We at HDH are currently gearing up for our June auction, and one of the most unique lots that will be featured the sale is a rare full case of 24 individually packaged pints of Dougherty’s 1917 Private Stock Pure Rye Whiskey, bottled in the Spring of 1930 and sold in America during Prohibition for “medicinal purposes only” (Lot 1429). As an American history buff, I jumped at the opportunity to provide some further information on the story behind this unique offering.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (commonly known as Prohibition) banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol within the U.S. from 1920 through 1933. The law inevitably went down in history as a failure—Americans continued to drink in great numbers during Prohibition, and the consumption of spirits actually increased. Faced with scarcity and the threat of prison, those Americans who were able to acquire alcohol were much more willing to risk breaking the law for a pint of whiskey than for a can of beer. Accordingly, the populace ditched the ‘drink of moderation’ in favor of harder drinks. While many Americans settled for moonshine (oftentimes unpalatable or even toxic) at their local speakeasy for their liquor fix, a lucky few were able to get their hands on genuine American whiskey thanks to an important legal loophole, and the industriousness of a few doctors and pharmacists.
Though almost all legal production was halted and any distilleries found in violation of the Volstead Act had their liquor confiscated and/or destroyed, a select few distilleries were given licenses to continue bottling spirits for medicinal purposes. Physicians were then permitted to issue prescriptions for alcohol, and patients (or whoever wound up with the Rx script) could then purchase the spirits from pharmacies. Multiple accounts assert that at least some physicians and pharmacists were well aware that the laws of supply and demand were on their sides, and a number of them began charging patients extra premiums for their “medicine.” By the late 1920s, physicians were writing approximately eleven million prescriptions for alcohol annually, the majority of which were for whiskey.
John A. Dougherty’s (later John A. Dougherty’s Sons) Distillery was established in Philadelphia county in 1849, and while the distillery was shut down in 1919, it was one of the few still permitted to bottle medicinal whiskey in Bond during Prohibition. Their Rye was and remains one of the only legally-bottled American whiskies from the era in existence.