Kindred Spirits: The history of whiskey

Kindred Spirits: The history of whiskey
Whiskey is a staple of the American economy and alcohol repertoire. (File photo)

By Jay Test

The tradition of distilling grains to create alcohol did not originate in the United States, but the craft of raising, harvesting and distilling grains to make whiskey has certainly been practiced and perfected in this country. 

For a variety of reasons, governments have decided that taxing items of voluntary consumption are easy targets to generate operating revenue. Whiskey is just one of these easy targets. 

Opposition to taxes, especially whiskey taxes, created a challenge for George Washington in his first term as president. In 1790, the newly formed federal government was in need of revenue at the conclusion of the American Revolution. During the war, many states took on heavy debt to support the war effort. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton thought an excise tax on whiskey would help provide the funds necessary for his plan to help repay the states. 

From its inception, the tax on whiskey was a failure. 

The tax fell heaviest on farmers in western Pennsylvania. Over the next few years, most farmers simply ignored the government’s efforts to collect the tax while others threatened the revenue officials sent for that purpose. Washington was not in favor of Hamilton’s tax plan when he allowed it to be implemented, but the opposition of the Pennsylvania farmers escalated the situation to a crisis. Federal agents were sent to serve warrants and were eventually detained and threatened, but ultimately were released unharmed. 

Washington had no choice but to enforce the excise tax and restore order in western Pennsylvania. With 1,200 militia from eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia, he marched to western Pennsylvania in 1794 and peacefully put an end to the uprising. 

From its founding, it is clear that many in this country take their whiskey – and their taxes – seriously. What is this beverage that inspires revolution? 

“Whiskey” is a general term for an alcoholic liquor made from fermented grain mash. The grain or mix of grains used will often depend on what is available locally. Irish whiskey is typically made from Irish barley, while American whiskey is usually made from locally grown corn or rye. Most whiskeys are aged in wooden casks and almost always are at least 40% alcohol by volume. 

To be classified as bourbon, the whiskey must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn. True bourbon production uses specific types of barrels and traditional distillation methods. Kentucky claims to be the birthplace of bourbon whiskey; however, bourbon can be produced anywhere as long as the production follows the specific requirements for grain mix, distillation and aging. 

Whiskey can be made from a variety of grains with the general definition requiring that the content be made from at least 51% of the named grain. Rye whiskey must be at least 51% rye. Note that a blended whisky, like Crown Royal, is made from a number of whiskies and has no dominant grain on its label. 

And why is whiskey not whisky in the U.S.? The two words are names for an alcoholic beverage made from grains. Ireland and the U.S. use the term whiskey, yet other regions of the world – including Scotland, Canada and Japan – use whisky. 

Either way, with more than 250 different labels, you will find the whiskey or whisky of your choice at “1986,” the Whiskey Bar, at Union Street Public House. Alexandria has several other establishments that carry fine whiskeys, too. Check out the selection at Daniel O’Connell’s Pub, Whiskey & Oyster or Two Nineteen Restaurant. 

The writer is a managing partner at Union Street Public House.