Whiskey—a liquor whose origins in medieval Scotland or Ireland remain murky—once was an uncommon, exotic liquor in the 13 colonies, where rum, gin and brandy were the strong drinks of choice. But during and immediately after the Revolutionary War, that all changed. Whiskey became a popular—and profitable—drink, and more than that, a crucial commodity in the economy of the new United States of America.

Whiskey’s rise as an American liquor was due in large part to the fact that it didn’t have to be imported. Unlike rum, which was made from sugarcane and molasses shipped from British-controlled islands in the Caribbean to distilleries in New England, whiskey could be distilled in this country from domestically sourced raw ingredients. Corn, in particular, was plentiful in America.

The Food That Built America

Watch every season of the hit show The Food That Built America. Available to stream now.

Watch now

“The British cut off molasses and rum from the West Indies during the Revolution,” explains William Rorabaugh, author of the 1979 book The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, which explores the nation’s drinking habits prior to Prohibition. “Domestic whiskey originally was a wartime substitute.”

But even after the hostilities ended, the rum trade wasn’t reestablished to the same degree as it had existed prior to the war, Rorabaugh says. Scottish-Irish immigrants, who were used to drinking whiskey in their own countries, took to American whiskey readily. An even bigger factor in whiskey’s rise, he says, was as Americans migrated westward, they had access to more land to grow more corn. 

“Surplus corn would rot, unless it was preserved by turning it into whiskey,” Rorabaugh says. A whiskey boom was born and soon farmers were shipping crates of it East for cash. 

In Europe, liquor was commonly made from potatoes, wheat, rye or barley, so American corn-made whiskey was unique, although it had to be made in small batches. “Corn scorched in large stills but worked fine in small ones,” Rorabaugh says. “Most American distillers found that mixing a bit of rye or wheat (both more expensive than corn) made distilling easier. The new small stills also became more efficient, and the bite of raw whiskey was solved by aging whiskey in barrels.”

New Tax Spurs Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion
Fotosearch/Getty Images
Cartoon depicting 'An Exciseman,' a political statement from the Whiskey Rebellion threatening to 'tar and feather the rascal,' due to the excise tax imposed on whiskey in 1791 by the federal government.

Whiskey generated so much income, that when the new nation struggled under the weight of Revolutionary War debt, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on domestic liquor as a means of paying it off. Congress passed the legislation, but as Loyola University-trained historian Peter Kotowski explains, the tax soon met strident opposition.

To small farmers and distillers on the frontier in western Pennsylvania, whiskey was a means of financial survival, and they weren’t about to share their hard-earned money with the federal government. They refused to pay, and began tarring and feathering tax collectors and seizing their records at gunpoint in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

President Washington—who himself later made whiskey in a distillery at Mount Vernon after he left office—initially tried to quell the uprising with a 1792 proclamation that admonished the farmers to comply. But two years later, after the malcontents set fire to the Pittsburgh home of a tax official, Washington didn’t have much choice but to respond with force.

He organized a federal militia of nearly 13,000 men and marched to western Pennsylvania, where 150 of the whiskey rebels were arrested. Only two were tried and convicted of treason. Washington, who’d made his point about the federal government’s authority, eventually pardoned them.

Whiskey Drunk as Water, Medicine

Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Advertisement for Gilbert & Parsons Hygienic Whiskey for medical use in the mid 19th century.

Despite the brouhaha, whiskey itself remained popular, especially on the frontier. As Kate Hopkins details in 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot, at a time when the nation lacked clean drinking water, whiskey provided a sanitary substitute.

“Whiskey was drunk on a daily basis, as a means to start the day or complete a deal, or even as prescribed medicine,” she writes. In the west, it even was used as an alternative currency, in places where actual dollars and cents were difficult to come by.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson eliminated the unpopular tax on whiskey, which gave the whiskey industry a renewed boost. Whiskey became an integral part of daily American life, with many drinking it at meals as well as starting and ending each day with a swallow or two. James Madison was said to have drunk a pint of whiskey daily. “By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty-five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk,” Rorabaugh writes.

Whiskey Profits Dip With Rise of Industrial Revolution

Ted Streshinsky/Corbis/Getty Images
Whiskey flasks from the 1800s.

Even so, whiskey’s economic importance eventually subsided, as the nation evolved. “After 1830 the U.S. economy became more industrial in the modern sense with mass production of textiles, shoes, books and other goods, as well as a transportation revolution that started with canals and steamboats and quickly turned to railroads,” Rorabaugh says. “These new giant industries were highly capitalized in a way that whiskey was not.”

Another factor that made whiskey less lucrative was the rise of the American temperance movement, which was strongly aligned with the nascent crusade for women’s rights. To early feminists, alcohol abuse by men, who sometimes drank up their pay at the tavern and left their families struggling, had the effect of oppressing women.

In an increasingly industrialized, rapidly growing America, whiskey also got in the way of factory profits. Factory work required Americans to stay awake and alert for long periods during the Industrial Revolution. That’s when another strong drink became popular across the country—coffee.