Whiskey in America

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Distilled alcohol was so popular in North America that it gave us an enduring legacy: the Internal Revenue Service! In the early days of the colonies and then the United States, molasses was more plentiful than barley, and rum more common than beer. Rye and barley spirits were also being distilled in the northern colonies by 1700, and Kentucky corn whiskey by 1780. After the Revolutionary War, the new American government tried to raise revenues for its war debts by taxing distillation, and in 1794 the largely Scots-Irish region of western Pennsylvania rose in the short-lived Whiskey Rebellion. When President Washington called out federal troops to put it down, the rebellion went underground and “moonshining” became entrenched, especially in the poor hills of the South where the small amount of corn that could be grown would fetch a better price if fermented and distilled. This evasion led the federal government to form the Office of Internal Revenue in 1862. Sixty years later, the national taste for hard liquor was an important stimulus to the temperance movement that culminated in Prohibition.