Friday, March 7, 2014
Who Had Medicinal Whiskey Licenses During Prohibition?
This year is the centennial of the start of World War I. Also at war during that period were the drys and wets, in the run-up to National Prohibition.
The Prohibition movement was largely a religious movement, spearheaded by Protestant Christians. There were medical authorities on both sides. While Prohibitionist doctors said whiskey was poison, other doctors said it was a useful tonic that they often recommended to their patients.
So strong was the pro-whiskey position among doctors that an exception was written into the Prohibition law. Within certain limitations, doctors were permitted to write prescriptions for whiskey which patients had filled at a pharmacy just like any other prescription. Today, while most doctors are not hostile to alcohol, and many scientists say moderate consumption is healthier than abstinence, officially whiskey has no medicinal value. That wasn't the case a century ago.
Ten medicinal licenses were authorized but only six entities applied for and received them. They were Brown-Forman, Glenmore (now part of Diageo), Frankfort Distilleries (Four Roses now), Schenley (also part of Diageo), American Medicinal Spirits (AMS, which became National Distillers, now part of Beam) and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery (predecessor to Stitzel-Weller, also now Diageo).
Of the six, Brown-Forman is the only company that still exists, with the founding Brown family still at its helm.
Brown-Forman had been a distiller before 1920 and had its own whiskey to sell medicinally. So did the others except AMS. It had been formed after Prohibition began as a consolidation warehouse in Louisville, which the government mandated because it was so hard to secure whiskey stored in rural warehouses. The license AMS had came via one of the companies it bought to get whiskey stocks, Pennsylvania's Old Overholt. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who gave out the licenses, gave that one to himself as the owner of Old Overholt.
A medicinal license entitled you to sell whiskey made before Prohibition went into effect, which you could legally buy from the whiskey's producer. The license did not entitle you to distill until 1929, when the government allowed three million gallons of spirit per year to be produced by the medicinal license holders. A. Ph. Stitzel, by then under the control of Pappy Van Winkle, was the first distillery to take advantage of that opportunity. Since Prohibition was repealed four years later, little if any of that post-1929 distillate was sold until after repeal, but it gave Stitzel and others a nice head start.
The whiskey sold during Prohibition 'for medicinal purposes only' was very standardized. It always came in a one-pint bottle, in a box of either cardboard or metal.
While whiskey bottled before 1920 is very rare, Prohibition medicinal whiskey is surprisingly common. A bottle of it is a nice historical artifact but little else. The whiskey inside is generally awful.