Distilled spirits have been a part of human history for centuries. From the first distillation in ancient Mesopotamia to the modern-day cocktail, the history of distilled spirits is a spirited one. Today, we’ll take a closer look at how distilled spirits became popular in America and found their way to South Africa.
History of Distilled Spirits in America
The story of distilled spirits in America began in the early 1600s. The English colonists who settled in America brought the knowledge of distillation, which they had acquired during their travels in Europe. Distilled spirits quickly became a popular drink with the colonists, who found that it was an effective way to preserve surplus grain.
In the early days of America, distillation was primarily used to produce rum, which was made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production. Rum quickly became a popular drink in the colonies, and it was often used as a form of currency. However, the popularity of distilled spirits in America faced notable setbacks at times. For example, the Whiskey Rebellion was sparked in 1791—just a decade and a half after the country declared independence from England. The uprising was caused by a “whiskey tax” that was the first new tariff imposed by the new American government. Farmers who distilled grains like rye, barley, wheat, and corn on their estates resisted paying the tax, sometimes through protests that clashed with the U.S. government. Although violent protests died down by 1794, the American Congress did not repeal the distilled spirits tax until 1802.
(Image sourced from US Library of Congress)
Prohibition was another period of social unrest sparked by an American federal law governing of alcoholic beverages. In January 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, forcing the country to go “dry” a year later with the prohibition of the making or selling of all alcoholic beverages. The new law prompted hoarding of existing alcohol supplies, as well as illicit production and transportation of spirits, known as “bootlegging.” The prohibition period gave rise to numerous criminal gangs who sought to profit from the situation. That included the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone, who was one of the most notorious bootleggers of the era. He controlled a vast network of speakeasies and illegal breweries in Chicago, and his criminal empire made him a multimillionaire. Capone was eventually sent to jail in 1931 after being convicted for tax evasion, the only crime that federal authorities were able to prove in court.
Bourbon, which is predominantly produced in the southern United States, has a long and storied history. The warm summers and cold winters in states like Kentucky and Tennessee cause the barrels to expand and contract more, which allows for better infusion of the flavors of the wood into the spirit. In 1964, the American Congress recognized bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States” and mandated that the spirit must contain at least 51 percent corn and be aged in charred new oak barrels (for at least two years if it is to be considered “straight bourbon”). Every year, more than 2 million visitors make a pilgrimage to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to taste spirits made by more than a dozen distilleries in the state.
Knob Creek, a premium bourbon whiskey sold in South Africa, is named after Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home, which was located near Knob Creek in Kentucky. Maker’s Mark, another popular bourbon sold in South Africa, is small batch bourbon that is fermented using an heirloom yest strain that is more than 150 years old. After distillation, the bourbon is aged for a minimum of six years before being bottled. The mouth of every bottle of Marker’s Mark is also hand dipped in a red wax seal by one of six distillery employees who have adopted a variety of dipping styles, from the “skinny dipper” to the “no-nonsense dunker.”
Here’s a fun fact for you! Did you know that the term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of the distilled spirit that is lost to evaporation during the aging process in oak barrels? It’s called the “angel’s share” because it is said that the angels in the barrelhouse take their share of the spirit, leaving behind a smaller quantity of the finished product.
Today, South Africans enjoy a wide variety of imported distilled spirits, including some of the most popular brands from the United States. Jack Daniels, for example, is a Tennessee whiskey that is made using a unique charcoal mellowing process. Woodford Reserve, a straight bourbon sold in South Africa, is made using the traditional pot still method and is aged for a minimum of seven years. Redemption Rum Rye Whiskey, another popular spirit sold in South Africa, is a blend of rye whiskey and aged Caribbean rum.
If you’re interested in learning more about American spirits, Destination Distillery is a great resource to explore. You can take a virtual trip and learn more about the history and production of American spirits, including bourbon, at their website: https://www.destinationdistillery.com/. Whether you’re sipping on a classic cocktail or trying a new craft spirit, you’re part of a long and spirited tradition that spans centuries and continents.