Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Those Were the Days: Prohibition Era Bourbons
It's hard to fathom the impact prohibition had on whiskey production in the United States. Keep in mind that while prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, it came right on the heels of a wartime ban on spirits production which was in effect during World War I, such that almost no whiskey (outside of the few producers who received medicinal licenses) was produced in the Untied States for sixteen years, from 1917 to 1933.
Imagine if all spirits production in the US halted now and did not resume until 2029 or if we were just coming out of a prohibition that started in 1997. All of the innovation and development that led to our current whiskey boom wouldn't have happened. There would have been no Pappy Van Winkle, no Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, no Parker's Heritage Collection, no Four Roses Single Barrel, and no craft distilleries at all.
The enormity of that gap became apparent to me as I tasted through a series of prohibition era whiskeys at the LA Whiskey Society. All of the whiskeys we tasted were distilled prior to prohibition (mostly in 1916 and 1917) and released either as medicinal whiskeys during prohibition or after repeal. There were six bourbons, three ryes and three simply labeled as "whiskey." All were 100 proof Bottled in Bond and ranged from seven to seventeen years old. The tasting included whiskeys distilled in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and their distilleries and brands carried names that are now legendary: Albert Blanton, George T. Stagg, Stitzel, Dant, Gibson, WA Gaines, Joseph Finch and EH Taylor.
The most striking thing to me about this tasting was not only how different these whiskeys were from today's but how similar they were to each other. The overriding flavor note on almost all of the whiskeys was a bold, spicy rye. This makes sense given that rye was America's primary whiskey in the pre-prohibition era. Even the bourbons lacked the sweetness that I associate with today's bourbons, in favor of a hefty dose of spice. Some of those bourbons had a stronger rye flavor than some of today's ryes, and the rye flavor is of a different character with more sandalwood and wood spice notes. This was an entire style of American whiskey that was lost to prohibition.
People who taste Scotches from a similar era often note that the peating level was much higher even on whiskeys we think of today as not having much in the way of peat, like Macallan. Of course, peat is what they used to cook the barley, but the phenomenon of these bold and spicy American whiskeys makes me wonder if perhaps people simply appreciated bolder flavored spirits back then.
Were these ancient whiskeys good? Most were quite good, some were great, and a few were bad, not unlike many other tastings I've done. You can find detailed descriptions, bottle photos and links to tasting note in the LA Whiskey Society's post Medicinal Whiskey: A Tasting from Prohibition.
Photos by FussyChicken.