Wednesday, April 16, 2014
The Five Eras of American Whiskey
Thinking and reading about the post-prohibition history of American whiskey, I find the period breaks down into 20 year increments. These aren't perfect, of course, as history doesn't include bright lines, but there are certainly some undeniable trends. So I present the Five Eras of American whiskey.
1933-1950: The Rebuild. After the repeal of prohibition, American whiskey tried to get back up on its feet again only to be knocked back down by World War II which saw another prohibition on beverage alcohol production. It really took until the late 1940s to get things moving again.
1950-1970: The Classic Era. The whiskey flowed in the Mad Men era. For the most part, the juice wasn't fancy, but it was good, strong and plentiful. This is the era when Maker's Mark was founded and Jack Daniel's got big with the help of Frank Sinatra. It was the heyday of National Distillers with Old Crow, Old Taylor and Old Overholt. And some of the best bourbon ever made came out of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the Classic Era.
1970-1990: The Glut. This was a tough time for American whiskey as the baby boomers became America's first wine drinking generation. Distilleries were consolidated and closed, and the industry looked toward gimmicks like light whiskey to try and increase sales to the me generation.
1990-2010: The Renaissance (aka the Golden Age). As a new generation of drinkers came of age, the whiskey industry fought its way back to prominence. It started with a few small batch and single barrel releases and blossomed into the era that brought us A.H. Hirsch, Pappy Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Four Roses' triumphant return to the US market. It also saw the birth of the craft distillery movement and the revival of rye whiskey.
2010-present: The Bourbon Craze. I don't have to tell you about today's market. The Renaissance of the last era led to a full-on craze. Every other day there's a new special edition from the majors, the craft distillery movement has exploded, and everyone's experimenting, but demand for old, high quality whiskey has far outstripped supply and scarcity is a major issue. Prices are climbing while age and proof are falling.
What's next? The crash? The Second Revival? A New Classic Age? Time will tell, but based on the timelines above, I'm guessing the current era will last for a while.