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Drunk History: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of All-American Whiskey

Americans have always loved their whiskey. Even George Washington had his own distillery. Colonists in the north made their own rye, while those further south came up with bourbon. Eventually glass bottles were developed. When Americans loved whiskey too much, there was always someone else who wanted them to reel it back in, which led to Prohibition. But even then, we found ways around it. One way was medicinal whiskey. Noah Rothbaum, author of the book The Art of American Whiskey, tells us about it.  

I had known medicinal whiskeys were available at this time, but I assumed they came in nondescript bottles, like rubbing alcohol or aspirin. But of course, they didn’t. They were packaged in these beautiful, engaging, and highly illustrated boxes and bottles, which shows that, in fact, the whole medicinal whiskey business was not about “medicine” but about letting people continue to drink whiskey.

Before Prohibition, whiskey was prescribed for a range of real symptoms and illnesses, but after alcohol was outlawed, I think it was prescribed for things like the common cold or stress or anxiety as a way to get around the law. I imagine a lot of prescriptions were for subjective conditions. I think it’s an accurate parallel to some of the marijuana clinics today, with prescriptions ranging from the legitimate to the recreational.

Obviously, these companies were still trying to sell and market their products during Prohibition, and the ones that survived had to demonstrate they already had large supplies of whiskey already on hand since they weren’t allowed to make new whiskey. You also had a lot of consolidation, as companies that were allowed to bottle medicinal whiskey ran low on stock and acquired companies that hadn’t been permitted to bottle it. The government also eventually declared a distiller’s holiday because they ran out of medicinal stock, and this allowed them to make more. It shows how much of this “medicine” was actually being sold.

And the day Prohibition ended, there was plenty of whiskey available to celebrate, as if it had been manufactured all along -which it had. Read about the history of whiskey in America at Collectors Weekly. 

(Image credit: Finest & Rarest)


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