top of page

The Early History of American Whiskey

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

America's love for Whiskey came after it's love affair with rum. Rum was the drink of choice for the colonial period and the beginning of American Revolution, but during and after the Revolutionary War, that began to change.

An early Whiskey Still (Photo Credit, Chuck Cowdery Blog)

Rum is made from molasses, which was imported by sea, and as settlers moved inward, it became harder and more expensive to make rum. The British also cut off the supply of rum and molasses from the West Indies during the Revolutionary war, so early whiskeys were actually made as a substitute until the rum supply returned.

The settlers had a surplus of grains (and many of them were of Scotish and Irish origin), and they had some experience distilling grains. Whiskey could be made everywhere and it was not dependent on imported ingredients.

American whiskey's were made with corn primarily, while European whiskies were commonly made from potatoes, wheat, rye or barley. Distillers found that in the large stills, the corn burnt, but it worked well in the small stills.

By 1791, there were 5000 pot stills in Western PA alone (enough to have one pot for every six people). Whiskey was used as currency in the rural areas, and was commonly traded for other household essentials. Whiskey also became part of many ceremonial occasions, as well as a staple at governmental events and political campaigns.

Then came taxes.. Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, proposed a federal excise duty on the production of domestic liquor, which congress passed. Thus began the Whiskey Rebellion. Whiskey was a way of life for the distillers, and they were not interested in sharing their money with the government. The opposition was strongest in rural areas, where farmers would attack revenue collectors, destroy documents, and even shoot holes in stills of distillers who had paid the tax.

Several government efforts to quell the opposition failed and in 1794, when a farmer named William Miller was served a writ, a shot was fired. This began a rebellion, they referred to themselves as the "whiskey boys", and at one point 6000 men gathered near Pitsburgh to revolt. Hamilton convinced president, George Washington to send in the federal soldiers, which disbanded the rebellions. There were some arrests, but more importantly, this became a defining moment in the early history of the U.S., showing that the law could not be ignored.

After the failed rebellion, Scotish-Irish rebels moved further west to Kentucky. They began distilling with corn as well as rye in Bourbon County, giving way to what we now know as Bourbon.

A Whiskey Still from George Washington's Mount Vernon Distillery (Photo Credit, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Despite its rocky start, Whiskey consumption did not slow down. George Washington himself actually started producing his own whiskey in 1797 in Mount Vernon. Whiskey was drunk on a daily basis (sometimes even to start the day!). Whiskey was even consumed instead of water, as people didn't always have access to clean drinking water (and whiskey was a sanitary option).

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson revoked the tax on whiskey, boosting its popularity even more. It became an every day commodity, being sold for 25 cents a gallon- which was cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea or milk at the time.

Whiskey's popularity and the financial dependence people had on it shifted with the Industrial Revolution. Coffee became the drink of choice (for it's alertness), as factories overtook the economy, the mass consumption of whiskey trickled out.

Of course, we still love it today (but maybe not for breakfast!).


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page