Welcome to the American Whiskey Podcast where we talk about the intersection of American history and American whiskey. The goal of this podcast is to hopefully shed a little light on where whiskey comes from and give you some interesting nuggets to share at the bar or to impress the bros at the local whiskey club. This week we are going to talk about how bourbon became known as America’s Native Spirit, although that wording is under some debate. It’s in an interesting tale of cutthroat capitalism and a desperate attempt to try to and recoup a short-sighted investment that has since been caught and held hostage by the bourbon industry. At the end of this tale we’ll be tasting some current release I.W. Harper, which was once owned by the distiller responsible for Congress passing the Senate Concurrent Resolution 19 on May 4th 1964.
But like most things in the United States, this wasn’t a one off resolution that came about by a few people in congress thinking it a good idea to claim Bourbon distinctly American. Oh no, this resolution has ties all the way back to World War 2. So jump in your tardis and lets go back, for those of you who missed that reference, good, let’s do what we do and pretend it’s all planned.
World War 2 – This war effort still remains the deadliest in history and speaks to the American proclivity to throw themselves behind war. The US was among the last to enter world war 2 and when we were attacked on pearl harbor there was an almost immediate turn for all industrial production to be turned towards the war effort. When I say almost immediately, I mean that within a month of pearl harbor, Car factories were banned from producing civilian cars to produce military vehicles, almost all types of food were severely rationed, vouchers were issued to ensure that people weren’t over purchasing goods and there were even limitations on the transportation of goods because the US needed to preserve all the rubber tires it could. Mixed in there somewhere was the stopping of production of whiskey and instead using their distilleries to produce military grade alcohol. Some of this alcohol was used to clean wounds and such, but a majority of all the alcohol was put into the production of missiles and torpedos. Now this was several years after the repeal of Prohibition, but there were still strong temperance movements in the united states and you can only imagine the amount of glee these groups experienced when these actions were taken. As the women rose to say Lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours.
The results of these rations were shortages on whiskey. There were also vouchers put in place that limited the purchase of spirits to one bottle a week. So with these circumstances present we introduce our hero and villain, let’s call him a business man, Lewis Rosenstiel. You see, Rosenstiel had lived through world war 2 and become the head of one of the biggest liquor produces in the world, Schenley Distiller’s Corporation.
5 years after world war two ends, North Korea decides it’s going to invade South Korea and then China and the Soviet union jump in to back North Korea. At that, the United Nations gets involved and the United States are brought into aid South Korea. Originally president Truman calls this a Police action and the media coverage in the US was slim to none. Because of this it’s gained the nickname of “The Forgotten War, because it was sandwiched in between World War 2, the second deadliest war in american history, and Vietnam, arguably the most debated and protested war in US history.
But our good ole’ friend Rosenstiel saw the writing on the wall. Another war with the same major players as World War 2? We’ve got world war 3 on our hands, we won’t be caught with out pants down at the still, no sir! FULL STEAM AHEAD. Produce as much whiskey as you possibly can. And so he did. Rosenstiel produced enough whiskey to compensate for 8 years worth of demand in the united states. When the Korean war ended 3 years later with very little impact on the American Economy as a whole and virtually NO impact on whiskey, he was left with more than two thirds of all the whiskey aging in barrels.
Well cool, you’ve done enough work to compensate for 8 years of production. You’re good Mr. Rosenstiel, just lay off some people, cut back production and you’ll be sailing smooth, raking in all those PROFITZZZZZ. I wrote that with 5 Z’s on the end of it, by the way. But no, you see whiskey evaporates pretty quickly while it’s aging in the barrels. Depending on the temperature that number lies within 3 to 7 percent a year. So quite literally, the thousands of gallons of whiskey was disappearing the longer it sat. Those greedy angel’s were taking their share and there was nothing Lewis could do about it, except… pour more money into the problem. Which is what americans are best at anyways.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent on marketing. So lets say he put 40 million into advertising. In today’s dollars, adjusting for inflation, that’s over 300 million dollars. That does not seem to put a dent into his huge stockpile of bourbon, which I might add is subject to a barrel tax on the assumed value every single year. So Rosenstiel turns to Congress to lobby officials for tax breaks and easier ways to sell his whiskey. The problem is, he’s pissed off the other distillers in the industry. WTF Mate? You just produced so much whiskey that you’re driving down the costs and cutting into our profits, why do you think we should help you? So these other distillers used every tool at their disposal to stop congress from making the sale of bourbon easier. Even to the point of stopping legislation in the form of the reduction of taxes. This cut in taxes would help the bourbon industry as a whole, but would give an unfair advantage to Rosenstiel. So the other distillers used the main spirits lobby at the time, called the Distilled Spirits Institute, to block any form of legistlation that would help Rosenstiel and Schenley Distillers.
So Rosenstiel did what any good CEO does with billions of dollars in his control; he started his own lobby. Ya, all these rappers talking about owning foreign cars and G5s but the real OGs have their own lobbying organizations. In this case, the name was the Bourbon Institute. This was run by a naval vice admiral William marshall, who actually fought on the beaches of Normandy in World War 2.
