Whiskey Sales Rebound, Inviting Review of History of Popular Spirit

whiskey excise tax, rebellion marred early history of spirit

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Bar and restaurant sales of whiskey are catching up after a COVID-19 slump. Throughout 2020 and much of 2021, liquor stores and other off-premise alcohol sales dominated the market. Whiskey has been an American staple for centuries.

whiskey and glass
Two years after the pandemic shutdown and very low alcohol sales at restaurants and bars since then, the alcohol industry is projected to take several years to recover. Photo by donfiore / Shutterstock

In the face of the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, owners of bars and restaurants watched helplessly as on-premise alcohol sales took a nosedive and people opted to drink at home. In 2021, those numbers rose slowly but surely. On-premise sales of spirits like whiskey aren’t quite back to pre-pandemic levels, but they are showing a clear and major comeback compared to two years ago. An AP News article said that U.S. sales for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye whiskey climbed by $288 million in 2021.

Whiskey has played a major part in American history. In his video series America’s Founding Fathers, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, explains whiskey’s role from Hamilton’s excise tax to the Whiskey Rebellion.

Hamilton’s Backlash

The plentiful nature of wheat in 18th-century Appalachia, along with its low return rate, caused farmers to distill it into whiskey and send it to other states in order to turn a substantial profit.

“Given that specie—hard coin—was as difficult to find in the Appalachian backcountry as it was in Daniel Shays’ Western Massachusetts, whiskey became the coin of the frontier realm,” Dr. Guelzo said. “And unlike specie, whiskey could be enjoyed, as well. Which is why, when Western Pennsylvania farmers first learned that Alexander Hamilton’s Report on the Public Credit was proposing to fund the national government’s debt on the back of an excise tax on whiskey, the first response was wrath as hot and vehement as the whiskey itself.”

Farmers were additionally frustrated with the idea of an excise tax as opposed to a tariff on imported goods to help settle America’s debts. The Stamp Act had been an excise tax and was so unpopular that it was repealed. Then again, the “taxman” is never popular.

“When Robert Johnson, the first federal revenue officer appointed for Washington and Allegheny counties, arrived in 1791, he was attacked, tarred, and feathered by ‘persons of the lowest class,'” Dr. Guelzo said. “Public meetings in Pittsburgh in 1792 adopted defiant resolutions, modeled on the old Stamp Act protests and promising to withhold ‘all aid, support, or comfort’ from excise collectors.

“Hamilton was flabbergasted.”

The Whiskey Rebellion

Unrest over the whiskey tax spread from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Further incidents over the following two years exacerbated tensions, which came to a head in 1794. In July of that year, newly appointed federal marshal David Lenox arrived in Pennsylvania with 39 summonses for “defiers of the excise,” demanding they appear in federal court in Philadelphia. He turned to federalist John Neville for help serving the writs.

“Lenox and Neville were shot at and, on July 16, a band of 50 armed men showed up at Neville’s farm, Bower Hill, just southwest of Pittsburgh,” Dr. Guelzo said. “Neville armed his slaves, barricaded himself in his house, and shooting began, leaving five attackers wounded. The next day, the attackers returned, now swollen to between 400 and 800. Neville fled, and Bower Hill was burnt to the ground.”

On August 1, a mass of 7,000 “whiskey rebels” was called at Braddock’s Field and encouraged to continue to defy the excise and march on Pittsburgh. Less than a week later, George Washington himself issued a proclamation about the dangers that the American government and the nation’s social order faced. He also called upon the militia of four mid-Atlantic states to assemble at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Washington would take command—with Hamilton as his second-in-command—to quell the rebellion.

An Unlikely End

Self-styled Republican William Findley, who had been elected to Congress to serve Western Pennsylvania and called for Hamilton’s resignation over the excise tax, caught wind of Washington’s plan.

“Findley was no lover of the excise, but he also had no desire to see property destroyed or have his western Pennsylvania district become a theater of civil war, especially at the hands of ‘the vast mass of undisciplined men’ who would compose Washington’s army,” Dr. Guelzo said. “He talked the rebels into appointing him as an emissary to meet with Washington at Carlisle.”

According to Dr. Guelzo, Findley arrived on October 9, blaming the entire outburst on Hamilton, but also praising Washington’s response to the uprising and assuring him that laws would be obeyed. Washington, unsatisfied, began marching on Pittsburgh on October 12, where he surprisingly encountered cheers and hospitality at every turn. By the 20th, he was so confident that no fighting would occur that he relinquished command to a subordinate.

At the same time, Findley calmed the rebels and convinced them to disperse. In the end, just 20 rebels were arrested and a crisis was averted.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily