By Chuck Cowdery
In 1964, Congress passed a concurrent resolution (House and Senate) declaring Bourbon whiskey “a distinctive product of the United States.” To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that event, the Frazier History Museum has obtained from the National Archives the original signed document, which went on display there today.
This is a significant document in the history of America’s now thriving whiskey industry. It has never been on public display before.
Located on Whiskey Row (aka Main St.) in Louisville, the Frazier History Museum was founded by Owsley Brown Frazier, a great-grandson of George Garvin Brown, founder of the 144-year-old Kentucky whiskey-maker Brown-Forman.
Here’s what prompted that 1964 resolution.
After Prohibition went into effect in 1920, Mary Dowling hired Joseph L. Beam to take apart her Waterfill & Frazier Distillery, put it on a truck, and take it to Juarez, Mexico. There he reassembled the distillery and started to produce Mexican Bourbon. Dowling was clever enough to make a powerful local politician her partner in the enterprise.
Instead of building warehouses to age the Bourbon, they just lined the barrels up in the sand. It rains very little in Juarez, so no roof was no problem. When the whiskey was ready, it was illegally exported into the USA.
After Prohibition ended in 1933, Dowling’s distillery continued to export its Bourbon into the USA. This time it was legal.
In 1964, Congress decided to change that. Kentucky Representative John C. Watts introduced the House version and Kentucky Senator Thurston B. Morton did the honors in the Senate. The joint resolution wasn’t law per se, but it expressed the “sense of Congress” and directed the Executive branch to make such rules as were necessary to prevent foreign-made spirits such as Mexican bourbon from being sold and labeled as ‘bourbon’ in the USA.
The Treasury Department duly complied by writing the following words into its Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits: “the word ‘bourbon’ shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States.”
One representative worried about the effect this would have on two of his constituents, heirs to Mary Dowling who were still receiving royalties from the Mexican operation.
Since then, in international trade deals the United States has agreed to respect other country’s distinctive products of national origin such as tequila and cognac, in return for those countries giving similar protection to Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.
It is often written, as it was in publicity for last Friday’s opening, that this resolution made bourbon whiskey ‘America’s Native Spirit.’ It did no such thing. This matters because declaring bourbon ‘America’s Native Spirit’ has no legal effect. Declaring it a ‘distinctive product of the United States’ does, as it prevents distillers in other countries from competing with America’s bourbon makers. They can try to make a bourbon-like product if they want to, but they can’t call it bourbon.
Who says the Federal government never does anything worthwhile?
Bourbon Resolution Unveiled at the Frazier History Museum