Medicinal Whiskey: A Tasting from Prohibition
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
On January 17, 1920, national Prohibition officially began in the US. The Volstead Act had been voted in exactly one year before, and it prohibited the production, sale, and transport of intoxicating liquors. You were allowed to have the stuff and you were allowed to drink the stuff -- you just couldn't make it, sell it, buy it, or take it anywhere.
Thirteen years later, this historic blunder was repealed by popular vote on December 5th, 1933.
Prohibition itself is a hugely fascinating thing to explore, and we strongly recommend watching Ken Burns' excellent documentary, "Prohibition." Remember, you can drink whiskey while you watch it!
PROHIBITION ERA LIQUOR
Similar to some of today's medical marijuana laws, whiskey was still available during Prohibition with a doctor's prescription. To supply that whiskey, six whiskey producers were given licenses by the US Government to bottle and sell medicinal liquor. It was all government-stamped and Bottled-In-Bond at 100 proof. (However, the whiskey technically did not have to meet all requirements of the Bottled-in-Bond act, some of which no longer made practical sense due to Prohibition).
Each person was permitted one pint every ten days. The prescription was to be applied to the back of the bottle. But, nearly all surviving medicinal pints today do not have any such labels on them. Why? Our best guesses are that (a) nobody cared, (b) nobody wanted to waste the time gluing it on, (c) they may not have been technically required, and (d) a lot of the pints never were legitimately sold as prescriptions.
Also, at the end of Prohibition, there were thousands upon thousands of unsold medicinal pints leftover -- many were sold quasi-legally by liquor stores. (It was illegal because none of the packaging met the standards of the new laws, but it was kinda-legal because most of these bottles got new state tax stamps slapped on them so appropriate taxes were theoretically paid. If you're wondering what was "supposed" to be done with all that already-bottled medicinal whiskey, there was a "Rebottled In Bond" provision which sounds exactly like what it was).
At right is a pharmacy label from a bottle of Black Gold on display in the LAWS bar. The directions for use?
Amazingly, whiskey is still used for emergency purposes today!
WHY ISN'T ANY MEDICINAL WHISKEY FROM AFTER 1917?
In April 1917, the US entered WWI. On September 8th, the Food and Fuel Control Act took effect. To preserve food stocks for the war, congress banned the production of liquor from food sources. You could rectifiy already-produced booze (redistillation), but most distilleries either folded or went into production of neutral sprits for the military's fuel and manufacturing needs.
It wouldn't be until 1929 that whiskey was distilled from mash again. By that time, medicinal stocks had dwindled, and the government allowed the medicinal suppliers to distill a limited amount.
ABOUT PROHIBITION-ERA BRANDS
I (Adam) have a personal fascination with Prohibition-era whiskey. I'll sometimes share my collection with other bourbon connoissuers -- many are bemused when they see the pints. "Hmmmm," they frown, disappointed. "I've never heard of most of these."
Well, of course you haven't! The current era of bourbon enthusiasm is based on the products of about seven US distilleries. But before Prohibition, the US had thousands of distilleries! 183 in Kentucky alone. (When the Bottled-in-Bond act took effect in 1896, the nationwide count was reportedly over eight thousand). Each distillery produced many, many different brands.
Prohibition destroyed almost all of those historic distilleries. Pints like these are all that are left of the products they once made.
A note about what are now known as "DSP" numbers -- before Prohibition, every whiskey-producing state was divided up into districts, with distilleries in every district numbered starting at 1. A Pre-Pro distillery is identified by the state, the distillery number, and the district number. Years later, after Repeal, the scarcity of distilleries meant that any which still existed just kept their distillery number, and the districts were discarded.
WHAT WE TASTED AND WHY
The pints we opened were selected based on their condition and a sort of "That looks interesting" factor. Our main concern was to verify that the bottles were unopened, uncontaminated, with decent fills.
So, how did this stuff taste?
Different. Very different, and most of it was good to very good. Opinions varied widely on some, but there was unanimous agreement on one thing: Whiskey just isn't made like this any more. Sku excellently captures this in his writeup of the meeting at Sku's Recent Eats.
