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

You may also like