Bourbon and Wine

As I have said, one reason I was in Paris and London was to give a paper at the Alcohol Drugs History Conference, Under Control? My paper was “Creating Bourbon: Distillers and the federal government 1862-1963.” I was part of a panel, “New drinks, new cultures”. The other panelist was Elizabeth Gabay, who spoke on “A side effect of gin regulations: the development of punch in Britain.

Elizabeth Gabay discussed how society viewed punch as a better drink than gin. The recipe she gave for punch showed that he drink could contain a variety of spirits as long as gin was not included. To make punch you had to use sugar not honey as your sweetener. Different classes of people used different spirits for punch.

An organization, Film Exchange on Alcohol and Drugs (FEAD) filmed our session. I will link to the video when it is available.

In brief, my paper looked at how bourbon distillers used government regulation such as the Bottled-In-Bond Act and federal bonding polices to carve out a market niche. Absent these government policies, bourbon distillers would have been slow to store and age their product. Aging gives the liquor its distinctive flavor and is now part of the definition of what makes bourbon, bourbon.

Much of the conference focused on social and cultural aspects of drug and alcohol use. Fewer participants gave papers on the economic or political issues surrounding the production and manufacture of alcohol and drugs.

One of the keynote speakers, James Simpson, spoke about the wine industry, globally, from 1880-1980. His talk focused on wine cooperatives which functioned as cartels. Although my paper didn’t look at the economic associations and combinations in the distilled spirits industry, they did take place.

A key to the success of a combination is agreeing to control, usually reduce production. In America, the California Wine Association (CWA) was able to effectively control production in the late nineteenth century. The distillers were less successful and had many different combinations prior to Prohibition.

James Simpson mentioned that the CWA was able to continue as a trust because most Americans did not drink wine and most of the wine the CWA produced went out-of-state. The distillers were once again less successful at avoiding scrutiny. The Whiskey Trust, a combination of neutral spirits producers, was the subject of Congressional investigations.

I enjoyed going to the conference and meeting people whose research interests are similar to mine. Comparing wine and distilled spirits shows the strong role government plays in shaping what we drink.

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