Criminals, Congress and other Charletons

A key event in American history in which distilled liquor played a part was, of course, Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, commonly known as the Volstead Act, was passed on October 27, 1919 and was designed to inhibit the sale and therefore production and consumption of liquor. The purpose and evolution of this bill is worthy of a story all its own, but suffice it to say that Prohibition did not work as its designers had intended and was ultimately repealed in 1933.

Meanwhile the major outcome from Prohibition, quite unintended, was the development of organized crime in America. Americans never really stopped consuming liquor, and since it could only be produced and sold illegally, anyone doing so was a criminal. These criminals had a common bond through a lucrative industry, and they learned to work together in an “underground” economy. Like governments, criminals adapt quickly where money is involved.

One side of this economy was the development of a new type of bar. Establishments distributing illegal products could not be advertised in conventional ways, in fact they could not be advertised at all. The only way anyone knew about the existence of such bars was through word of mouth.

People only discussed these places and had discussions in these places with friends and associates, people with whom they felt at ease to speak.

These new bars came to be known as “Speakeasies".

By the time Prohibition ended, the criminal liquor industry was highly developed, so much so that some of these organizations became legitimate legal liquor producers when it became legal. In fact the majority of the big liquor producers who evolved after liquor was again legalized had been illegal producers during Prohibition. Some of these ex-criminals became wealthy, powerful law abiding citizens once their trade was legalized.

This power translated into some new laws. A key such law is the one that defines Bourbon as a distinctly American product, which it obviously is. But that was not officially established by the US Congress until 1964, in Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations (part 5.22). This legislation came almost 100 years after Bourbon was born. Why?

Here is the short explanation: After World War II, distilled spirits, and especially American whiskey, experienced a sales boom. When America entered the Korean conflict, some of the larger American liquor producers assumed that the end of that conflict would result in another such boom. They produced and stored massive amounts of Bourbon in preparation for this boom. But it never happened. Americans instead turned towards vodka and tequila at that point in history. Stockpiles of Bourbon barrels sat untapped.

These Bourbon producers were nervous about the futures of their companies with all that unused product waiting to be consumed. Having Bourbon sitting in barrels and aging was not a bad thing, but generating no revenue with it was. And much worse: after the Korean conflict some trade barriers with the eastern orient had been broken down. What if the eastern orient decided to make their own version of Bourbon and export that to the best market for it: the US?


As mentioned, these Bourbon producers were powerful and politically connected, so they went to the US Congress and presented the case that Bourbon was uniquely American and evolved from a grain unique to America, maize. As a result, they argued, Bourbon should be established as a uniquely American product. Finally in 1964 Congress agreed, and Bourbon was declared a distinct product of the US to be produced, as such, only in the US. Once again Bourbon had cast its place in forging America.

There are so many stories surrounding the evolution of America’s whiskey. Many of them do not even involve consumption of the product in order to be appreciated. In fact, in the past 10 years Bourbon has become more than a consumable product. It is America’s hottest cultural export, like blues, country, and rock and roll music, vintage cars and motorcycles, or “zoot suits” and poodle skirts. It represents our history, our optimism and our creativity.

America’s cultural exports often start with humble and homegrown beginnings but eventually become our world signature. Bourbon is that latest world signature and, thus far, the most enduring. Venerable old American master distillers are now viewed by the world as the new “rock stars”. And as a consumable product, Bourbon has become one of the top selling liquors in the world. 

That story continues to evolve.