Exploring the Rich History of American Whiskey: Part 1

Irish and Scottish monks in the Middle Ages created the first whiskey, yet today the two countries produce very different whiskies. So it is with American whiskey; the idea may have sprung from somewhere else, but over 300 years, American whiskey…has become its own thing.

At its inception, American whiskey was an unaged spirit whose primary benefit was its ability to give the early colonists a boost of confidence. And whiskey has evolved over the years into the complex, full-bodied, uniquely American bourbons, ryes, and Tennessee whiskies that are today savored by connoisseurs, sipped by grandmas, tossed back by barflies, and ‘discovered’ by almost every American as soon as they reach the age of twenty-one. After being shaped by every important event to occur in the United States over 300 years, American whiskey has only now come of age. Sometimes whiskey has hurt the country.

Making Whiskey Was One of the Earliest Forms of a Cottage Industry

It was the spirit that inspired George Washington to initially organize federal troops, and it accompanied the early settlers westward as they explored uncharted territory. Whiskey was a divisive drink during the Civil War and helped ensure that Grant did not become president for a third consecutive term. Whiskey had a role in each significant war fought by the United States and inspired women to start a fight that ultimately led to Prohibition. In a nutshell, American whiskey has been wherever America has been, and everywhere whiskey has gone, Americans have been impacted by it.

Congress acknowledged bourbon in 1964 as “a unique product of the U.S.A.” because of how very American it is. Even if straight rye and Tennessee whiskies haven’t won any awards quite like the ones bourbon has, they are every bit as American and have followed the same dusty paths that led to the modern roads.

Immigrants’ voracious appetite for booze in all its forms set in motion the processes that would eventually result in the development of whiskies uniquely American. Following the need for alcohol among early immigrants in Virginia and New England provides a timeline for the evolution of American whiskey. The history of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is particularly interesting since it provides a rare opportunity to trace the origins of a meal or drink.

The Spirit Of America – Is it Rum?

Rum was the first mass-produced alcoholic beverage, and it had a profound effect on the colonies. Beginning in the middle of the 1600s, the colonists of New England began importing sugar and molasses from the West Indies to produce their unique rum. Native Americans on the islands also produced their rum, which was shipped to the American colonies. There were many names for rum back then. The distillate of sugar cane or molasses went by several names, including rum bullion, rumbustious, rumbling, kill-devil, rhumbooze, and Barbados water.

At the Same Time, the English Were Experiencing Some Trouble with Their Soil

By the early 1700s, the monarchy in England had been restored, and the government was beginning to pay a bit more attention to its colonies. Cromwell had won the civil war and ruled the country from 1649 to 1660. One of the first moves to anger the American drinker was the tariff of sugar, molasses, and rum imported from “any of the colonies or plantations in America, not in the possession or under the dominion of His Majesty.”

Although the French West Indies merchants who posed the greatest threat to British trade in the Caribbean were never specifically named, the levy was intended for them. It was meant as a gentle prod to remind the colonists where their allegiances should lie, thus the identical products from British colonies in the West Indies were not charged. When in doubt, buy British. Surprisingly, there was never a Boston Rum Party, but the colonists who loved rum certainly wouldn’t have dumped it into the harbor. Five shillings per hundredweight of sugar, six pence per gallon of molasses, and nine pence per gallon of rum were assessed under the Molasses Act of 1733. However, the colonists came up with a clever solution to the problem of these additional taxes: they simply stopped paying them.

In the “triangle trade” with Africa and the West Indies, New England rum was used as currency during the middle of the 1700s, selling for about three shillings (£0.15) per gallon. According to Martin Gilbert, author of American History Atlas published in 1968, here’s how it went down in practice: The Sanderson left Newport in 1752 with 8,220 gallons of rum on board; at the time, Rhode Island was home to at least 30 legal distilleries.

