American whiskey is a general category that includes straight Bourbon, rye, Tennessee, and corn whiskey as well as blended whiskey. These are produced primarily from corn with the admixture of barley, wheat or rye (the mixture of grains used for distillation is referred to as the mashbill).
Whiskey distillation has a long tradition in the United States. The founding fathers even considered it a tempting source of revenue: in 1789 the Continental Congress passed a law taxing whiskey. There was widespread opposition to this tax, resulting in the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion that lead to the temporary, and ultimately failed secession of Pittsburgh from the union.
Although the rebellion was put down, distillers fled the more settled regions of the colonies (where rye was often used for whiskey) and settled in Kentucky and Tennessee where corn was more common. Corn eventually came to dominate whiskey production since it is considerably less expensive than other grains. Today, even rye whiskey contains a fair amount of corn.
Maturation of the spirit in oak barrels also became common in the early 19th century, and the "white dog" style of un-aged whiskey style gradually lost favor to sweeter, softer cask matured styles. Bourbon began to gain fans beginning in the 1940s, since Bourbon County, Kentucky was seen as a quality-oriented place.
Prior to the Civil War, whiskey (and apple jack) did not enjoy a great prestige, but by the end of the 19th century, however, it had almost completely supplanted Cognac and other traditional drinks. The industry gradually modernized, installing continuous stills and using charcoal fermentation.
From 1920 to 1933, Prohibition spelled the end of this rich period of whiskey production. Distilleries began to reopen after Repeal, enshrined in the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution, but there was a lag time as whiskey aged in cask. In 1948, there were only four American distilleries that could produce commercial quantities of spirit. Whiskey made a gradual comeback in the 50s and 60s, although it was eclipsed by white spirits in the 70s. The 1980s saw the development of small-batch Bourbon and single barrel whiskies (small-batch Bourbons are chosen from particular barrels, NOT distilled in small batches).
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