Bourbon: An American Spirit's Civil War Conundrum
Image Credit: Pond5

This post was originally published as part of our daily newsletter, Just One Thing. For more stories like this, sign up here!


BOURBON is seen as a quintessentially American drink, but its history is even more intertwined with that of the United States than one may imagine. It had a starring role in the major modern conflict that shaped the US — the Civil War. This is the story of how the Civil War shaped Bourbon, and how Bourbon impacted the Civil War. 

Prohibited In The South, Taxed In The North

Rye was the drink of choice in the North, while Bourbon — which was produced mainly in the border state of Kentucky, with an eponymous whiskey variant in Tennessee — was more popular in the South. Still, it was in the South that Prohibition was imposed during 1861-65, as the Civil War raged. The reasons for this were twofold: Firstly, the corn/maize — which comprises over 51 percent of Bourbon’s composition — was needed to feed the Confederate Army. And secondly, Bourbon was produced in copper stills — a metal that was in high demand for the war effort in the South. Everything from cannons to uniform buttons were made of copper. 

Even if Prohibition hadn’t been imposed, the South’s difficulties in procuring Bourbon only increased through the war years. The North imposed a blockade, preventing the entry of “foreign” goods in the South. This meant that Bourbon had to be smuggled to another destination — for instance, the Caribbean — then shipped back to ports in the South.

Bourbon was in high demand in the South not just as a spirit, but also for its medicinal uses. It could be used to clean and disinfect wounds, as an anesthetic, and while rum and brandy might have had doctors’ seal of approval as stimulants, bourbon worked just fine in a pinch. It was also an ingredient in “bitters” — herbs steeped in alcohol that were dispensed as a cure-all. 

Meanwhile in the North, Bourbon was subject to President Lincoln’s newly imposed tax on distilled spirits. The revenue raised was critical in outfitting the Union Army and keeping up their supplies during the war. It would also lead to another practice that shaped the Bourbon industry: bonded warehouses. 

Bonded Bourbon

Whiskey had been taxed in America before Lincoln passed his law: in the 1790s, as a newly independent nation found its feet under George Washington, the colonies’ debts from the Revolutionary War needed to be paid off. Taxing whiskey — at the time, this was merely unaged corn mash — was proposed as a solution. It led to the brief “Whiskey Rebellion”, but the tax stayed in place until Thomas Jefferson repealed it during his term. 

But things had changed in the time since. Whiskey was now an aged spirit. Taxing distillers on the basis of the capacity of their stills (as done in the past) was unfair, Bourbon producers argued, since some portion of their spirit was absorbed into the charred oak barrels as it aged. The tax should be on the final output. 

A compromise was found in the form of bonded warehouses: distillers would place their barrels in government-held warehouses for a year. At the end of that time, their Bourbon would be released on paying a tax only for the quantity that remained in the barrels. 

In later years, the concept of “bottled-in-bond” became a prestigious tag for Bourbon and whiskey distillers, as it evolved into a way to signal the purity and tamper-proof ageing process of their spirits.

National Popularity 

Lincoln’s imposition of the whiskey tax (and the resulting need for bonded warehouses and other infrastructure) meant that it was no longer profitable for small, independent farmers to produce Bourbon. Only larger distilleries could absorb these costs by scaling up. Thus the nature of the Bourbon industry itself changed. 

At the same time, Bourbon was extending its popularity among Northerners. As the Union Army marched further South, they developed a liking for Bourbon, and it became the soldiers’ go-to spirit. Rye whiskey, on the other hand, saw its star fade, until staging a stellar comeback in the 21st century.