Whiskey When We’re Dry: The Great American Drought

Whiskey When We’re Dry: The Great American Drought

When it comes to whiskey, most people tend to think about the smoothness, taste and aroma of the classic American drink. Few think about the origins of whiskey and the role that the Great American Drought played in its history. During the late 19th century, America was facing one of the worst dry spells in its history, impacting everything from crops to the production of whiskey.

What Is Whiskey?

Before we delve deeper into the importance of the Great American Drought in whiskey’s history, let’s take a moment to understand what whiskey is. Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grains like corn, rye, wheat, and barley. The distilled liquid is then aged in barrels for varying lengths of time to create what we know as whiskey. There are several types of whiskey, including bourbon, rye, and scotch.

The Great American Drought – A Historical Perspective

The Great American Drought was a period of time from 1874 to 1896 when a significant portion of the United States experienced decreased precipitation and higher than average temperatures. While the impact of the drought varied depending on the region, it was especially harsh in the West and the Great Plains. The drought led to crop failures, dust storms, and poor economic conditions. Most people barely had enough food to eat, much less anything to drink.

The Impact of the Great American Drought on the Whiskey Industry

The whiskey industry in America was hit particularly hard by the Great American Drought. Grain crops like corn were significantly affected, making it difficult for distillers to obtain the necessary ingredients for whiskey production. The cost of grain skyrocketed, and many distillers were forced to shut down their operations. Those that could afford to continue producing whiskey had to make do with lower quality ingredients and still managed to produce low-quality whiskey.

Recovery and Innovation in the Whiskey Industry

Despite the tough times brought on by the Great American Drought, the whiskey industry eventually recovered and even thrived. Distillers had to get creative with their production methods, and some began experimenting with new recipes and techniques. The use of charred oak barrels, for example, was popularized during this time.

Furthermore, many distillers in the West turned to rye as a substitute for corn, since it required less water to grow and was very resilient in drought conditions. The popularity of rye whiskey became so great that it eventually rivaled that of the traditional corn-based bourbon. Additionally, many new distillers started to emerge in the West, where the climate was more favorable and resources were more abundant. As a result, new and unique styles of whiskey started appearing on the market.


While the Great American Drought may have been a challenging period for whiskey production, it ultimately led to innovation and progress in the industry. Distillers had to think outside the box, which led to new and unique whiskey styles that continue to be enjoyed today. Who knows what new innovations will result from the next challenge that the industry faces?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between bourbon and rye?

Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn and aged in charred oak barrels. Rye is made from at least 51% rye and is typically spicier and drier than bourbon.

How long is whiskey aged in barrels?

The length of time that whiskey is aged in barrels depends on the type of whiskey being produced and the preferences of the distiller. Bourbon, for example, is typically aged for a minimum of two years, while scotch is aged for a minimum of three years.

What is the best way to drink whiskey?

This is largely a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer to drink whiskey neat, while others like to drink it with a little bit of water or ice. Mixing whiskey into cocktails is also common. The important thing is to enjoy the drink in a way that you find satisfying.

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