View Full Version : Prohibition Distilleries?

12-03-2004, 23:01
I was reading the back label on a bottle of Stagg. It says that Stagg was one of four distilleries that operated during Prohibition. I was wondering how it was legal for distillieries to operate during Prohibition.

I did a search and there are references by Chuck and Veach to "medicinal whiskey." But I haven't yet found out what medicinal whiskey was or is. So, what were these distilleries doing during Prohibition? And what is medicinal whiskey?


12-04-2004, 04:11
In 1919 America enacted National Prohibition. This banned the manufacture, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages subject to narrow exceptions only. One was for sacramental wine. Another was the use of alcohol for medical (medicinal) purposes provided a doctor's prescription authorised such use. The medical term for grain ethanol, spiritus frumenti, was often used in prescriptions. All whiskey on hand when Prohibition started (i.e., not sold at retail and aging in cask) was ultimately collected and stored. It was put in a few warehouses under government supervision known as concentration warehouses. Companies were formed to engage in the market for medicinal spirits. The main one was American Medicinal Spirits Corporation, which was merged in the late 1920's with a company that before 1920 was a major distiller and after was making industrial alcohol. This business emerged at Prohibition's end in late 1933 as National Distillers Corporation (which engaged until the 1980's in bourbon and other alcohol production).

The AMS Company sold the pre-1920 bourbon, rye and some blended whiskey through pharmacies which dispensed the liquor on submission of a doctor's prescription. There was something of the fast and loose in this in that some doctors were known to be an easy touch to prescribe liquor, so it became for many a gambit to circumvent the law. Because the pre-Prohibition stocks of whiskey were being used up to supply this medicinal (?) whiskey the law authorised some distilling to ensure enough whiskey would be available for the prescription system. A number of distilleries were licensed for this purpose including the company that is now Sazerac in Frankfort, KY (then Geo. T. Stagg or similar name). My understanding is they distilled whiskey four times between 1919 and 1934 under the special licenses. I believe some was distilled in 1921 and would have been sold later on through the pharmacies (i.e., after being aged a few years). This whiskey, from everything I have read, was, as the pre-Prohibition stocks, regular bourbon, rye or blended whiskey. It was not dosed with anything special to make it medicinal. So, say in 1931 people could buy through the pharmacies with a doctor's prescription whiskey that was at least 10 years old and often was older, say 15 years old. This was an apparent anomaly: the sale of fine old whiskey, for medicine, in an era which banned liquor for social uses.

The packages in which such whiskey was sold often displayed the old brand names. Although some bottles were dressed down to look like drugstore-type medicine bottles, the labelling made them look much like whiskey bottles of the pre-Prohibition era.

Whether the whiskey advertised on the labels (e.g. "Old Grandad") really was the brand in the bottle is hard to say. Probably, surviving pre-Prohibition distillery bottles and labelling stock were used regardless of what was in the bottle; why spend money printing up new labels?. The old labels may have accurately branded some medicinal whiskey but once the barrels of that brand were used up another distillery's whiskey sitting in the warehouse might have been put in those same bottles. It is not clear if people had a choice of brands in the drugstore (was there "brand" competition, price points?) or any real guarantee of the origin of the whiskey they were buying; then too they were not in a position to be too particular, no siree, people took what they could get, I am quite sure. Certainly legitimate whiskey, from the concentration warehouses or the newer licensed production, was used in the bottles; it was spiritus frumenti and that was guarantee enough.

Not all the pre-1920 stock was gone when Prohibition ended in late 1933. After Prohibition, some of that stock continued to be sold, now without prescription, but it was fast disappearing from the market. Some was used by distillers to blend into the newer whiskey made after 1919 under the license system. Some was stretched with neutral grain spirit or (very new) whiskey made after 1933 to sell as American blended whiskey (whiskey similar to, say, Seven Crown or the Canadian whisky of today). Some of the whiskey released to the post-1933 market was a compound of these various types. Companies such as Stagg were amongst the fortunate few that had conducted some distilling during the 1920's and early 1930's and they simply ramped-up for the post-Prohibition business.

But certainly all companies in 1934 were furiously distilling to supply the new legal market. It took however 3 or 4 years until they could offer that whiskey in decently aged form (say by 1937 or so). Before 1937 the good bourbon and rye available would have been the little left from before 1920 or what was made during Prohibition under the special production licenses but usually these were blended or mixed in some way to make them go further. There was bad whiskey available after 1933 for some years because it was too young, e.g., straight whiskey made in 1934 and sold in 1936 would have been raw. Prohibition changed America's taste in liquor, it made people go more for blended whisky because of the large amount of bootlegged Canadian blended whisky sold during the Roaring Twenties (which became in the consumers' mind a substitute for real rye whiskey which contributed to the blurring of the latter's image and ultimate decline), and Prohibition made them go for Scotch too because Scotch also was bootlegged heavily in that era. Ditto gin and cocktails made from gin (martinis).

