The History of Distilling in Virginia

A. Smith Bowman Distillery

September is Virginia Spirits Month, and while you can celebrate with a beverage made by a bartender at a Virginia restaurant or a tour and tasting at a local distillery, learning the history behind the craft tells you what truly went into making that cocktail. So raise your glass, make a toast, and get a taste of Virginia’s distilling history.

Spirits in the New World

Virginia gives much credit to George Washington in his efforts towards making distilling a commercial success, but the first colonist to try his hand at distilling in the New World is a man less remembered in the average history book. An early English settler by the name of George Thorpe traveled to Jamestown to keep a close eye on his sizeable investments in the New World and quickly struck up a trading partnership with the Powhatan in the area. He discovered that by substituting the corn grown by the indigenous peoples for the European barley traditionally used in distilling whiskey, he could create the mash needed to make the drink. By 1620, Thorpe finished his first batch of corn whiskey, but the victory was short-lived. In 1622, he was killed during a clash with the indigenous locals. It would be over a hundred years before corn whiskey would take its place as the most famous Virginia spirit.

The Rise of Distilling in an English Colony

As the colonists began to build and spread further west, they began to realize the advantages of distilled spirits over beer. Although beer was much more palatable with everyday meals, it was hard to store it for long periods of time without spoiling, while spirits could be kept almost indefinitely. Additionally, transporting large amount of corn and rye presented problems, as the roads were dangerous and lugging wagonloads of grain would slow you down considerably. Transforming the corn or rye into spirits allowed for a smaller, more compact load. And finally, nothing went to waste when distilling; the farmers could utilize the spent grains as feed for their livestock. In Virginia, a more recent example of the conservational benefits of distilling is A. Smith Bowman, a farmer in 1935 who began producing the still-popular Virginia Gentleman Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Bowman grew the grains for the whiskey on his own farm, used trees from his lands to craft the barrels that would store the whiskey, and used the spent mash to feed his farm animals.

While making whiskey for personal use was popular, the spirit was not a staple in most taverns. Surprisingly, the spirit of choice in the taverns before the American Revolution was rum, but in the latter half of the 18th century, Britain began taxing rum heavily. Rather than throw their precious rum into the harbor like the famous tea rebellion, colonists simply altered their drinking practices. Scottish and Irish immigrants pouring into the country had been distilling whiskey for years in their homelands, and when they came to America, they brought the knowledge of their craft with them. …read more

Continue Reading

11 Suggested Itineraries for Student Groups

Travel plays an important role in education, whether it’s a class trip, a performing band or a competing sports team. And what better destination to help students meet your state learning standards than Virginia, the most history-making state in the nation?

Senior Class goes First Class—Virginia Beach

In Virginia Beach it’s all about creating lifelong memories for student groups. Memories are created by climbing 191 steps to the top of the first Federally Funded Lighthouse in America for breathtaking views of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Students can attend a performance at The Sander Center for the Performing Arts, learn about Aviation History at the Military Aviation Museum and see the largest population of Bottle Nose Dolphins on the East Coast with a Virginia Aquarium Dolphin Watching Trip. .

– Dolphin Watching Trip, Photo Credit: Virginia Beach CVB –

See History Come Alive in Prince William & Manassas

Leave the classroom behind and experience America’s history firsthand with a trip to Prince William & Manassas. With interactive museums and dozens of Civil War sites, this is the place where the pages of student history books truly come to life. .

Shenandoah Valley and Mr. Jefferson

Travel into the Shenandoah Valley and visit Luray Caverns, eastern America’s largest cavern system and home to the world’s largest musical instrument, The Great Stalacpipe Organ. Head down the mountain to Monticello and view many of our President Thomas Jefferson’s inventions and original furnishings in this architectural masterpiece. .

– Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello –

An Educational Study Trip—The Atlantic

The Atlantic Study Program introduces students to topics, ideas, learning styles, and attractions that are rewarding and fun. Learn how the Atlantic Ocean has played a major role in the founding and development of our nation. See full scale replicas of the first ships that crossed the Atlantic compared to today’s mighty warships. Sail on a pontoon into a salt marsh. Stroll along the Atlantic. All this and more await your students on this great learning and fun experience. .

Explore Chincoteague

Chincoteague is about as student friendly as it gets. There are activities like mini-golf, bike rentals and bowling to keep the kids active and experiences like pirate themed boat rides, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitors Center and educational tours to keep them engaged. If you run into a rainy day turn to the Chincoteague Island Library for activities and books or the Island Theater for a movie. .

– NASA Wallops Flight Facility –

A Revolutionary Road to Freedom—Harrisonburg

Explore and feel the same independent and revolutionary spirit that drove America to freedom and fueled Virginia’s Heritage Migration Route creating opportunity for early settlers. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, 1778, the Commonwealth of Virginia established Rockingham County. A year later, Thomas Harrison deeded two and one half acres. The town fathers used the land to build the first Courthouse on what is Court Square in Downtown Harrisonburg today. .

Explore the Bay Student …read more

Continue Reading

11 Suggested Itineraries for Student Groups

Travel plays an important role in education, whether it’s a class trip, a performing band or a competing sports team. And what better destination to help students meet your state learning standards than Virginia, the most history-making state in the nation?

Senior Class goes First Class—Virginia Beach

In Virginia Beach it’s all about creating lifelong memories for student groups. Memories are created by climbing 191 steps to the top of the first Federally Funded Lighthouse in America for breathtaking views of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Students can attend a performance at The Sander Center for the Performing Arts, learn about Aviation History at the Military Aviation Museum and see the largest population of Bottle Nose Dolphins on the East Coast with a Virginia Aquarium Dolphin Watching Trip. .

– Dolphin Watching Trip, Photo Credit: Virginia Beach CVB –

See History Come Alive in Prince William & Manassas

Leave the classroom behind and experience America’s history firsthand with a trip to Prince William & Manassas. With interactive museums and dozens of Civil War sites, this is the place where the pages of student history books truly come to life. .

Shenandoah Valley and Mr. Jefferson

Travel into the Shenandoah Valley and visit Luray Caverns, eastern America’s largest cavern system and home to the world’s largest musical instrument, The Great Stalacpipe Organ. Head down the mountain to Monticello and view many of our President Thomas Jefferson’s inventions and original furnishings in this architectural masterpiece. .

– Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello –

An Educational Study Trip—The Atlantic

The Atlantic Study Program introduces students to topics, ideas, learning styles, and attractions that are rewarding and fun. Learn how the Atlantic Ocean has played a major role in the founding and development of our nation. See full scale replicas of the first ships that crossed the Atlantic compared to today’s mighty warships. Sail on a pontoon into a salt marsh. Stroll along the Atlantic. All this and more await your students on this great learning and fun experience. .

Explore Chincoteague

Chincoteague is about as student friendly as it gets. There are activities like mini-golf, bike rentals and bowling to keep the kids active and experiences like pirate themed boat rides, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitors Center and educational tours to keep them engaged. If you run into a rainy day turn to the Chincoteague Island Library for activities and books or the Island Theater for a movie. .

– NASA Wallops Flight Facility –

A Revolutionary Road to Freedom—Harrisonburg

Explore and feel the same independent and revolutionary spirit that drove America to freedom and fueled Virginia’s Heritage Migration Route creating opportunity for early settlers. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, 1778, the Commonwealth of Virginia established Rockingham County. A year later, Thomas Harrison deeded two and one half acres. The town fathers used the land to build the first Courthouse on what is Court Square in Downtown Harrisonburg today. .

Explore the Bay Student …read more

Continue Reading

Virginia: First in Opportunity

This article is the sixth in a series commemorating the American Evolution – Virginia to America 1619-2019 . See articles one, two, three, four, and five here.

