April 18 2021 – David Lemmond
At Rustic & Main, whiskey barrel rings come straight or mixed. In other words, we offer them as a ring base, a liner, or an inlay. Additionally, they can be either natural or weathered. The natural is lighter while the weathered has a dark, charcoal appearance. The main distinction of this design comes from the brand of whiskey chosen. And brand is where this ring becomes a personal expression of taste that is steeped in history.
While the roots of whiskey making can be traced back to 15th-century Ireland and Scotland, America has also established its own classic brands. One of the most defining parts of this complex process is carried out in wooden barrels (that is, aging, maturing and finishing). In this three-part blog series, we’ll explore the intriguing elements of the whiskey craft and its turbulent past.
To understand how American whiskey developed over the centuries, we have to dig a little deeper into the history. Beginning in the early 18th century, multitudes of Scots and Scots-Irish began immigrating to America. As a result, some of the traditional skills and techniques of distilling came with them. According to Appalachian Magazine,
“Scotch-Irish settlers [were] a segment of the American population said to have been good at only two things: brawling and distilling liquor. A popular anecdote from early colonial days alleged, ‘When the English would arrive in the new world, the first thing they would do would be to build a church, the Germans would build a barn, but the Scotch-Irish would build a whiskey still.’… The Scotch-Irish were forced to move westward into the remote Appalachian Mountains, where they found the privacy to continue their practice of turning corn and grain into alcohol.”
This passage above is meant to raise awareness of some early stereotyping occurring at the time in American society. Despite this, it should be noted that more than half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent. The success of George Washington’s distillery, Mount Vernon, is also credited to the skills of a Scotsman.
From the Distilled Spirit Council’s American Whiskey Trail tourism initiative website, “American whiskey started its life as a raw, unaged spirit …”. It was a clear liquid made from corn or rye, and was consumed shortly after being distilled. It was a valuable trade commodity because it was consumed by the masses several times per day. Whiskey was also used for medicinal purposes, such as cleaning wounds and dulling pain.
Sophistication Developed Through Time
The Revolutionary War era marked a shift in consumption from rum to whiskey due to lack of imported ingredients, such as molasses. Starting in 1789, corn replaced rye as the primary ingredient in whiskey, particularly amongst farmers on the frontier of Virginia. This is the corn whiskey that eventually became known as bourbon. It was the aging that really made it stand out. These same farmers discovered that by charring the inside of the oak barrels, the matured whiskey would have a darker, richer color and superior flavor.
Family owned distilleries began to flourish in the 1800’s and by 1964, to set an official standard, bourbon became a distinctive product of the United States. Made in America with American grains by American hands, what’s more patriotic than that?
The Original Whiskey Rebellion
It’s important to establish a context surrounding moonshining and what prompted The Whiskey Rebellion. Taxes have been at the center of many conflicts throughout American history, beginning with the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Alcohol taxes, specifically, have been a consistent source for government income dating back to 1791. Once America won its independence, alcohol taxes appeared intermittently through the years to help finance wars. By the time we reached the Civil War era, the alcohol tax had provided a significant percentage of income for the government.
After the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), whiskey taxes resulted in The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. Farmers and distillers became increasingly hostile towards tax collectors, refusing to pay the taxes and suggesting that the taxes created unnecessary hardships, hitting the poor particularly hard. Eventually, the groups evolved into violent mobs forcing George Washington to rely on a federal militia to regain order. During this period, moonshining became a means of avoiding taxes. Moonshine is whiskey made and sold illegally. The name originated from those who made whiskey at night -- by the light of the moon -- to maintain secrecy. This is the reason moonshining once carried a Heroic Outlaw overtone (with the exception of poor or dangerous distilling practices).
The whiskey tax was finally repealed in 1802.
20th Century Whiskey Rebellion and the Birth of NASCAR
American Prohibition and federal alcohol tax once again had a dramatic impact on how whiskey was made and sold. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, it was both taxes and regulations that resulted in a continuation of the deep-rooted practice of moonshining and bootlegging. According to NCPedia,
“Moonshine… has been a part of North Carolina lore and culture for centuries… [Some of the slang names for moonshine include:] mountain dew, white lightning, corn liquor, popskull, stumphole whiskey, and shine. North Carolina's tradition of auto racing developed in the garages of bootleggers, particularly on the roads between North Wilkesboro and Charlotte. Legendary auto racers Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner were well-known bootleggers in the 1950s. [And] many of the winning entries at local Saturday night race events would be hauling illegal whiskey the following morning.”
Since bootleggers had to have outstanding driving skills and fast cars to evade the law, tradition has it that they often challenged one another in unorganized racing. This practice eventually gave rise to the idea of creating organized racing. Thus, NASCAR had its first “strictly stock” race in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1949. Most race tracks at the time were located where bootlegging was prominent, thereby tying the two together on a functional and cultural level.
My great-uncle, James Brice Stowe (shown left), lived from 1913 to 2000. Also known as “Paw” Stowe, was a North Carolina bootlegger and bar owner. From the late 1940’s onward, he lived on Old Speedway Drive, near the original location of Concord Motor Speedway. His shine came from Wilkes County, NC (once proclaimed as the “Moonshine Capital of the World”). His “beer joints” in the 1960s and 70’s, Wagon Wheel and Twin Tanks, were within a mile of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The Scots-Irish Influence
The influence of the Scots-Irish population reached well beyond distilling whiskey. They exemplified bold defiance in the face of adversity, especially in regards to defending territory. The Germans and English who settled alongside the Scots-Irish in the harsh conditions of the Appalachians assumed a similar disposition. Generations later, this temperament emboldened the distinct rebellious culture associated with the early days of auto racing. By the 1960’s, many of those previously involved in moonshining/bootlegging continued to use their skills, this time as professional race-car drivers, mechanics, team owners, and in other legitimate businesses.
In the next blog, The Whiskey Barrel Ring: Distinct by Brand - Part 2, we’ll discuss whiskey barrels in more depth, as well as the different types of whiskeys according to countries and regions, discovering how whiskey as we know it today came to be.Rustic & Main has a growing collection of rare and popular whiskey barrel woods that we use to craft our unique wooden rings. Our assortment of brands includes Scottish, Irish, and American whiskeys. Part of the legacy of your favorite brand can be preserved in a custom ring. Check out our customization options in our ring customizer and message our live chat team to get all of your questions answered!
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