Prohibition was the "Noble Experiment", it didn't last and people to this day argue about its effects. Certainly it changed forever American whiskey because while bourbon and some rye emerged ultimately after 1933 in the same form as before, the industry became smaller due to the new legal structure that applied to manufacture and distribution. That system still exists as you see when people talk about not being able to get certain products in certain States, or the fact that the government sells liquor by monopoly in some States. Fewer producers existed after 1933 than before the Volstead Act (the law which enacted National Prohibition) but many became large producers, and again post-Prohibition laws favoured that. On the other hand, other laws passed in the 1930's defined what could be sold as straight whiskey, so quality was assured for those who wanted to buy genuine bourbon or rye after Volstead was repealed (by a Constitutional Amendment).

Who were the post-Volstead players? Some were pre-Prohibition companies that had no special production licences during Prohibition and had to refurbish or rebuild plant and start up again after 1933. Others were completely new operations, e.g., Heaven Hill, started in 1935. But Sazerac was an operating distillery during Prohibition albeit intermittently, when it could get a permit to make new whiskey to be sold for medicine. Probably that gave the company an edge on new entrants because it had maintained some plant, distilling expertise, formulas.

Hence the statements on the rear label of the modern George Stagg straight bourbon whiskey. They offer a warrant of tradition, of continuity with whiskey as it was before 1920 and are not just advertising bumph. Sazerac is not the only company to make very good whiskey but its credentials are enhanced by the fact that Volstead never quite closed it down.


12-04-2004, 12:17
Gary, what a great post. I'm e-mailing that to a couple of friends. I appreciate your taking the time to write down so much. It was all fascinating.

Of course today we know that moderate drinking is medicinal. The Dutch Allzheimers study shows a 42% reduction in Allzheimers and dementia for someone drinking between 1-3 drinks per day. And I've read that the heart benefit studies are applicable to all alcoholic beverages, and not just red wine.

You may have answered another question that I've been thinking about lately. Why is it that Americans are so ignorant about American whiskey? My parents generation is in their late seventies and early eighties. None of my or my wife's folks have ever heard of a wheated bourbon. It looks like for some of these people bourbon is Jim Beam white. But it's to be used in making cocktails. For the most part there are no whiskey sippers. But every once and a while there's a nonconformist who sips the good stuff neat. But "the good stuff" always turns out to be Jack Daniels, the high brow whiskey. Wrbriggs said something interesting the other day. He said he began exploring bourbon after trying the Jim Beam small batch group. And I started exploring bourbon after reading a review of Buffalo Trace in the Malt Advocate. So what you say about Prohibition might explain why good American whiskey is something of a cultural secret here.

The Canadian, British, Australian, and Swedish participants of this board might be disappointed were they to fly over here expecting to talk shop with the locals.

Thanks again very much.

12-04-2004, 12:39
My Great Grandfather, Joseph L. Beam and one of his seven Distiller son's (Roy) made "Medicinal Whiskey" in 1929 for "Pappy VanWinkle"...I am not exactly positive on that date without looking it up in my records but I betcha it's really close http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif Bettye Jo http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

12-04-2004, 17:04
One was for sacramental wine

I never even considered that until seeing it in your post. I wonder now how much wine was made and consumed during prohibition. It's fairly easy to do and well within the grasp of anyone that had a kitchen, and a little space. They had difficulty enforcing as it were, of course nothing would surprize me, but I do not think a large force would have been dispatched to raid homes for wine making.

12-04-2004, 17:36
My parents generation is in their late seventies and early eighties. None of my or my wife's folks have ever heard of a wheated bourbon. It looks like for some of these people bourbon is Jim Beam white.

Interesting you should mention this. My grandfather, who is 90 years old, refuses to drink bourbon. He says it's little better than moonshine, and in his day, that was probably true. Prohibition almost killed American whiskey, and bourbon and rye are still fighting to shrug off the bad reputation they received as a result of this.

12-04-2004, 21:09
One of the reasons Italian food (specifically, Southern Italian cuisine) became so popular in the U.S. among non-Italians is that during Prohibition many Italians started small restaurants in their homes and served in those restaurants their own home made wine. Although this certainly was prohibited by Volsted, it was largely winked at. People initially would go to these places for the wine but found that they really liked the food too.