From its first days as a colony, Virginia has been a land of industry and opportunity. As early as 1619, the new colonial governor Sir George Yeardley, who was personally heavily invested in the colony’s success, actively recruited colonists who would turn a profit for the colony’s investors with the promise of fertile land in return. These are the roots of the enduring idea that America is a land of opportunity for those willing to invest the sweat equity. For this reason and throughout its history, Virginia was a magnet for industrious, innovative people who continued to push the boundaries, geographic and scientific.

Here are five sites around Virginia that commemorate the men and women who advanced the ideal of American ingenuity while benefiting the lives of countless people.

—MONTICELLO—

In addition to being a mastermind in revolutionary political philosophy, the author of the Declaration of Independence also exhibited a lifelong obsession with developing devices to improve proficiency. A quick glance around Thomas Jefferson’s “cabinet” at Monticello reveals a scattering of such inventions, including the swivel chair and his polygraph machine, which made a facsimile copy of every written document he produced at home. Truth be told, a tour through the house is like walking through a laboratory, with inventions ranging from the overt (the Great Clock in the Entrance Hall) to the nuanced (the wine dumbwaiter hidden within the fireplace surround). While many people are familiar with these ingenious, albeit sometimes whimsical, creations, Jefferson’s most unheralded invention had the widest practical impact: the moldboard plow. Drawing upon his astute grasp of mathematical principles, Jefferson devised a technically improved and much lighter-weight plow that cut through and turned over earth with greatly reduced effort, making this age-old vital task quicker and less exhausting for both man and beast.

—FRONTIER CULTURE MUSEUM OF VIRGINIA AND THE WILDERNESS ROAD—

While most attention is focused on settlers who landed directly on Virginia’s shores, the group that made incalculable contributions to the development of Virginia and U. S. culture actually arrived in Virginia by land. Protestant settlers from Ulster self-identified as Scots-Irish to distinguish themselves from their Roman Catholic counterparts.

Originally landing in Eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland, they soon discovered the best available land in those colonies was already taken. However, the vast swathes of fertile land available over the Blue Ridge in Virginia lured these people to move en masse and settle all throughout the Shenandoah Valley and the mountainous region of Southwest Virginia.

Their rich culture, which they brought from their native Northern Ireland and adapted to the realities of the New World, is graphically displayed at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia. Modern roads largely mirror the course of The Wilderness Road, the great migration route the Scots-Irish took to in wagons as they populated the …read more

Continue Reading

Virginia: First in Opportunity

This article is the sixth in a series commemorating the American Evolution – Virginia to America 1619-2019 . See articles one, two, three, four, and five here.

From its first days as a colony, Virginia has been a land of industry and opportunity. As early as 1619, the new colonial governor Sir George Yeardley, who was personally heavily invested in the colony’s success, actively recruited colonists who would turn a profit for the colony’s investors with the promise of fertile land in return. These are the roots of the enduring idea that America is a land of opportunity for those willing to invest the sweat equity. For this reason and throughout its history, Virginia was a magnet for industrious, innovative people who continued to push the boundaries, geographic and scientific.

Here are five sites around Virginia that commemorate the men and women who advanced the ideal of American ingenuity while benefiting the lives of countless people.

—MONTICELLO—

In addition to being a mastermind in revolutionary political philosophy, the author of the Declaration of Independence also exhibited a lifelong obsession with developing devices to improve proficiency. A quick glance around Thomas Jefferson’s “cabinet” at Monticello reveals a scattering of such inventions, including the swivel chair and his polygraph machine, which made a facsimile copy of every written document he produced at home. Truth be told, a tour through the house is like walking through a laboratory, with inventions ranging from the overt (the Great Clock in the Entrance Hall) to the nuanced (the wine dumbwaiter hidden within the fireplace surround). While many people are familiar with these ingenious, albeit sometimes whimsical, creations, Jefferson’s most unheralded invention had the widest practical impact: the moldboard plow. Drawing upon his astute grasp of mathematical principles, Jefferson devised a technically improved and much lighter-weight plow that cut through and turned over earth with greatly reduced effort, making this age-old vital task quicker and less exhausting for both man and beast.

