At a time when obscure new whiskeys are appearing on cocktail menus from Savannah to Seattle, it’s hard to imagine the American whiskey industry was ever under threat. For starters, the grain-based spirit is as American as apple pie, or at least George Washington—in fact, the first president’s Mount Vernon estate was once the site of the country’s largest distillery, specializing in the Mid-Atlantic region’s famous rye whiskey. But despite its noble foundations, America’s whiskey industry suffered repeated setbacks, like our 13-year Prohibition on alcohol, which nearly drove it to extinction.
In the early 20th century, some distillers survived attacks from anti-alcohol prohibitionists by promoting the drink as an important medicine, creating a legal marketplace similar to medical marijuana today. But even after 1933, when the public got fed up with Prohibition’s silly charade, the massive diversion of resources toward World War II coupled with customers’ changing tastes in alcohol delivered further blows to whiskey distilleries, leaving the industry grasping at straws throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Noah Rothbaum chronicled the industry’s bumpy past, along with the eye-catching packaging of each era, in his new book, The Art of American Whiskey. “Throughout the history of American whiskey, you see these repeated starts and stops,” says Rothbaum, “which allowed for other types of alcohol to gain a foothold here. It’s amazing that we have a strong American whiskey industry after all of these ups and downs.”
Today, whiskey is clearly in the throes of a comeback, as big players like Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam offer single-barrel whiskeys aimed at connoisseurs and new distilleries seem to multiply by the month. We recently spoke with Rothbaum about how the industry has weathered its highs and lows, allowing for the triumphant return of fine whiskey to bars across America.
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