A Brief History of Distilling in Virginia

The makers of distilled spirits in America come from a rich and varied history that is in many ways as colorful as the immigrants that make up our country’s vibrant tapestry of experiences. But of all the ways to imbibe in Virginia, none touch the essence of what it means to be an American quite like drinking the whiskey produced by an establishment highlighted on a Central Virginia Distillery Tour. So pour yourself a finger or two and indulge me as we take a trip through the history of Virginia Distilling, if you please!   

Before taking a sip of that ole Virginia tipple, lets have a toast to one of our Distilling Forefathers, one of the great men who established a strong distilling tradition here in Virginia. We could toast to the Commonwealth’s most famous (and perhaps most profitable) of tippler’s, Mr. George Washington himself. He would certainly be an excellent choice- Mr. Washington was, after all, the biggest producer of Virginia hooch in his time, whose Mount Vernon stills were responsible for over 11,000 gallons of whiskey in the year 1798 alone! But may I be so presumptuous as to propose anther George worthy of a toast?  Raise your glass high to the unsung hero of American distilling, George Thorpe!

George Thorpe was the first to discover, way back in 1620 or so, that Native American corn could be made into mash, proving ideal for making what he described as “a soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that,” he wrote to his cousin in England, John Smith of Nibley. History assures us that his spelling in that letter was not out of taking with the time, in case you were thinking that “corne drinke” had something to do with it.

An encounter with Powhatan Indians didn’t go so well for Mr. Thorpe, but by the time of his death in the Powhatan uprising of 1622, he had already made his mark on American imbibing history. While Thorpe was the first to make corn whiskey, the spirit Virginia is most famous for (and rightfully so), It was over one hundred years before the drink gained true prominence on Virginian tables.

Before the American Revolutionary War, if one was to stop in at a tavern nearly anywhere in the Colonies and ask for a stiff drink, chances were the house spirit was rum. As most of us learn in grade school history, rum formed an important link in colonial trade. Rum was made in distilleries in New England, dispatched on ships to Africa and traded for slaves who were then carried to the West Indies to work on sugar plantations, whose crop completed the triangle in the form of molasses that was sent north for rum production.

Whiskey was being produced in significant quantities on farms across the Colonies as a way to turn excess grain into an easily traded commodity, but the true explosion in Virginian whiskey production had much to do with the birth of America itself. While the Tea Party in Boston Harbor was a monumental event in the lead up to war, tea wasn’t the only drink the British were taxing- the Colonists just had the common sense not to throw good rum into the harbor! And when fighting did break out and ports were blockaded by the British for much of the war, Americans weren’t about to stop drinking- to give into sobriety would’ve been simply Unpatriotic. Fortunately, the Scottish and Irish immigrants who had been pouring into the country in the 50 years leading up to war brought with them a strong tradition of whiskey production. Picking up where Thorpe and other small farm producers left off, the Scotts and Irish substituted traditional barley with grains better suited to the American climate like corn and rye. The foundation for a uniquely American flavor of whiskey was born- as drink that wouldn’t be called bourbon for another hundred years, when those pioneers out in the backwoods of Virginia (now Kentucky) had the forethought to call it something new.          

George Washington. Patriot. President. Distiller of fine, fine hooch! 

George Washington. Patriot. President. Distiller of fine, fine hooch! 

After the Revolution, the newly announced President Washington was faced with one of the countries’ first crisis when small producers of whiskey in Pennsylvania and Virginia, calling themselves “the whiskey boys,” refused to pay taxes on their product and took up arms, tarring and feathering tax agents and rioting in the streets of Pittsburgh. Washington called in the militia and sentenced some of the leaders to death for treason. He later pardoned the leaders of what was to become known as The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. Perhaps touched by the fervor whiskey inspired in its creators, Washington was not even 6 years later producing thousands of gallons of whiskey a year, a tradition that his son would carry on for years to come. If you can’t beat’em, join’em indeed!

Whiskey consumption would grow exponentially over the following years, at one point reaching an all time high in this country of 7 GALLONS per person over the age of 15 in the year of 1830. Nearly one hundred years later, the US Government tried to whittle that number down to zero through an unprecedented act of Congress, passing the 18th Amendment in 1920 and ushering in the dark time of Prohibition.

Once again Virginia distillers found themselves at odds with the law, but as with other times of unjust rule, it didn’t slow them down much! The Scottish-Irish decedents that called the mountains of Virginia home were soon some of the biggest producers of whiskey, now made under the cover of darkness with a befitting new name, Moonshine, in the country. Virginia ‘shine could be found in nearly every big city speakeasy in America and nursed many a person though that dark time. Even with the repeal of the failed Prohibition Act in 1934 however, it would be a long time before craft distilling came out of the backwoods and gained the prominence it deserves as a fine Virginia craft beverage.  

Given Virginia’s tumultuous history with spirit production, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control System, formed in 1934, has remained particularly hard on small batch distillers. It wasn’t until 1978 that a stipulation requiring every licensed distillery in Virginia to pay the cost of a full time federal inspector on the premises that legal micro distilling really became a viable business possibility. Since that timid start, there have been other laws challenged, led largely by the efforts of trail-blazers Chuck and Jeanette Miller of Belmont Farm Distillery, such that small spirit producers can now sell their products on premises as well as offer tastings to the public, something that was outlawed until just this past year.

Craft Distilling, circa 1925- less about taste, more about not going blind. 

Craft Distilling, circa 1925- less about taste, more about not going blind. 

And so what a time it is to try a bit of fine Virginia spirit! Craft distillers in Virginia have been at a particularly strong disadvantage as negative attitudes continue to evolve around hard alcohol, but much of that is changing as legislators see producers not as a scourge on society, but as the true artisans and productive businesses they are. These producers profiled are true pioneers, leading the way for the many others who are reviving a tradition as old as America itself. So drink up! And join us for a tour on the exciting and rapidly growing trail of Central Virginia craft Distillers soon.