1800s davenport

What ever happened to Iowa Whiskey?

Iowa has it all, good water, some of the finest grain on the planet, even an abundance of old growth oak trees needed for the barrels used to age the product. Towns like Davenport were noted for pioneer distilleries.  The mix of cultures, Scotch, Irish, English and later Germans and Scandinavians, developed unique styles of whiskey.  Mississippi River based Davenport-style whiskey strongly contrasted with the harsher flavored spirits of the mostly German settlers of the western portion of the state.


By all rights, Iowa could have been, might have been or perhaps should have been the Whiskey Capitol of the New World. But, things happen, civilization shifts, cultural fads shift and twist history.  This is the story of why Iowa whiskey isn’t the mecca of modern liquor.


In the very old days, liquor like most products was produced locally. Self-sufficiency wasn’t a fad, it was a way of life.  If you needed apples you planted an orchard, if you wanted wool you learned to weave.  Products requiring special equipment were often produced locally too.  Distillers were known as experts and often the trade passed from father to son.


However, with the coming of the steam engine, the advent of easier transportation and the beginning of what many Americans of the time called the Second Industrial Revolution, the production of whiskey and spirits in general moved from small one or two man operations to larger and more powerful operations.   Even though all of the world’s big name whiskey operations tout some historic connection to a single guy working out of still house down a dirt lane, at some point the founder or descendant of one of the founders made the decision to “get big.”  The story of Iowa Whiskey is no different.


Most people don’t realize that Des Moines, Iowa was the whiskey making capitol of America, perhaps ever the world, at one time. During the time running up to the 1880s Des Moines made claim to the largest distillery operation in the world.   The International Distilling Company of Des Moines produced whisky and liquors of all kinds for sale throughout the US and the rest of the world.  This company was both well known, but also studied by other distillers as the model of the future.  But something happened…


Iowa voted for Prohibition in 1883

About the time of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War, the temperance movement started to gather steam. While most Americans understand what has been called “The Great Experiment,” few realize Prohibition started at the grass roots level.  First alcohol was banned in villages and towns, and as the movement grew, entire states prohibited alcohol.


Kansas was the first to go. Quoting the work of historian Andrew Sinclair, “a world free from alcohol and, by that magic panacea, free also from want and crime and sin, a sort of millennial Kansas afloat on a nirvana of pure water!”


Iowa was next to follow suit. A proposed constitutional amendment making the production and sale of alcohol was approved by the Iowa House and Senate in early 1882.  On June 27th, a state wide referendum on the amendment was ratified by a popular vote of 55 percent.  It should be noted all of the river counties of Iowa with the exception of Muscatine and Louisa soundly opposed the movement.  We will touch on the river counties later, but following passage beer and spirits, including the Legendary Davenport-style whiskey, became illegal.


This brings us back to the story of why Iowa Whiskey disappeared from the national scene. International Distilling Company continued to make whiskey with the intent of selling it outside the bounds of prohibition strapped Iowa.  However, law enforcement had other ideas.


On Feb 23rd, 1887, Iowa Judge Conrad made the decision to permanently enjoin the International Distilling Company from making liquor for anything other than legal uses, mechanical, medical, sacramental and culinary purposes.  The case went to the US Supreme Court where the ruling was upheld.  This move put one of Des Moines largest industries out of business.  And moved the production of other distillers into a shadowy world of semi-legal operation.


Davenport and the rest of Iowa’s Scott County were firmly opposed to the ideas around prohibition. Consider this fact, Davenport proper had over 200 saloons which stayed in full operation well past the 1883 prohibition act.  The Bucktown area of Davenport continued to prosper into the early 20th Century.  And many modern readers question how this worked.


Suffice to say, things were different a century and a quarter ago. Local law enforcement was largely the job of the local police department and county sheriff; both tied to the local electorate.  Davenporters opposed prohibition.  Even after the days of Federal Prohibition, Davenport and Scott Country were moist if not wet communities.  For instance, just a mile or so away from Artisan Grain Distillery stands a historic part of town called The Village of East Davenport (which is on the Historic Register) home to a German American social club called the Turner’s Hall.


In 1928, Federal Agents with the possibly reluctant help of the Davenport Police conducted a raid on this social club where 4,185 bottles of homebrew, 90 gallons of mash, 15 crocks, 50 cans of malt, beer cases, capers and other materials for making beer were destroyed. You can almost hear the sobs of many a good German Workingman still.


Returning to our original question, what happened to Iowa Whiskey?

Most of the sizable distilleries throughout the state simply went out of business. A few in Davenport lingered on, some may have even prospered until finally quashed by Federal lead authorities in the 1920s.


Davenport-style whiskey had a distinct advantage during this time. Like what the rustic mountaineers of Appalachia call moonshine, white lighting or Tennessee white whiskey, Davenport-style whiskey was not aged for long periods of time. It retained its clear color. But, unlike the rough stock, hastily thrown together kerosene tasting hooch of the American Smokey Mountains, the Davenport-style whiskey was specially produced for its drinkability. While aging does mellow the flavor, an expert distiller can craft the kind of flavor enjoyed equally by working folks and socialites alike.


Artisan Grain Distillers through painstaking research, study and experimentation have recreated the historic blend enjoyed up and down the Mississippi River and throughout the hinterlands of Iowa and Illinois. Pour yourself a glass and relax as our forefathers did. Help your friends discover this fine old tradition. You might even engage in a lively 1880s type discussion on the evils of Prohibition.