Whether you’re a neater, an on-the-rocker, a chaser, collector, shiner, slammer or mixologista, a common respect for American whiskey binds us all.
A spirit no longer defined as merely ‘that bottle’ you buy grandad at Christmas time, but a tipple collected, coveted and competed for by aficionados and bartenders of all races and sexes. And while grandad and many of his era will continue to receive their token bottle, American whiskey has inspired a new generation of independent progressive youth.
Much like it’s new demographic, whiskey has become younger, more creative and largely exclusive. Sales are relative to social media shares and ‘small-batch’ is the new ‘big-deal’. Add the word ‘rye’ into the mix and watch the price immediately triple. Then open the floor to your resident Jerry Thomas’esq moustache- toting prohibition barman, to reminisce on when a chaser of ‘Old Rip’ used to be cheaper than a pint.
Regardless of who drinks it, American whiskey is today an industry grossing more than USD$2.9 billion annually in domestic revenue [Fortune Magazine, 2016]. More impressive still is the meteoric rise from simple boilermaker to an icon of bohemian modernism.
A report presented at the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference in April, stated a milestone of over 1000 registered craft distilleries was reached by the start of this year. By the time this article is published, it will be closer to 2000.
According to a further study published by the CEO of Coppersea Distilling in 2011, the number of registered craft distilleries in the US grew from 24 by the end of 2000, to 52 in 2005 and 234 by 2011. By the time 2015 had rolled around, a ratio of more than one new distillery was registered for each day of the year. Barrel shortages, alternative maturation techniques and more than a 1000% increase in the number of distilleries in the last decade, all show signs we’ve entered into a new golden age of the American dram.
So in an effort to further deepen our appreciation for American whiskey and feed the same brain cells that may have been lost through it’s very discovery, the following article is an effort to further enlighten and inspire on the people, places and events that gave us the golden delight we call – American “hwis-kee”.
And with that in mind and tumbler in hand, we begin.
A Note to the Wise…
Deciding whether the Celtic-Irish or the Celtic-Scots were the first to invent a liquid from which we now derive the word ‘whiskey’ (in all its spellings), is as historically muddy as the ownership of vodka between Poland and Russia or the flat white between Australia and New Zealand (don’t ask).
Equally confusing is the first simple act of cereal distillation, a practice found in snap shots of ancient history whether Egyptian, Persian, Chinese or Indo-Aryan.
The earliest signs of pot distillation can be traced back as far as 450 BCE and even the word ‘alcohol‘ doesn’t help us as it is predated by other terms like ‘arrack‘, found in writings as a generic name for anything boozy across multiple languages.
It’s known the Moors brought distillation techniques to Europe circa 1100 yet couldn’t easily distribute the knowledge until the invention of the Gutenburg printing press in 1439. Even around the time of our earliest recorded use of the word ‘cocktail‘ (circa 1798), the word ‘brandy’ was often replaced by many Western nations as a generic term for anything distilled. Ancient history is a dirty drinking glass to say the least. So how best to begin an article on the history of American Whiskey…?
…With Oxford, naturally.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest evidence of the printed word ‘whiskey/whisky’ was as recent as 1715, a period when less than 50% of all married couples were unable to sign their own name [The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain – 2004]. Today we still play on two different spellings of the word depending on where it is made (USA and Ireland favour ‘ey’ while Scotland and Canada favour ‘y’ – although there are contradictions). What is not in question however is the origin of the words etymological father uisge beatha – from Old Irish meaning ‘water of life’ – which can be found in print as early as 1405.
The earliest reference concerning the distillation of malted barley is found as far back as 1494 in Scottish Exchequer Rolls mentioning “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae [‘water of life’]”. A trend is emerging.
The phrase water of life is in itself a loan-word from 14th century Medieval Latin where aqua vitae was frequently used more as an early medicinal tincture. Even today the phrase can be found in France to define an unaged brandy (eau-de-vie) or a botanical liquor in Scandinavia (akvavit).
Since the words earliest written reference, uisge beatha has also been spelt usquebea, usquabae, usquibae, usqueba, usquba, uskeyba, iskie bae (15th-18th century) and so on depending on the ethnicity and more importantly, literacy of the person writing it. Regardless, by the 19th century it all got nicely bastardised down into whiskybae, whisquybeath, usquae, usky, husque until finally adopted into whisky where the name stuck. As for the modern competition for the inclusion of an ‘e’ in the word, and after such a long and convoluted etymological journey, I think we could let the transatlantic spelling bee slide.
With the above in mind and over 2000 years between the earliest known use of the pot still and the written use of the word ‘whisky’, what are the chances someone else might have distilled a spirit from fermented bread?
The answer is obvious but the final remaining argument is that these spirits are not whiskies as we know them today until one more key element has been included – maturation. So with an awareness of information overload but understanding the need for a pot still, some grain, a barrel and someone in America to make it; we can start our story in earnest.
