Over the next several decades, a distinctly American whiskey culture developed. It began inland with farmers putting their excess grain to work, and it got a boost from the British blockade of colony ports. The blockade stopped the flow of molasses into the many rum distilleries that dotted port towns. Once the colonists realized the molasses wasn’t coming back, they switched over to making whiskey and never looked back.
Before Prohibition began in 1920, Irish whiskey was the most popular hard alcohol in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. However, two world wars, a global depression, Ireland’s battles for independence, and revived oppressive distillation taxes from the U.K. all resulted in a significant decline in production of Irish whiskey. The number of distilleries dropped from 1,000 in the 19th century to just three by the 1960s. (There are currently nine, with more coming online soon.)
Canadian whisky came on strong due to the void left by U.S. Prohibition, as it was both legal to produce and easy to sneak across the border. It remained popular after our “national experiment” ended in 1933. Indeed, whisk(e)y was the world’s most popular distilled spirit until vodka usurped the crown in the late 1960s.
Though it had existed for centuries, single malt Scotch — defined as whisky produced from 100 percent malted barley at a single distillery — first appeared as a marketing term in the mid-1960s, but it didn’t fully take off until the 1980s and 1990s, when major brands began producing their own versions. At the time, Americans were drinking significantly more beer than hard spirits. That tide began to shift, however, and the rising popularity of whisky helped revive the flagging Scottish distilling industry. Still, many of the major distilleries closed in the 1980s.
With the rise of craft cocktails and craft/micro distilleries in the mid-aughts, whisk(e)y began returning to backbars and home bars. Bourbon, which had long been in decline, made a sudden resurgence, thanks in part to the 1990s debuts of premium expressions from some of Kentucky’s biggest distillers. It turned out to be a short trip from there to experimental barrel finishes and rare, limited-edition bottlings.