One interesting thing to note is that we'd originally picked 16 pints to taste. We were concerned that many might be lousy or have "turned," so we expected to quickly skip through some of them. Instead, they were nearly all very drinkable. We ended up going slowly, obsessing over each. By the time we got to the 12th pint, it was very late, our palates were fatigued, and so were we! We saved the rest to open another day.
Oh and one last thing -- those big honking caps you'll see on top of some of these pints? They're dosage cups. Sort of like a bottle of NyQuil comes with today.
Click each whiskey for notes, ratings, and reviews.
Arthur Ph. Stitzel is, as you may know, the "Stitzel" predecessor of the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery. Prior to Prohbition, Stitzel had distilled for WL Weller and Sons, distributors. During Prohibition Stitzel had one of the few licenses for medicinal whiskey. Note that this bottle no longer contains the name of S.C. Herbst, who prior to Prohibition was the owner/originator of the Old Fitz brand.
This Illinois bourbon comes from the Corning Distilling Co, which onwed multiple Pre-Prohibition distileries. The bottling date on the tax stamp was too damaged to clearly read, our best guess is 1929.
This would have been from the original J.W. Dant distillery. Today the brand "JW Dant" still exists but has nothing to do with its origins.
Ohio bourbon?! It may seem unusual now -- but this juice from the Clifton Springs Distillery in Cincinnati wasn't unusual for its time. Before Prohibition came in and ruined everything, distilleries flourished in Ohio, with 81 in Cincinnati alone.
It's a little hard to sort out what the official name was for the distillery that made Old Hermitage -- whether it was called Old Crow or Hermitage -- that was the source of both brands. This one carried a considerable reputation for many decades. Like so many others, the distillery never reopened after Prohibition.
Another curious bourbon from Ohio, this one was bottled by the George T. Stagg Co and distilled by Edward H. Brinkman in Cincinnati.
Another bottled by the Goerge T. Stagg Co. in Frankfort KY, this was distilled at what seems to have been originally called the Glenarme Distillery in Woodford County. It existed under a number of real or fictional names afterwards, and by 1912 it was officially the Belle of Anderson distillery... which went broke in 1915. Afterwards it reorganized as the Midway Distilling Co.
Here's the trick to discern fill on pints like these -- shine a flashlight through, or just hold up to bright light. Another way is to peel the label back some if it's already loose, it often takes the paint right with it.
The Carlisle Distillery (where this was made) and its sister O.F.C. across the road were built and run by the now-legendary E.H. Taylor, and taken over in the early 1890s by arguably more legendary George T. Stagg. "Colonel" Albert Blanton (the namesake of today's Blanton's brand) became superintendant in 1912, and owner in 1921, guiding the distillery succesfully through Prohibition and Repeal, all the way through the 1950s.
From the original Old Taylor Distillery, this 16-year-old was bottled by Doughtery's in Pennsylvania, who bottled a number of medicinal bourbons in addition to the one under their own name (see next). Old Taylor reopened after Prohibition having been purchased by National Distillers. It was later owned by Beam, who finally closed it in 1972.
This is one of the more common brands you'll find having survived Prohibition.
In about 1850 the Dougherty family started a distillery in Pennsylvania, (#2 1st District) which produced a rye under the same name which soon became well respected in the region and beyond. Around 1904 the family finally sold the distillery, but the new owners kept the name going in recognition of its appeal. Dougherty's whiskey was sometimes sourced after that, from distilleries such as Old Overholt and this one -- the juice came from the Habecker Distillery, run by Abraham Balmer, in Elm, Penn Township, Pennsylvania.
The rye in this bottle comes from a distillery that existed under many different names and produced many different products. "Latonia" is most official name and what Frederick Kinsinger called it. Kinsinger was a distiller from Cincinnati, who in 1899 assumed control of Latonia and remained proprietor until Prohibition. Many years later, Kinsinger stated that during his tenure, "...the majority of the whiskey was of low grade, the other [i.e. the rest] was of a high grade, but all was manufactured under contract for these various parties." Latonia had no "name brand" of their own. Shenandoah was a brand owned by Starr Distilling Company which Kinsinger produced for them.
John Gibson's distillery was a huge operation in its day. Gibson founded it in 1856, and by 1884 a small town had sprung up around the distillery. Ellenjaye.com states that by the turn of the century, they were the largest producer of rye whiskey in the US.