Thursday, June 19, 2014
Chris Middleton on the 'Myth' of Pre-Prohibition Rye Prominence
In every field of endeavor there is received wisdom. Since it is what just about everyone in the field believes and has been taught for generations, it's usually true, but now and then it's not. From my first days in the whiskey business I was told that rye dominated before Prohibition and was replaced by bourbon after repeal. Discussions about this subject usually center on why that was the case, not on whether or not it was true.
So it was with great interest that I read in David Wondrich's recent Whisky Advocate article his statement, "It's a modern myth that rye was more popular than bourbon before Prohibition." Since I had mentioned the contrary received wisdom in my post, commenter Florin wondered, "who is right?"
Chris Middleton provides the answer:
On the post about rye volumes, bourbon superseded rye after the Civil War. Only in 1908, when rye production reached a 48.5 percent share of whiskey distilling, did it look like it was rivaling bourbon’s dominance. For the last 150 years, bourbon in name and its corn hegemony has led as America’s favorite whiskey.
The U.S. Government’s collection of distilling data was not great from 1790. After excise taxes were struck down no surveillance occurred and no production was reported. Between 1790 and 1810, rye’s volume share was bouncing around 60 – 85 percent. What data was collected before the Civil War indicates rye remained the leading whiskey style made. After the War, in 1867, the IRS began capturing distilling data as total ‘grain.’ It was not until 1878 that it was broken out as rye and bourbon, with rye holding a 38 percent share. Whiskey production had shifted out west with population and grain cultivation to Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and surrounding grain-producing states.
The other major issue that clouds accurate quantification of this whiskey split is being able to distinguish between straight, corn and blended whiskey (rectified, compounded). When the Trust was at its height in the late 1880s and producing an alleged 95 percent of neutral spirit, most of which ended up becoming 'whiskey,' the grain was almost exclusively corn. So terms such as true rye and bourbon become somewhat meaningless in aggregate.