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  1. #1

    Prohibition Distilleries?

    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?

    Thanks.

  2. #2
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

    Gary

  3. #3

    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

  4. #4
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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

    Bettye Jo

  5. #5
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

  6. #6
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

  7. #7
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

  8. #8
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

    Gary

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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

  10. #10
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    Re: Prohibition Distilleries?

    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.

    Gary

 

 

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