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.

It also gave me a sense of how different Pappy Van Winkle's wheated bourbons must have tasted compared to what people were used to when he opened up the Stitzel-Weller distillery shortly after prohibition ended. Today, the sweeter style of bourbon dominates even in rye recipe bourbons, but back then, Pappy's whiskey would have seemed like a true alternative to the dominant (or formerly dominant) style.

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.


Kevin said...

Man, what an awesome time-warp event to have taken part in.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for yet another informative and interesting post!

I once had the opportunity to taste a pre-Prohibition bourbon. I recall it was distinctly different from modern day products - spicier, with a touch of mint, and very good. However, the obvious caveat applies. We do not know that whiskey remains essentially the same after years in the bottle, even if the bottle is full or nearly full. So, in comparing very old distillates with their modern day equivalents, we cannot separate the effects of old vs. new production techniques from the effects of prolonged bottle age.

That said, it is presumably possible to produce today a bourbon or rye that tastes very similar to those produced years ago and stored for years in the bottle. If anyone has tried to do so, I'll bet it is Buffalo Trace. Somewhere, among their 1000+ experimental barrels, I'll bet there is an attempt or two to recreate this taste of days of yore. Indeed, they have said they are recreating on an experimental basis, the bourbon recipes of E. H. Taylor.

If a distiller can recreate this olde tyme taste, I am sure they will do so since it should be a very good seller. Many folks today really like big, bold whiskeys. Perhaps, however, the only way to get the olde tyme whiskey taste is to store your booze for countless decades in a bottle. If so, too bad!

Tom Troland

sku said...

Tom, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You make an excellent point. These bottles were all in good condition with good fill levels, but with whiskey this old, there is just no way to know if they tasted the same as when they were bottled.

The Scotch industry has tried what you suggest with mixed success. Macallan had its series of replica bottles, though I believe it turned out that some of them were based on whiskies that were not actually as old as they believed. And then there was the Shackleton replica that Whyte & Mackay made.

Still if anyone can make a rye like the old Gibson's, I would snap it up.

sam k said...

I agree to a point with Tom, but I'm of the opinion that if these bottles (a broad sampling from many different mashbills, distillers, and regions) were almost uniformly drinkable, and even very good, that they probably remain somewhat close to their flavor roots.

As the absolute essence of grain, whiskey keeps very well if unopened, I'm confident that the attendees of this event got to taste something close to what they'd have sampled if these were fresh out of the case in the dry years.

I've had the privilege of opening a number of Prohibition bottlings of American whiskeys, and all were somewhere in the same ballpark in terms of consistency of flavor. In fact, I have to agree with Sku...I've had two versions of Prohibition-bottled Gibson's, and they were both amazing, though both were Pennsylvania-distilled, unlike this Illinois version.

An enviable experience in any regard. Thanks for the report. We live vicariously through you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Sku. Very interesting indeed. The one thing that stood out to me even more than the marked difference in taste was the marked difference in age compared to current American whiskey. That seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that says bourbon and rye have traditionally been young and their "sweet spots" are in the 7-10 year range.


sam k said...

For what it's worth Joe, I have tasted some horribly overaged Prohibition whiskeys. In fact, EllenJ claims that this is one of the reasons that there is still a fair amount of Prohibition whiskey around, but almost no pre-Prohibition whiskey with which to compare.

sku said...

Sam the Gibson's was the best of the bunch, a really great rye. I've had one of their old Pennsylvania ryes as well and this was almost as good.

EllenJ said...

Another factor, which is still around today but not as much as it was then, is that whiskey is a COMMODITY, not a hand-crafted product. It never was, at least not the whiskey that would be available in bottles at a liquor store, grocery, or pharmacy. The various whiskey trusts of the time owned virtually all of the brands and all of the product that made it into the Prohibition bonded warehouses, and what they did with them would have made Diageo blush!

Then, when those barrels were "consolidated" in the early '20s things got even worse. They weren't just shipped willy-nilly to "consolidation warehouses" and then vatted together as needed, to be bottled as whatever brand was being bottled that day (after all, they were all already "bonded" whiskey); they also were most likely vatted and then re-barreled to conserve storage space. That "little secret" is still being done today; there's certainly no reason to think it wasn't then.

THAT's why the Prohibition bottlings, or at least a whole lot of them, seem to taste so similar. It also explains why Prohibition-era whiskey distilled "prior to 1916" and then bottled in, say, 1924 tastes so much better than the same whiskey bottled in 1929. It's not just that it got another 5 years of over-aging (which it did, of course) but also because it wasn't the best whiskey to begin with and no one wanted to bottle it until they'd run out of everything else.

