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.


Anonymous said...

"It always came in a one-pint bottle, in a box of either cardboard or metal."
So Chuck, is the modern custom of cardboard or metal packaging a legacy (partly or whole) of prohibition "purity"?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Not really. For most of the post-Prohibition era, gift boxes were common in the run-up to Christmas. Most of your modern boxes seem based on scotch packaging. Most of the medicinal boxes were pretty flimsy, except for the tins, and there has never been anything quite like them, before or since.

Anonymous said...

Ah... interesting, thanks for responding.

merd said...

Awful or no, I'd love to have that sensory reference on palate for recall when sampling different brands and releases. I can only imagine. These are the articles that keep me reading the site daily, Chuck. Cheers.

JDL said...

What medical condition was bourbon prescribed to treat?

Chuck Cowdery said...

From the Rose Melnick Medical Museum: "Alcohol was prescribed for a variety of ailments including anemia, high blood pressure, heart disease, typhoid, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Physicians believed it stimulated digestion, conserved tissue, was helpful for the heart, and increased energy."

jason underwood said...

Didn't Buffalo Trace have a license during Prohibition? They say they did on the tour.

Chuck Cowdery said...

What is now Buffalo Trace was then part of Schenley, so yes.

Scott Spaid said...

The purpose of the "tamperproof" boxes that the Frankfort juice came in was to dissuade rogue rebottlers from passing off their hooch as the real thing. No box = not bona fide. This includes Four Roses, Paul Jones, and Broad Ripple. I am fascinated by prohibition whiskey and I would have to argue that some of the bourbons from that era actually hold up pretty well such as the AMS Special Old Reserve, which, like you said, is pretty easy to come by. Definitely a crapshoot leaning towards over oaked.

I have learned so much from your work. Thank you.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Based on some offline comments I've received, some clarification might be in order. I was connecting the licenses to the companies that held them. Another approach would be to look at the distilleries. Brown Forman, for example, still exists as a company, but the distillery they had before and during Prohibition is long gone. With Stitzel both the company and distillery are gone. For Glenmore, the company is gone and so is the distillery, but the site of that distillery is still an active production facility, owned by Sazerac, which has bottling and maturation there. Sazerac also owns Buffalo Trace, which was Schenley's medicinal whiskey facility. Frankfort, which owned Four Roses then, had its distillery at Forks of the Elkorn, where Beam has a big maturation and bottling facility today.

bcrossan said...

Great article Chuck. I have a chance to grab a Meadville Straight Rye Whiskey by Frankfort Distillery Inc that was made in 1930 and bottled in 1934. I am not able to find much at all on this label. Do you know anything about it and whether it falls into the "generally awful" category?? Tempted to grab it but not if the whiskey is terrible. Thanks

bcrossan said...

Any experience with Meadville Straight Rye Whiskey made by Frankfort Distillery? I have a chance to grab a bottle from 1930/1934 but your comments about most being generally awful gives me pause. Don't really want to just look at it and would prefer to enjoy (if thats even possible here). I have not really been able to find anything on this label on the net. Thanks!

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't know anything specific about that label but it probably wouldn't matter. Maybe someone else who has a bottle will comment, but there's really only one way to know how it tastes and you know what that is.

Chuck Cowdery said...

At least as a post-Prohibition distillate, you don't have to worry about it being mishandled and tasting too woody. More likely it will taste too young. Spend $12 on a bottle of 36-mo Old Overholt and you'll have something pretty similar.

Just me said...

Hi Chuck,
I found this nice article while trying to learn about a prohibition bottle that my family has had for forty years. The bottle is full (less a little evaporation?), with the government seal, and in the box which is a bit tattered.

It is Old Thompson Whiskey
by H.S. Barton Distillery in Owensboro, KY

Made 1916
Bottled 1926

The label is listed with:
"For medicinal purposes only"

"Bottled in Bond Under the supervision of the US Government"

I don't see H.S. Barton listed above, but I'm not a bottle expert. Can you tell me what I have here?


Chuck Cowdery said...

Medicinal whiskey was typically bottled under the name of the distillery that made it originally. Of the six above, this was probably Glenmore, as they were the one operating out of Owensboro.

Billy Reis said...

Chuck, I am curious as to why only 6 of the 10 licences where claimed?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The odds that you could make a viable business out of it seemed pretty long at the time.