Anyways, the newly formed Bourbon Institute pushed a resolution into a global trade agreement to protect bourbon internationally. Hence, the passing of the Senate Concurrent Resolution 19.
One thing that’s really interesting to me is the context in which this happened. May 4th 1964. I remember learning about the 60’s in history class, it was solely focused on big-picture things like Vietnam and the civil rights movement. And as hugely important as those are, it’s necessary to remember that little laws are being passed and normal business was still happening. It’s almost as if the government’s sole responsibility was to focus on the issues that turned into chapter headings in our 5th grade history textbooks. I tend to forget that there were like actual people living and breathing and businesses conducting business and governments functioning and protecting those businesses.
The resolution passed in the year 1964 put bourbon in a whole new league. Joining the ranks of Scotch Whisky and champagne. The resolution called bourbon a “distinctive product of the United States…” and also included was a line limiting the importation of any spirit labeled as Bourbon. At this point there were several bottlings being produced in mexico labeled as “bourbon” and those were being imported and disrupting prices also. An interesting little fact is that one the Resolutions few opponents was in fact representing the producers of the cheap Mexican bourbon. I’m not really a tequila drinker, but if anyone has access to this Mexican bourbon, send me a sample.
So boom, Rosenstiel proved that money can solve any problem. He passed a resolution and followed that up by shipping a case of bourbon to every US embassy and just for the hell of it threw another 35 million dollars into global marketing. With the US borders secured from any cheap knockoffs and a new global frontier opened up, Rosenstiel’s stockpile of whiskey was sold off before it could evaporate and all was well.
So an interesting side note is the term “America’s Native Spirit”. This term has cropped up recently as a more clever way of communicating ““distinctive product of the United States…” You’d think that with labeling as America’s Native Spirit, Bourbon would be on par with Baseball, apple pie, and incredibly polarizing political structures. And current bourbon distillers want you to think that whole-heartedly. In fact, the actual document, the actual resolution, was recently taken from the National Archives and put on display at a museum in 2014. The first time it was ever taken out, actually. It was quickly termed as the “Declaration of Independence for Bourbon.” And many of the people in charge of the museum toted it as a prized possession and one of the most important pieces of bourbon history.
Don’t get me wrong, I love bourbon, and I love that it is distinctly American. But it seems funny to me to celebrate this document as the pride and joy of bourbon history given it’s tumultuous history. This my friends, is capitalism at it’s best. A shady backroom lobbying deal turning into the pride and joy of an entire industry. Yum, Yum, Yum, make America great again. Alright, enough talk, lets drink some whiskey!
This time around we’re drinking I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey. This comes in at 82 proof or 41% alcohol by volume for you people who think our proofing system in the US is weird. I.W. Harper is named after Issac Wolfe Bernheim, who started the Bernheim distillery with his brother.
Interestingly enough, the BErnheim Brothers were one of only 10 distillers allowed to produce whiskey during prohibition under a medicinal alcohol license. A few years after prohibition ended however, the brand was sold to the Shenely Distilling corporation and the IW Harper label was moved under their supervision. That was later sold to Guiness, yes, the beer guys, where it lives today under the umbrella of the Diageo company, who own a whole slue of alcohol brands. The actual I.W. Harper label bourbon went away for a while from the US market, but now it’s back with a normal label with no age statement and a 15 year version.
We are drinking the NAS and this bottle ran me a whole $32 at total wine. This whiskey is very well distributed and will undoubtedly be sitting on the shelf at your nearest store. However, if your tastebuds are anywhere near mine, you probably shouldn’t go buy one. So like I said in the last episode, the amateur whiskey drinker should focus on picking up one or two flavors. The further your pallat develops, and the more whiskey you drink, the more you’ll be able to identify some of the notes listed. So go drink more whiskey.
Starting with the nose on this whiskey has floral notes with a very light aroma of honey suckle, but the alcohol is VERY present. There’s definitely some banana mixed in there. Others have claimed butterscotch, but I got nothing of the sort. On the mouth the whiskey feels thin. There’s not a lot going on here. The alcohol tinge is very present, which I don’t mind, but the only real flavor for me is orange peel. Now, I’m not a huge fan of licking oranges, but if you happen to have this whiskey, you should try some and then lick an orange. The flavors are identical. The finish is short, with a blast of caramel and then there is a bit of a metal flavor or tannic. It reminds me of the way some scotches finish.
Overall, i would say this is a hard to justify purchase. For $32 there are a ton of incredibly good whiskeys out there, Elijah Craig, for example. This might be a great Old Fashioned bourbon or maybe one for the whiskey sour drinkers, but neat, it’s hard to say I’d buy it again.
Well guys, we’ve reached the end of this episode, I hope you learned something and it is my sincerest wish that you enjoyed it. After all is said and done, more is said than is done. Catch ya on the flip side.