12-05-2004, 00:17
I think that's right Bobby, and what Chuck later said about Italian food entering the mainstream via homes offering draughts of home made wine is very interesting.

My sense always was that Prohibition essentially was gunning for whiskey, to stop the spirits trade and consumption of hard liquor. Yes, Volstead applied to fermented drinks too but I think its heart and soul was to stop whiskey from being an element in American social and family life. The people that designed National Prohibition knew, I think, that home wine and beer makers could easily sidestep the law, but it was the distillers that Volstead really wanted to eradicate from American life.


12-05-2004, 05:47
I'm not quite sure that's true Gary. Beer consumption was much greater at the time than spirits and taverns were everywhere. The lower working class drinker was more likely to quaff his thirst after a long hard day of work with a beer than with spirits IMHO.

12-05-2004, 06:03
I don't disagree that Prohibitionists wanted the beer and wine trades stopped no less than the spirits trade. Yet, I think they had to know enforcement would be much dicier where people could make wine at home easily. Not only Southern European immigrants made wine, fruit and vegetable-based wines were common in New England and many parts of the country. Beer is somewhat more complicated to make and maybe Volstead thought it could stop widespread beer drinking but my sense is it was known wine making at least would continue illicitly and possibly some family-scale brewing. Until relatively recently many people who opposed alcohol had a different attitude to beer and wine. While Prohibition sought teetotalism (Temperance total to the "t", i.e., including wine and beer) I think in terms of what the Volstead Act thought it could control, it was felt the liquor trade was the main enemy. I say this because large scale distilling enabled mass whiskey drinking. This was true for beer but beer could (with more difficulty than wine) be made at home and I feel Prohibitionists had to know this. Distilling at home is more complicated to do. I think supporters of the Act felt most people wouldn't go to the trouble especially in urban areas. They knew illicit distilling would continue in remote parts of Appalaichia and elsewhere but I don't think that was a prime concern either, because the activity would remain local. Of course, even though Volstead supporters knew some illicit winemaking and brewing would continue, they counted on the ban on public sale and distribution to cause consumption to drop (which I think it did but I haven't seen data on this).

By the way I agree with Dave it is remarkable a consensus was reached on the passage of the Act to the extent of securing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, quite extraordinary.


12-05-2004, 18:10
What terrific posts, especially today on the anniversary of repeal. Prohibition brought my grandfather's distillery literally to its knees. As prohibition wore on more and more whisky was consolidated from the individual distilleries into the government warehouses. My grandfather's distillery, the H.E. Pogue Distillery, shipped its last barrel to the consolidated warehouse in Louisville in August 1926. For the years prior to that time the whisky was withdrawn with government issued "warehouse receipts" for medicinal purposes. We also bottled an 18 year old whisky for "medicinal purposes" during prohibition called "Old Jordan". (Interestingly, my grandfather became a consultant to T.W. Samuels after Prohibition and T.W. Samuels then made the "Old Jordan" brand. I have a pint of my grandfather's Old Jordan from the 1920s and a mini of the T.W. Samuels from the 1930s). It is my understanding each physician was limited to prescribing 12 pints per month for medicinal purposes. Not much to get the public what they needed so hence the bootleggers. A fascinating read on Prohibition, including the politics surrounding the whole era, is The Long Thirst, Prohibition in America: 1920-1933, by Thomas M. Coffey, which I am reading for the third time right now. It's amazing what new gems you pick up each time you reread an insightful book like this.
Peter H. Pogue

12-05-2004, 20:25
Waymack and Harris in The Book of Classic American Whiskeys state that the distillery now called Sazerac did not produce whiskey during Prohibition. It did operate as a collection warehouse and bottler of whiskey sold under the medical prescriptions. Therefore, I interpret the statement greenbob referred to on the back of the Stagg bottle in this latter sense. My former e-mail stands corrected because I stated the distillery made whiskey during Prohibition under a special license; that appears not to have been the case (which of itself takes nothing away from Sazerac, a fine distiller indeed. Waymack and Harris note Colonel Blanton managed the distillery from 1912 to 1952, an amazing 40 years, and one can assume that stewardship assured the maintenance of tradition at Leestown even though the stills didn't fire up again until 1933 by which time Schenley was in control which assured the modernization of the plant).


