jul 11, 2008 12:43 pm

The barrel was indeed a primary sales package up to prohibition. This was a double edgeed sword in the fact that people were getting barrel proof, unfiltered single barrel whiskey, that is unles the owner of the barrel did water it down or add flavoring (or both). Even so, it would be nice to have that option once again. I think Linn had suggested that the distilleries should be allowed to sell from the barrel at the distillery. The problem there is that barrel proof has gone from an average of 100 proof to an aveverage of 125 proof in the 20th century. Selling Stagg proof whiskey would be a difficult task. The distiller would have to determine the amount of whiskey in the barrel and the proof of the whiskey, pay the taxes and add that cost to the cost of the whiskey. Then you would have to decide how much "angel share" would be lost before the barrel was emptied, because not only would the whiskey continue to age in the barrel, it would continue to evaporate.
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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby MauiSon » Sat Jul 14, 2012 12:34 am

That idea reeks of gimmickry, but would be easy to implement - empty the barrel, proof, weigh and refill. You know the barrel will be emptied in a matter of weeks, if not hours (on announced 'special occasions'), the ensuing angel's share would be slight.
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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby shoshani » Fri Jul 27, 2012 9:45 am

It would also seem that, prior to Prohibition, a lot of distilleries had licensed agents to handle both their marketing and distribution in specific territories. The agents would have exclusive bottling rights and are often named on the product labels of various whiskeys sold in their territories.

This arrangement did not always work to everyone's satisfaction. According to a 1909 report from New Hampshire, quite a few highly respected brands (Old Charter and Old Crow among them), having been bottled by these rectifier-agents rather than at/by the distillery, were analyzed and found to be adulterated and misbranded. You can see the report here: http://books.google.com/books?id=OVRY4Wpmx0sC&pg=RA1-PA261&lpg=RA1-PA261&dq=whiskey+misbranded&source=bl&ots=DJUE1yZ6WS&sig=RLhlT7_674E788dlxRDIw-10TtI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hpkSUIW4AYaAqgGaqYGYCA&ved=0CFQQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=whiskey%20misbranded&f=false (It spans several pages, so some scrolling will be necessary.)

As I recall, one of the effects of Prohibition or the end thereof was to require distilleries to bottle their own product for distribution to the retail consumer, rather than shipping in bulk and relying on outsiders to do this. This could be a reason why.
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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Jul 27, 2012 9:58 am

I don't think I have ever seen a regulation "requiring" the distiller to bottle their own product/brands, but with the three tier system, it would end the previous arrangements you mentioned, making it more economical for the distilleries to bottle their own product. I think this goes back even to the Taft Decision since the straight whiskey producers had more reason to control the quality of their brands. Between the new definitions of what "straight" whiskey was and the Bottled-in-Bond regulations, the distillers started taking control of the brands begining about the turn of the 20th century but really gaining momentum in 1910. By the beginning of prohibition, bonded whiskey was catching on with the public and the distilleries were bottling their own whiskey brands. They were still selling by the barrel but bottled-in-bond was beginning to surpass the sale by the barrel
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Re: Prohibition and the taste of bourbon

Unread postby EllenJ » Fri Jul 27, 2012 4:43 pm

Wow, Shoshani, that certainly whups yo' haid around a bit, don't it?

One must (and any reasonable student of whiskey history does) understand that some (in fact, lots) of the "information" offered to promote the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 is, shall we say questionable. Harvey Wiley, for example, is often demonized as being so obsessed with the "potential" for fraudulent marketing of really dangerous products as "fine old bourbon whiskey" as to make his reports and "the sky is falling" speeches almost as hard to swallow as those of some current talk-radio pundants and politicians. But the statistics, so well documented in this report, really do seem to back up much of what he was trying to convey.

As are you... and I, too, although possibly towards different perceptions.

I have long maintained, against the "common knowledge", that nearly ALL of the beverage alcohol we think of (and that was labeled as) "Bourbon" or "Rye" whiskey (or Cognac, Scotch, or Caribbean Rum) that normal Americans (i.e., those not local to the distilleries themselves) purchased or drank were manufactured compounds. Especially the ones whose brands became famous and returned (with all of their prestige) after Prohibition ended.

My difference with Wiley et al is that I believe most of that product was produced by merchants whose goal was to provide the best possible product for their customers, and that only a few were the "evil poisoners" often described. I have in my possession examples of fine pre-Pure Food & Drug Act bourbon and Maryland rye whiskey whose quality and complexity of flavor, in tastings that have included many of the folks writing here, exceeds anything being sold today. In some cases I suspect these to be the very same "compounded" and "mis-branded" whiskies described in the report. In other cases, I know for a fact that this is true. And, while the bourbon being marketed today is certainly consistantly good, it isn't as good as it was a few decades ago, before federal deregulation allowed it to be made more cheaply; and it's absolutely not as good as it could be, were artisan distillers and consciencious bottlers allowed to make the sort of alterations they once did before the beginning of the 20th century.

Do I, therefore, believe such beverages should be allowed to called "bourbon" or "rye"? NO!!
But I believe those who claim to enjoy "only the finest straight bourbon or rye" might do well to prepare yourselves for (1) a severe drop in the number of new drinkers (and old) who agree with you, and/or (2) the knowledge that perhaps the flavors you once thought straight whiskey to the best examples of, maybe aren't; and that you can dare to prefer some of the new products despite what your grandfather would say. :D
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