Welcome to the American Whiskey Podcast where we talk about the intersection of American history and American whiskey. In this episode we are talking about the Whiskey Rebellion. The whiskey excise tax of 1791 was part of Alexander Hamilton’s plan to get the country out of debt. This played out to the tune of men being tarred and feathered and the only time a president physically led men into battle. And I love that whiskey is at the center of it all. People were so passionate about distilling whiskey they were willing to die for it, of course, there’s so much more to it than that! At the end of the episode we will drink the famed “Rebel Yell.” If you have a bottle of current release, you should pour yourself a glass.
So throw on that wild stallions record, put your history project on hold, jump in this telephone booth and we’ll travel back to 1791. Just after the American Revolution, to a time when George Washington was sitting as the first president of the United States. If you remember from the president’s episode, Washington goes on to eventually open a distillery of his own, but before all that he had a country to run! After the revolutionary war, the United States government was in a lot of debt, it wasn’t just debt from the war, the colonies had also individually amassed their own debts and that was passed on to the federal government.
At the time there are basically two schools of thought present amongst our founding fathers. One, from Alexander Hamilton, said that a federal debt was good, in fact it could be used to gain credit and enter us into the world market in powerful ways. But Thomas Jefferson thought federal debt was bad, in fact, he thought giving power to a federal government at all was something that resembled England a bit too much. These two differed on almost everything when it came to political structure, but we won’t dive too much into Jeffersonian versus Hamiltonian politics. Anyways, Hamilton moves on to introduce a few tax acts to congress and they narrowly pass. This seems like everyday business to us now, “oh there’s a new tax on plastic bags in the grocery store, cool, here’s 10 more cents.” But back then this was literally the first set of taxes introduced. And so we had the Whiskey Excise tax of 1791. The amount of the taxes varied by the size of the distillery and ranged from 6 to 18 cents a gallon. And generally, the larger distilleries paid less in taxes than distilleries with less whiskey on hand. People freaked out, especially the frontier westerners in Pennsylvania.
But before we get into their reactions, let’s try and understand whiskey production of the time. So there were several different size distilleries at this time. Big distillers were selling their whiskey for profits of actual cash. But smaller, frontier distilleries were actually using the whiskey they were creating to barter for goods and services. They often did not have cash on hand at all and would literally just pay for stuff in barrels of whiskey. In addition to this, the farmers often had to bring their goods to market, which was very far and often times unsafe. So making whiskey was essential because it was easier to transport and it lasted much longer than the grain or other products produced on the farm.
The whiskey that was being made was actually closer to moonshine than it is to any other kind of whiskey. There wasn’t any whiskey being aged at this time, the only aging taking place was the time it took to get from the still to the market place or tavern that was buying it and, as we talked about in previous episodes, alcohol was far more valuable than water. Mostly because water would make you sick while whiskey would not and basically anyone over the age of 15 years old was drinking a ton of alcohol. It was also commonly accepted that alcohol could treat many sicknesses, buy interestingly enough, drunkenness was looked down upon heavily. And town drunks were labeled with large D’s. Many of the founding fathers wrote a great deal on their opinions of drunkenness and looked down upon it greatly.
Another important aspect of this conversation is the immigrants that are living in the areas most heavily affected by these taxes. There were a ton of scots irish that lived in rural parts of the western states and within their heritage lies a rich distilling past exists. Because of the people’s tendency to generally stick to groups of their own heritage, there were denser areas with distilleries than others. Now, virtually all the states were affected by the taxes, but some were affected far more than others.
So when this tax is introduced there are several things that happen. The smaller distilleries are affected far greater than the larger distilleries due to the tax scale. Smaller distilleries were taxed at a higher rate than larger distilleries. Also, because some states are affected more than others, from a federal tax standpoint, this felt very unfair to the states distilling alcohol. This also felt very much like the motherland of the King taxing his people at will.
In addition, the westerners who were living on the frontier didn’t receive that great of protection from the Federal Government itself. There was a war going on with Indians and it was going very poorly. Why should I have to pay the federal government if they cant even protect me from getting scalped?!? Sod off you eastern elitists!
So needless to say, the frontiers people refused to pay their taxes. How taxes were collected in these days was very similar to biblical times. A physical tax man would come knocking at the door and say, “Hey, you owe taxes. Give me money.” But there is an issue with this. If you recall, the smaller distilleries are doing most of their business in barter. Like a legitimate concern for these smaller distilleries was like, where the hell am I going to get cash to give you? Another legitimate problem was that if you were charged with what equates to tax evasion, you would have to appear in court, which is in Philadelphia, 300 miles away, traveling by foot, horseback or wagon. What was the term I used earlier? Right, Sod off you dam easterners.
Needless to say, the rejection of the tax was wide spread. President Washington at first tried resolve the issue peacefully, as is the American way. There was a series of meetings held in Pittsburgh and as a result the tax was modified and a reduction of 1 cent a gallon was instituted. One cent. That was hardly enough to appease the pissed off distillers and much like the middle-east when the united states put Saddam Hussein in power to try and keep the peace, it quickly turned violent. And by 1794 whiskey rebels, as they called themselves, holy shit I want a t-shirt labeling me as a whiskey rebel, turned to a more physical approach to express their anger.
