In October 1794, Alexander Hamilton took time out from his regular duties as secretary of the Treasury to lead 13,000 militiamen into western Pennsylvania. Resistance to a tax on whiskey production, intended to help pay down the government’s $45 million Revolutionary War debt, had been growing since it went into effect in 1791. Tax collectors had been attacked, and at least one was whipped, tarred, and feathered. By early 1794, some 7,000 men had joined the rebellion, and talk swirled about declaring independence from the United States. But in the face of federal bayonets, the revolt collapsed; many of its leaders were arrested, and the rest fled into neighboring states.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a critical moment in the life of the new republic. President Washington’s use of the military to force payment of the tax demonstrated that the fledgling federal government had real power—and was willing to use it.
But to Hamilton, who conceived it, the tax was about more than raising cash or asserting the central government’s authority. It was also a way to reduce alcohol production and consumption. Hamilton wrote in Federalist 12 that a tax on whiskey “should tend to diminish the consumption of it,” and that “such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society. There is, perhaps, nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits.” Washington agreed: Drinking, he said, was “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country”—even though, as the owner of one of America’s largest distilleries, he contributed his share to that ruin.
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A cruise around the Hebrides, the Scottish islands that inspired Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Robert Louis Stevenson.Read more. [Image: Suzanne Stout Smith]
In April 2006, a tornado struck Warehouse C at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. In the aftermath, the building looked like a diorama: part of the roof and one wall had been artfully removed to reveal the 25,000 barrels stacked inside. Miraculously, not a single one of those barrels was damaged—proof, perhaps, of the Major League manager Leo Durocher’s maxim: God watches over drunks and third basemen.
Repairing the warehouse took several months, and during that time the barrels on the upper floors were exposed to rain, heat, and sun. Mark Brown, Buffalo Trace’s president and CEO, joked at the time that the distillery should sell the whiskey as “tornado-surviving bourbon.”
It turned out to be no joke. The barrels were opened about five years later (the liquor inside had then aged for nine to 11 years) and, says Brown, “the darnedest thing is, when we went to taste the whiskey, it was really good. I mean really good.” The company decided to label the bourbon “tornado surviving,” and aficionados—who also found it superior to the usual product—quickly snapped it up. One went so far as to write Buffalo Trace and ask whether it planned to make more. “Not deliberately,” Brown replied.
Yet the tornado bourbon got the distillers wondering: What are the perfect conditions for storing the barrels in which bourbon ages? It’s a question that no one had really asked before, despite the oft-noticed phenomenon that barrels situated near the windows in warehouses have a tendency to become what managers call “honey barrels”—that is, ones that produce above-average whiskey. Moreover, the storage question was a logical follow-up to one that Buffalo Trace had already been pondering: How do you make a perfect barrel?
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Craft distillers not only need to be knowledgeable in such arcane matters as the esoteric habits of yeast and the miraculous properties of copper; they also must be deft in navigating the complex regulatory geography. (As I once heard a tour guide at the Wild Turkey distillery explain: “How do you make bourbon? You take some moonshine, put it in a barrel, and add a bunch of federal regulations.”)
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One of the biggest obstacles facing a startup whiskey distiller is time. No matter how quickly you can turn yeast, water, and grains into alcohol, you still need to mature the product in oak barrels to get something you can legally call “whiskey.” Most big distillers use 53-gallon charred barrels, which they fill, plug, and stick in an uninsulated warehouse for a few years—or longer, depending on the qualities they’re looking for. During that time, the barrels impart color and flavor to the liquid, while absorption and evaporation remove unwanted chemicals. Eventually the distillers decide the whiskey is ready, move it into bottles, and ship them to stores.
All this waiting takes money—a lot of it, and all before you’ve sold your first bottle. If you’re an established distiller, you’re covering the upfront costs of your new batches with the profits you’re making off the finished ones. But a startup doesn’t have that sort of cash flow, which is why many new distillers start with “white” spirits like vodka and gin, then invest in whiskey once the money is flowing.
Read more at The Atlantic