—FRONTIER CULTURE MUSEUM OF VIRGINIA AND THE WILDERNESS ROAD—

While most attention is focused on settlers who landed directly on Virginia’s shores, the group that made incalculable contributions to the development of Virginia and U. S. culture actually arrived in Virginia by land. Protestant settlers from Ulster self-identified as Scots-Irish to distinguish themselves from their Roman Catholic counterparts.

Originally landing in Eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland, they soon discovered the best available land in those colonies was already taken. However, the vast swathes of fertile land available over the Blue Ridge in Virginia lured these people to move en masse and settle all throughout the Shenandoah Valley and the mountainous region of Southwest Virginia.

Their rich culture, which they brought from their native Northern Ireland and adapted to the realities of the New World, is graphically displayed at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia. Modern roads largely mirror the course of The Wilderness Road, the great migration route the Scots-Irish took to in wagons as they populated the …read more

Continue Reading

8 Once-in-a-Lifetime Places to Stay in Virginia This Fall

sandy river retreat tipi

Fall is just around the corner, and we are already daydreaming about this special season that is absolutely iconic in Virginia, from the crisp air and colorful leaves to the delicious fall flavors coming to restaurant menus. If you’re looking for a complete fall experience rather than just a standard vacation, skip the hotels and book one of these eight distinctive rental properties that showcase the very best of fall in Virginia.

SANDY RIVER RETREAT LOG CABINS & TIPIS—RICE

If you’re interested in a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, you need to book a stay at Sandy River Retreat just minutes outside of Downtown Farmville. In addition to the log cabins available for rent, the business just began renting out their luxury tipis. These are by no means basic accommodations; the tipis are massive, with queen and full-sized beds, pullout couches, kitchens, bathrooms, air conditioning, and even heated flooring for those cool mornings. The tipis sleep five to six people, while the pet-friendly cabins sleep up to eight people and have many of the same amenities. These rentals are located on the same property as the Adventure Park, which features eleven zip lines, obstacle courses, and a team-building section. Additionally, the property also houses a full farm with sheep, chickens, and two friendly miniature donkeys named Mario and Luigi that are always delighted to make new friends. And the activities for guests don’t end there; Sandy River offers bike rentals for the High Bridge Trail, canoe and kayak rentals for Sandy River Reservoir, and several family games available for guests to use, including corn hole, croquette, volleyball, and horse shoes.

CAIR PARAVEL FARM’S AIRSTREAM IN THE TREES—STANARDSVILLE

Stay in a vintage 1968 Airstream on a property that abuts Shenandoah National Park at Cair Paravel Farm. Immersed in nature, the camper has an expansive wood deck perched on the edge of the mountains, which will provide you with an unreal view of the autumn colors of the valley below. Nature trails wind through the 58-acre working farm, which contains sheep, picks, ducks, turkey, and more. Get eggs for your morning omelet, veggies to whip up a quick salad, or even meats for a barbecue on the airstream’s outdoor gas grill from the farm owners, who either source on-site or work with other local residents to provide you with a truly authentic farm-to-table experience.

BELLE ISLE HOUSE & GUEST HOUSE—LANCASTER

belle isle state park bel air mansion and guest house

Belle Isle State Park rent out both the Bel Air Mansion and the Guest House, but unlike many park accommodations like campsites and cabin rentals, the lodging options in Belle Isle State Park are not exactly roughing it. The Colonial-style mansion is huge, with three twin beds, queen and full bedrooms, and a small daybed, as well as four bathrooms and a fully-equipped kitchen. Get a gorgeous waterfront view when you book the guest house, located …read more

Continue Reading