First they set fire to the regional tax collection supervisor’s house. Then a new tax collector named Robert Johnson, that’s a made up movie name if I’ve ever heard one, was attempting to collect taxes and he was tarred and feathered. When officials sent a man to serve warrants to Johnson’s attackers, they whipped and tarred and feathered him too! Okay, so we throw around tar and feathering a lot when referencing history. But think about this, how passionate do you have to be for your livelihood to take a guy, and pour hot tar over his body. There is a common misconception that the tar we are talking about is used in present day for asphalt and such, but it was in fact a tar extracted from pine trees. That was then painted on the person and then either throwing them or rolling the victim around in the feathers. It wasn’t incredibly painful or even permanently damaging, but was used as a method to embarrass the victim into conforming to the mob’s way of thinking.
So an incredibly interesting comparison is these attacks were modeled after the effects of the American revolution. The same tactics were used on the British not 10 years earlier. The same techniques used to start a revolution were being adopted by the Whiskey Rebels. And much like Rosa Parks siting on the bus, this was, in fact, an incredibly orchestrated communication method to prove a point. The whiskey distillers and much of the population was trying to communicate to the federalists and the easterners that their actions were so eerily close to those of the british and they wouldn’t stand for it. The whiskey rebels felt that they were being taxed unfairly because they didn’t have representation in government. Most government officials lived in the cities on the eastern seaboard and were out of touch with the frontiersman living in the west. As a side note, living in California it feels really weird to call someone living in Pennsylvania a westerner. So much like them throwing tea into the ocean, they were revolting against Taxation without Representation, which feels so freaking similar to political movements of today. Literally fringe candidates, most notably Bernie Sanders, are gaining incredible popularity and challenging billionaire candidates because the American people feel they aren’t being represented properly. Now, of course there’s no tar and feathers being produced, but people of modern day have a direct connection to American revolutionists and the whiskey rebels. It’s like the spirit of fair and equal treatment is burned into our brain as a young child or something. Oh wait… it is. I pledge allegiance to the flag…. And we still love our freaking whiskey.
Okay so at this President Washington had no choice! He was put in a place where the strength of the federal government was being threatened. This could literally put the entire country at stake. Can you believe that freaking whiskey had the power to threaten the federal government? So he responded, strongly. He ordered almost 13,000 militia men, the exact number is 12,950, to western Pennsylvania. The best part was how badass President Washington is. Dude literally saddled up his mare and rode into battle leading the militia. But by the time the army of militia men arrived the rebels had disbanded. As would I if I looked around at 400 of my friends and was like oh, um they have us outnumbered 3 to 1. Perhaps we should bail? In the wake 24 men were charged with High Treason. The penalty which was hanging, I reckon. But only 2 men were actually convicted. One of them was John Mitchell who had robbed the U.S. Mail and the other was one guy named Philip Wigle. Now Wigle had been a little more aggressive and beat up a tax collector AND burned his house. Both of these guys were sentenced to hanging, but ole Washington pardoned both of them.
And that right there is how the Federal Government of the United States survived it’s first real challenge as a new nation. Maybe a bit heavy handed in it’s response, but did it’s job, I suppose and laid down a legacy that we should not mess with the damn federal government otherwise George fucking Washington is coming to your door with 13,000 of his men.
One less talked about fact is that the whiskey tax remained incredibly hard to collect. Many of the frontier distillers still refused to pay it and this contributed greatly to the creation of political parties, that was already underway. See you thought it was trump creating all the derision, but political division was present from the beginning. And in fact, when Jefferson is named president, he repeals the whiskey tax in the year 1801.
Interestingly enough, there is a new whiskey company named after our boy, Philip Wigle. And it’s located in the state of Pennsylvania. Their branding is fantastic. Commemorating the man who fought for his right to distill whiskey, as their website says, and the “G” in the logo is fashioned into a noose. Unfotunately, Wigle whiskey is not out this way yet, so I’ll have to wait to obtain any. If you live in Pennsylvania, drop me a note and we can set something up to get me some.
Now, lets drink some bourbon. Tying that whiskey rebel theme straight through our tasting, we are drinking Rebel Yell. So this bottle is under $10 and available pretty much everywhere. It was once owned by the famed Stizel Weller distillery and from what I understand this shares an incredibly similar mashbill to W.L. Weller, another wheated bourbon that came from the Stizel Weller distillery. However, when the stizel weller distillery closed down, its brands were sold off to multiple distilleries, for example, W.L. Weller went to Buffalo trace and remains awesome. Rebel Yell on the other hand was sold to Heaven Hill and which was bought by Luxco Spirited brands. Luxco is not really known for whiskey but falls more in the line of Blue Raspberry Vodka. I kinda wish they’d put some of that blue raspberry syrup in this rebel yell, because honestly, it’s terrible.
I wish the name of this whiskey didn’t fit so well with the theme of the rest of this podcast. But here we go. The nose on this is the best part of the whiskey. With it about chin length away from my nose I pick up light honey and caramel. As I bring it closer to my nose I pick up light vanilla and then things go bad and I’m blasted with alcohol. This is only 80 proof, but I feel like it’s 80 proof rubbing alcohol.
On the palate it’s very strange. I get raisins and caramel and vanilla, but honestly, it feels very disjointed. It’s like I am tasting these all individually and not part of a well put together bourbon. It also feels very inauthentic. Like it’s sweeteners or something. Very weird. The finish is just as terrible. Super short and super alcohol. Honestly, I am so disappointed in this whiskey I am not even going to use a picture of it in the episode. Ugh.
Anyways, sorry about the lackluster whiskey tasting. I do hope you enjoyed learning of the Whiskey Rebellion. And if you did, I’d feel incredibly honored if you’d leave a review on itunes. With such a young podcast, every bit helps. Well, I’ve gotta get back to work, cause when I stop rowing the slave ship just goes in circles. Catch ya on the flip side.