12-05-2004, 20:40
Gary, their own historical literature states they were one of four distilleries 'licensed to operate' during Prohibition. Whether this means they actually produced, I don't know. But, the tour guides certainly leave that impression.

12-05-2004, 23:03
The "license" basically meant they could bottle and sell whiskey to pharmacists. They needed additional, explicit permission to make more, i.e., to distill, which wasn't forthcoming until near the end of Prohibition when stocks had dwindled. It was also a recognition that repeal was coming. The license always contemplated that those licensed facilities would be the ones who would distill when the time came, but no one made any whiskey legally until pretty late in the game.

12-06-2004, 05:32
Some time ago I found an old copy of Fortune magazine from 1933 which discussed the U.S. whiskey business and forthcoming repeal. It stated as Chuck said that ownership of whiskey stocks being sold for medicinal whiskey formed the basis for distilling new whiskey under government quotas. Also, that the newer whiskey available in 1933 was distilled since 1929 under these quotas. Yet I have read elsewhere that some distillation occurred earlier (that is, since the start of Prohibition). Sam Cecil states in his book that distilleries "operated" in "four periods" during Prohibition to replace "depleted" stocks. In the Fortune magazine mentioned (November 1933 issue), there is almost a full page color photograph of a bottle of Old Overholt rye whiskey. The strip stamp is clearly visible. It states the whiskey was "made 1921" and "bottled 1932". Clearly this shows whiskey was distilled in 1921. I have read (possibly also in Cecil, I'll try to find the reference) this was done in anticipation of pre-Volstead stocks running out by 1925. In the light of that concern it would have made sense to authorise distilling in 1921. The whiskey would be 4 years old in 1925 - matured and ready for sale. Therefore, I infer whiskey was made at various times during Prohibition. It seems Sazerac did not need, or was not allowed under the quota system, to distill since it had enough pre-1919 whiskey to sell as medicinal spirits.


12-06-2004, 06:47
I have an unopened Mount Vernon rye quart. It is a BIB . The tax stamp states:

Produced by Gwynnbrook Company Distillery No. 33, 5th supervisory district Maryland Spring 1921

Bottled at Internal Revenue Bonded warehouse no. 27,
Maryland Fall 1933

The label states:

Mount Vernon Straight Rye Whiskey

Bottled In Bond 100 proof

Distilled by Gwynnbrook Company, Gwynnbrook, Md

American Medicinal Spirits Company, Baltimore, Md

Rebottled by the AMS division of National Distillers Products, Baltimore, Md

12-06-2004, 19:39
(Sniffle, Sniffle)
I feel chills and a fever coming on, Dave. Can you bring me a tablespoon of that before it gets worse?

Ken Weber
12-27-2004, 10:26
I have done some additional research and have found that we not only served as a concentration warehouse and bottler of medicinal whiskey, we also distilled at various times throughout the noble experiment. We distilled bourbon, apricot brandy, and a host of other spirits I would rather not be associated with. Our history gets a bit more colorful when you consider that World War I preceeded Prohibition and also caused beverage alcohol production to be greatly curtailed as most distilled alcohol was used in the war effort. Apparently alcohol was used in "ammunition and in the production of synthetic compounds crucial to the war effort." During the war, we had a special arrangement with the U.S. government to distill one month for our stocks and then one month for the war effort. We even built a huge pressure cooker in which we cooked and later fermented vast amounts of potatos. Heck, we made potato vodka before we even knew it was cool! According to Elmer, and other old timers, they remember train car loads of potatos rolling up to the distillery with large signs proclaiming the potatos as "unfit for human consumption." So, what was the first thing several of the poorer families around the distillery did when the train arrived? Bingo, they had potatos for dinner for the next several days. According to Elmer, those railroad cars carried some of the prettiest potatos he ever saw!

When Colonel Blanton took over here, he had to face WWI, Prohibition, The Depression, and WWII. Each of these eras greatly affected the production of aged bourbon. It is interesting to note that it seems the fates (and certain competitors) have long conspired against well-aged bourbon. The force-out law, prior to all of this, placed a great strain on the cash flow of any distillery that wanted to sell bourbon older than 2 years of age. Some of the large purveyors of distilled spirits today were the biggest supporters of the force-out because they specialized in underage whiskies and blends.


12-27-2004, 10:48
Well, I like being right, even if just by accident.
And the story about the potatos/potatoes (yes, Dan Quayle was right -- Webster's says you can spell it both ways) is interesting, enlightening and just a little bit sad. On the other hand, those potato trains were undoubtedly a great boon to the distillery workers and local population.
Thanks for the history lesson, Ken.