Also, another thing to remember in order to really put Prohibition into perspective is that it was NEVER a 14-year hiatus. The very Constitution of the United States had declared that no more beverage alcohol would ever be produced again. EVER!. Nada! Zip! Zilch point shit! The 18th Ammendment is the only amendment EVER to have been repealed; no one saw THAT coming. Well, almost no one. At least not the consumers.

Adam H said...

EllenJ, is there a lot of evidence of the rebarreling you discuss? I can understand it happening here or there for whatever reason, but on the whole It would seem to be a waste of time/effort to do to any large extent, considering that there was ample warehousing space available, consolidation included. But I've admittedly never delved that deeply into the intricacies of consolidation.

These bottles actually didn't all taste very similar to each other. They tasted that way in comparison to today's stuff, but anyone could pretty easily differentiate between them.

EllenJ said...

Adam, you had a chance to taste the better ones; The LA Whiskey Society offered some really good examples; I wish I could have been there with you.

A couple of the bottles that Sku singled out illustrate some of what I'm saying about consolidation.

The Dougherthy's (Country Gentleman) is a good example. As the label clearly states, it is indeed produced by the E.H. Taylor distillery in Frankfort (I'm guessing at today's Buffalo Trace, but possibly at the old castle distillery a couple miles down Glenn creek). Note, though, that the contents are identified as "Whiskey", NOT "Bourbon". I don't believe Taylor made anything but bourbon and perhaps some rye. At least not that they sold as E.H. Taylor. The bottling of this whiskey appears to have been put off until 1932, by which time everyone already knew Prohibition would soon be repealed.

Actually, if Dougherty's had been smart, they'd have reserved that barrel to add to the very young whiskey everyone was going to be stuck trying to sell for the first few years after repeal. Others did do that.

Joseph Finch made rye whiskey. They didn't make anything else. The fact that the label says only "Whiskey" is a dead giveaway that the contents are not 100% Joseph Finch Golden Wedding, regardless of the Bottled-in-Bond status. Remember that most of the qualifications for storage in a bonded (i.e. tax deferred) warehouse went out the window with the Volstead Act. During Prohibition ALL distilled spirits were bottled in bond; there weren't any liquor bottling lines other than in government bonded (and supervised) warehouses. Warehouse consolidation meant, essentially, federal confiscation of what had been privately warehoused product. Upon entry into the bonded warehouse system, the barrel became bonded whiskey. It's origin was likely to be listed as whoever owned it when it was brought to the bonded warehouse. Also, the date of distillation is overwhelmingly 1916 or 1917. Partially that's because distilleries cranked out a lot of raw whiskey in anticipation of Prohibition (remember, possession wasn't against the law; only distillation and distribution), but also because "distilled prior to 1918" was a common default date for whiskey whose actual distillation date wasn't specified.

By the way, notice that neither of those were labeled "straight", which is now (and was before prohibition) a requirement for bottled-in-bond whiskey.

The Old Fitzgerald, OTOH, is a real find, and must have been a total treat for all you lucky bast... folks who got to taste some. The Stitzel Weller distillery opened virtually as the last ring of the Repeal bell was fading out, and their brand was Old Fitzgerald. Of course, they had no aged bourbon to PUT in those bottles yet, and they wouldn't for at least two years (I think they actually waited for 5 years). That bottle was filled with bourbon (wheated bourbon at that) distilled at A. Philip Stitzel's distillery before Repeal. Stitzel had a medicinal spirits license, but I'll bet that whiskey was made in 1928 or 29, when there was a distilling period allowed (to replenish medicinal stock). That would have made it 5 years old when bottled (can't see the other side of the stamp, so that's just a guess). Anyway, I've got an example of early (1937) S/W Old Fitz, but I'd love to have had a chance to taste that one.

As for barrel consolidation, I can tell you a lot about that, but only while we're sitting together sipping fine whiskey. I wouldn't dream of publishing my sources there. I can say, though, that the main reason it's done isn't for anything dishonest; it's just that 100 barrels, each 25% full of whiskey not only takes up four times the space, but also evaporates differently and produces a different quality of whiskey than full barrels. Remember, the vatted contents are being returned to the same barrels, not new ones; just fewer of them.

My Annoying Opinions said...

A fascinating report and a fascinating discussion here as well. Thanks!