Category Archives: History

Money, religion, war, politics, and booze – Whiskey edition

In the mid-late 1800s, a decent dram of whiskey cost $0.50, same as a box of pistol cartridges – wonder if the same correlation exist today…

Always Money and Politics …  

The historical influence of money and politics on our favorite spirits … Whiskey edition

Good day, my drinking buddies…

Today I offer some interesting examples of how the powerful combo of Money and Politics have shaped and influenced our current drinking culture.   Let’s start with my favorite spirit!  Whiskey! 

Religious Freedom and the birth of American Whiskey Production

In the late Eighteenth Century, the search for religious freedom led Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants to America.  With them, they brought invaluable whisk(e)y making knowledge and skill. We have them to thank for popular American expressions such as Rye whiskey (especially in PN, MD, and VA), Bourbon, and Tennessee Whiskey (which is technically Bourbon).  Without their technique and methodology, whiskey production in the U.S. could have been set back for quite some time.  


Did you know that *Bourbon was essentially born out rebellion to the Whiskey Excise Tax of 1791?  The tax was imposed by the Feds in an attempt to pay debt from the Revolutionary War (1775-83).  Farmers who produced whiskey (which most did, back then) were often Revolutionary War vets, and were incensed with the tax (which led to the short lived and unsuccessful Whiskey Rebellion – GW and the militia shut that down, quick!).  

Regarding taxing war veterans to pay for the war they just fought in — dang, that’s some serious double dipping, Feds!

However, without the excise tax, whiskey distillers might not have gone deep into the wilderness of what is now KY, IN, and TN (as they were forced to do, making whiskey on this land, which was outside of Federal jurisdiction, to avoid paying the tax). Fortunately, this land was rich in maize.  Sure, no doubt this land would have eventually been harvested for liquid sunshine – but the impetus was certainly freedom from the excise tax! (Which was repealed during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, he loved whiskey, too, right?)

*Bourbon, by law, must be at least 51% corn mash bill and must be made in the U.S. of A.  

The Civil War 

Did you know that alcohol taxes paid for a decent percentage of the Civil War (1861-1865)?  In a nutshell, the Union’s revenue and tariff system was much more secure than that of the Confederacy (due in part to the Confederacy’s assets being human capital – you know, like, me!).  

The Union had a successful treasury system in place, and the implementation of The Legal Tender Act solidified it further:

“Passed in February 1862, the act authorized the issue of $150 million in Treasury notes, known as Greenbacks.” 

Eventually, The Bureau of Internal Revenue was created, and they, of course – put their large spoon into all of the pies…

“The Internal Revenue Act of 1862, enacted by Congress in July, 1862, soaked up much of the inflationary pressure produced by Greenbacks. It did so because the Act placed excise taxes on just about everything, including sin and luxury items like liquor, tobacco, playing cards, carriages, yachts, billiard tables, and jewelry.”

I love that “sin and luxury” part… sounds like a winner, to me! Hell, I’ll pay for that.

Ultimately, by the early 20th Century, alcohol tax accounted for 30-40% of the Federal Government’s revenue!  Income tax, much to my chagrin (and yours, too, I’m sure) soon cometh, as well…  And – one of the most fascinating eras in U.S. History was impending – gasp – Temperance and The Prohibition Era.  

“I had no idea how important liquor was to the federal government,” says Novick. “It started in the Civil War with the levy on beer and whiskey to help fund the war, and it never really went away. Some 30 percent to 40 percent of the government’s income came from the tax on alcohol. So Prohibitionists realized that the only way they’re going to have a ban was through income tax, which was a progressive cause and was really supposed to distribute wealth and to make things equitable during the robber baron era, where the wealth was being accumulated in a very small segment of the population.”

Lynn Novick, co-documentarian of Ken Burns’s three-part series on Prohibition on PBS

Phew!  These are just a few examples of the politics of drinking.  And, well, shit – now we have high liquor taxes AND income taxes… tf?!

This is enough thinkin’ and writin’ for now.  Both me brain and me wallet hurts.  Have a jolly day. SPR

___________.  Certified Specialist of Spirits Study Guide, 2015. Washington, D.C.: The Society of Wine Educators, 2015.