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During colonial times, distilling was a common practice.
There were no laws regulating production and use of alcohol, so
farmers and mill owners who had ready access to grains such as rye
and corn commonly ran a still. Not only was liquor easy to sell
if production outstripped a
family's needs, jugs of moonshine were also far easier to haul to market than
bulky bushels of grain. The recent discovery that George Washington operated a distillery on the
grounds of Mt Vernon may have come as a surprise to many, but production of whiskey
was a normal part of everyday life during the early years.
Federal Government soon realized that taxes on the production of alcohol
could provide a ready and reliable source of revenue. When the taxes were first introduced,
many of the distillers living in Pennsylvania
rebelled and fled south rather than pay their dues.
Here they found a distiller's haven; land that was fertile and perfect for growing raw materials for fermentation,
and ground-water that was sweet after having
percolated through the native limestone. Thus Kentucky and
Tennessee became a center for the country's distilling industry,
states whose names are synonymous with fine American whiskey and
The tax man eventually caught up with the rebel
distillers and a country-wide taxation system was organized and
imposed. The states were divided up into multiple tax
districts and distilleries were registered so that their output
could be monitored and the appropriate dues levied. The unique
identifier "Registered Distillery No. 354, 5th Dist. Louisville,
KY" seen beneath the engraving in the header above reflects the
common use of this system as a way of establishing the source of
liquor being sold by the retailers and mail-order vendors.
Surprisingly few traces of the Registered Distillery system as it
existed in the years leading up to Prohibition (1920) survive in the
public record. The
www.pre-pro.com distillery database is an attempt to recreate
and archive this distillation landscape for the benefit of
collectors, researchers and genealogists.
The database as it stands is little more than bare bones and is far
from being comprehensive. Individual distillery listing pages (see example) will
be fleshed out as new information becomes available and time allows,
but to date
individual distilleries are identified an the basis
of their Registered Distillery number and tax district.
Five principal sources of information have been used in compiling
- The basic scaffolding of the database was
created using Treasury Department records. The Commissioner of
Internal Revenue published a summary of bonded warehouse
transactions for all states and tax districts at the close of
each fiscal year. Copies of these records for
the years 1898, 1901, 1903, 1904, 1914 and 1920 were obtained
from the US government by Bob Snyder (founder of the Snyder Whiskey Research Center)
and were subsequently
purchased from him so as to make them available here. The tax records (over 10,000
total) are organized by state and tabulated, showing the name
of the distiller, the distillery number and the nature of the
transaction, the tax district, the closest post office or town
and the county and section of the state in which the bonded
warehouse was located. All of these records have been
transcribed and collated and are available here in
undigested form. Individual distillery listing pages are
generated by integrating the raw warehouse transaction data
with information from city business directories (the City
Database) and other information obtained from sources listed
Bob Snyder had also acquired records of an insurance underwriter,
published in 1892 and updated in 1896. The records only cover
distilleries located in Kentucky, but they contain information about the construction
of each distillery and its warehouses, its location,
who owned and operated them, and which of the major wholesalers it might be
- Ephemera: considerable amounts of advertising
material survives from pre-Prohibition times. Often,
letterheads or flyers contained snippets of information about a
distillery, its owners, and its location: the Registered
Distillery # seen on the image above is a prime example.
The website systematically acquires such material as it becomes
available, but much of it has yet to integrated into the databases.
- Research texts: most books to date have
focused on Kentucky distilleries and the information they
contain is often anecdotal in nature and frequently misleading.
When information from prior texts has been incoporated into the database, the source is cited.
- Websites and collectors like you: modern
heirs of the old distillation industry often have websites
containing historical information that has been incorporated
(with attribution), but one of the most important sources of
information are collectors and researchers who hunt down
information about hometown distilleries as a hobby. If you are such a collector and
are willing to share your findings, they will accepted with
gratitude. Credit is always given when due. Contact
the glassmaster for
more details on how to contibute!