Forget everything you know about whiskey, Prohibition, and the modern liquor industry. The real story is wild ride full of little known tales, plot twists, and unexpected connections that shaped the drink we call aqua vitae – the water of life.
We’re not kidding about the “crammed” part. We explore the connections between:
- Mesopotamian perfume makers & Alexandrian alchemists
- The Jewish female alchemist who invented the still
- Baptism by fire in Gnostic traditions
- Monastic infirmaries and the origin of gin
- Walla Walla onions and champagne
- The real story behind anti-Catholic stereotypes of drunken priests
- The anti-union, anti-immigrant, and anti-black agenda of the Temperance Movement
- Myths about alcohol consumption in the 1800s
- Why Prohibition caused a spike in rabbinical school enrollments and church attendance
- Why the average bootlegger was a woman — not a mobster – who exploited cultural norms to outsell her male competitors 5 to 1!
- How Walgreens became the largest drug store chain in the United States (SPOILER: Despite their official story, it has nothing to do with milkshakes)
- That time the US government knowingly poisoned thousands of people
- How the myth that women don’t drink whiskey originated after World War II
- How a Scottish woman became the Mother of Japanese Whisky
- and much more!
Really. This may be the most information-dense show we’ve ever done.
And Mer geeks out a lot (but that was kind of a given, right?)
Additional Links & Resources:
Janet Patton interviewed author Fred Minnick about his book Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey. Read the article “Women and Whiskey Go Together, Always Have” for some fascinating insights into the her-story of whiskey. Here’s a taste:
“I truly believe that women are more important than men when it comes to the history of whiskey,” Minnick told an August gathering of Bourbon Women at the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort. “Sumerian women invented beer. Mesopotamian women invented distillation for perfume. An Egyptian woman created the alembic still and you can still find prototypes of this in Kentucky and Tennessee for moonshining.”
Some images are less than appealing, such as the madams operating riverboat brothels or the Temperance crusaders who hatcheted saloons and fought for Prohibition.
But, Minnick writes, it is thanks largely to women that American whiskey survived the era.
And then check out Fred Minnick’s book:
For more information on women and whiskey, read “Women Making Whiskey: An 800-year History” from The Atlantic by Lyndsey Gilpin. Here’s an excerpt:
Women are credited with the invention of beer around 4,000 B.C., when they fermented barley to make the beverage. Egyptian women, Peruvian women, Dutch women—they were all brewmasters with their own particular, popular recipes. Maria Hebraea, an alchemist who was first written about in the fourth century, has been credited with building an early distilling apparatus. That device, the alembic still, is still used in some parts of Europe for making brandy or whiskey, and is a model for stills used today in the foothills of Appalachia, where people continue to make moonshine.
By the medieval era, women were distilling spirits in Western Europe, but soon they were stripped of basic rights, barred from reading and studying math or science. In some cultures, they weren’t allowed to be near alcohol. Women do not appear in most texts from this era, and there was little to no mention of these operations for many years, until they started popping back up again in the 1200s, Minnick says. Women were running apothecaries as the demand for distilled medicines increased. They made “aqua vitae”—distilled beer, wine, or spirits—for medicinal use. Until the 1500s, women distilled and sold aqua vitae relatively peacefully.
And one more bit about women during Prohibition:
Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe was the queen of the bootleggers, a beautiful, powerful woman who, immediately after Prohibition was instituted, outsmarted the government by moving to the Bahamas and starting a wholesale whiskey company. When she died in 1964, everyone assumed she was worth millions, but none could prove it.
Even if women weren’t the leaders of bootlegging collectives, men made sure they were in the car because they couldn’t be searched by police. Doing so was considered rude, and searching a woman who was driving alone was actually illegal. As a result, women hid flasks in their dresses, drove trucks filled with liquor, and ran multimillion-dollar operations. Women either were hired by syndicates or created their own bootlegging groups. Minnick says at one point, female bootleggers outsold men five sales to one.
In this episode we talk quite a bit about alchemy and distilling. Here’s a 16th century illustration of an alchemist at work. You can see the jugs used for distillation on the floor and in the background:
And a 17th century still:
And here’s a great article on how whiskey spread from Scotland to Japan: “The Scottish Mother of Japanese Whiskey“.
For more information on Walgreens’ history with whiskey, read “This 75 Billion Dollar Business Was Built Selling Whiskey During Prohibition…Legally“.
I love old-fashioned signage, so this sign from San Antonio caught my eye and I just had to include it in the featured image:
As Meredith promised, here’s a link to the book Whiskey Distilled by Heather Greene
Some whiskey (like Scotch whisky) is made by straining the mash and distilling only the wash (liquid). This process is called “lautering.” Other whiskey (like bourbon) is made by putting unstrained mash directly into a column, continuous, chamber, or other steam-based still. Learn more about why that is (and see some good diagrams) here: How Column Distillation Works: Bourbon Edition