Whether or not any rum was still on board when they reached Africa is unknown, but after a successful trade on the Gold Coast, the ship set sail for Barbados carrying 56 African slaves, 40 ounces of gold, and 900 pounds of peppercorns. Slaves, gold, and pepper were traded on Barbados for 55 hogsheads of molasses, 3 hogsheads of sugar, and almost £400 in bills of exchange, which were brought back to Rhode Island. Even after the United States outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, rum production remained a lucrative industry. Whiskey was well on its way to becoming America’s national drink by the time the triangle trade was shattered.

The Role of Whiskey in American Colonization

On a hunting trip in 1767, Daniel Boone explored what is now eastern Kentucky for the first time. His glowing tales of the area’s abundant wildlife helped give the region a reputation as a utopia. Kentucky Ancestry author Roseann Reinemuth Hogan claims that a religious leader from the period described heaven as a “Kentucky sort of a place.” Well, anywhere in Virginia with passable topsoil would have done for the farmer-distillers of the day. After seven or eight years of farming, the land was exhausted because they did not yet practice crop rotation. As a result, at least some farmers were constantly on the lookout for undeveloped tracts of land.

In 1776, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation commonly referred to as “corn patch and cabin rights,” and they used it as justification for separating Kentucky County from the vast western area of Virginia formerly known as Fincastle County. If settlers put up a cabin and planted some maize before 1778, they may stake a claim to 400 acres of property. After then, the land was sold by surveyors and prospects to pioneers traveling west at extremely low costs. To get to Kentucky, most settlers from Maryland and Pennsylvania boarded flatboats at Pittsburgh and traveled down the Ohio River. On the other side, the majority of early settlers from North Carolina and Virginia crossed the Appalachians via the Cumberland Gap and entered the Bluegrass State via the “Wilderness Trail.”

Whatever their motivations, those brave souls who made it to Kentucky after the ‘corn patch and cabin rights’ agreement was done were able to buy or trade for small plots of the vast acreage owned by speculators. Dixie Hibbs, a very experienced historian from Bardstown, tells the account of a pretty typical layout of the time in her book Nelson County Kentucky: A Pictorial History.

The story goes that in 1780, a man named William Bard staged a lottery in which the lots on 1,000 acres of land claimed by David Bard and John C. Owens in Kentucky County were divided among 33 lucky winners. No rent was due until the Revolutionary War ended (The Treaty of Paris, September 3, 1783) and there were no closing costs or commissions to pay. The lottery winners didn’t have to pay anything for the land, but they were obligated to clear it and construct a home that was at least 16 feet square.

The hope was that by luring more residents to the area, the land in the area would increase in value as it was all controlled by the same firm. Salem was the town’s initial name, but the inhabitants quickly changed it to honor their patron, the bard, and Bard’s Town (Bardstown) was formed. The area around Bard’s Town soon became famous for producing many top-notch barrels of whiskey. Over 350,000 individuals called Kentucky home by the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, in western Pennsylvania and Maryland, thirsty Scots-Irish and German distillers had started creating rye whiskey—but why rye? Farmers and distillers in these states were already familiar with barley because it was farmed there. However, it was a long process for imported European barley to adapt to its new environment. Since Europeans were already familiar with working with rye grain, they turned to it as “the next best thing” to barley. Rye, another European grain, was a hardy crop that took root and fared well almost immediately in the middle colonies. Native maize was also planted, and though the newcomers weren’t accustomed to utilizing it in whiskey production, it was eventually incorporated in small batches.

Named for the states in which it was produced rather than the grain used, whiskey from the Middle Colonies eventually became known as Monongahela, Pennsylvania, or Maryland whiskey. Raising livestock, cultivating grain, and distilling rye whiskey provided the farmer-distillers with more than enough income to exchange for their other necessities. They were free from a king, could practice any religion they wanted, and didn’t have to pay excise taxes, but it wasn’t going to last forever because the country owed a lot of money.

After years of battling in the Revolutionary War, George Washington was inaugurated as president in 1790 in fledgling York City, the fledgling country’s interim capital. Ten years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, a huge event was about to occur that would have a direct impact on whiskey production in America, which up until this time had been driven by cultural and agricultural demands and feasibility.