Timeline of Early American Whiskey (450 BCE – 1700 CE)
Pre 16th Century: Drinking in Early America
It is still widely believed that in addition to disease and gunpowder, the ‘white man’ also introduced alcohol to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And while for some small social groups this may very well be true, American natives both North and South, had been fermenting and imbibing indigenous alcohols well before whitey arrived.
In the Southwestern U.S., the Papago, Piman, Apache and Maricopa tribes all used the saguaro cactus to produce a wine known as haren a pitahaya. Similarly, the Apache fermented corn to make tiswin (also called tulpi and tulapai). The Coahuiltecan in Texas combined mountain laurel with the agave plant to create their alcoholic drink, while the Pueblos and Zunis were believed to have made fermented beverages from aloe, agave, corn, prickly pear and dragon fruit. Even some native Inuit tribes like the Aleuts and Yuit of Alaska were recorded manufacturing alcoholic drinks from fermented berries despite almost no previous cultural practices at horticulture. And while there are cases of the western man introducing alcohol to native Americans (see: Manhattan – The Island of General Intoxication) the history of almost all cultures, teaches us that where there is man, there is intoxicants.
Heading south towards the Central and Southern Americas, local Inca and Aztec tribes were even more well versed in alcohol, fermenting rudimentary wines from maguey (agave), saguaro (cactus), sotol (desert spoon) and chica (maize) as well as endemic honey, pineapple and maple to name a few.
All of which would change soon after a Portuguese egotist by the name of Christopher Columbus, accidentally discovered the Gulf of Mexico in 1492. While searching for a way to the spice rich islands of the East Indies, Columbus bumped into the Caribbean, which was swiftly branded the ‘West Indies’ in false boast of his achievement. Despite inaccurate expectations of spices, a route to the American continent was now paved for any adventurous merchant in search of a new monopoly. And come they did making riches not with spices but the backs of black slaves and sugar plantations. And while the majority of America’s natives were already well versed in the effects of fermented alcohols, they were about to get a hard introduction to the world of distillates.
On April 22 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral, along with 13 merchant ships on route to the East Indies, made landfall on an uncharted southern island, claiming it in the name of the Portuguese crown. It was Brazil, and somewhat more than just an island Some 33 years later, three new settlements (Sao Jorge dos Erasmos, Madre de Deus and Sao Joao) were established on the continent. Each set up sugar mills and installed alembic stills, with an order to distil garapa azeda (sugar cane wine) into aguardente de cana (sugar cane eau-de-vie), for additional trade. Later this spirit would be known by a different name – cachaça – but for our story we had our first major colonies of Westerners on mainland America with pot stills and the motivation to use them.
Around the same time, the Spanish were busy on the opposite coast of South America, diligently destroying the cultures of the Aztec, Olmec and Toltec peoples, including a ‘hill’ known locally as Chiquihuitillo. This location would later become the site of the village of Santiago de Tequila.
In a report to King Carlos I of Spain, conquistador Cristóbal de Oñate references indigenous products produced from the native agave plants stating,
“From these plants they make wine and sugar, which they also sell”.
The following year when their supplies of brandy had dissipated, the Spanish created pot stills out of “mud, wood, a pot and a basin” and began distilling the locally fermented agave wine creating the first ever mezcal or early tequila.
Meanwhile another Spaniard by the name of Marquis Francisco de Caravantes, planted the first continental vines into the soil of Peru from Canary Island stock. These grapes reportedly grew well in the moist warm climate and were soon exported as a ‘New World’ wine. Grapes which did not meet a palatable standard were discarded or given as a pomace (pressed grape skins, seeds and stems) to local farmers. This raw ingredient was perfect for distilling into a local brandy or aguardiente (‘fiery water‘) which was cheaper and more obtainable than the Spanish equivalent. Later this popular spirit would evolve into Pisco.
Even Filipino seamen “aboard galleons from Manilla” are recorded arriving into parts of Mexico that same decade, with pot stills to reproduce their beloved arrack from indigenous coconuts.
Whatever your reference, by 1540 there was no shortage of stills rectifying early distillates from indigenous ingredients. All that remained for our colonial liquor to transition into our modern definition of ‘whiskey’ was cereal, a barrel and patience. And for that we needed the British.
“Where the Dutch first settle they build a fort, the Portuguese a church, the English a punch house“
– Old English saying
17th Century: Sugar, Spice and Natives not so Nice
Prior to the turn of the 17th century, young European powers were already looking to the West Indies for potential trade sources. The earliest recorded Caribbean sugar mills were established on Hispanola (Haiti & Dominican Republic) in 1516 followed by Brazil in the 1520’s and Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico by 1595.
After the first successful mainland American colony was established in Jamestown Virginia in 1607, a group of Anglican separatists known today as ‘Pilgrims’ established the rival Plymouth Colony on the Southeastern tip of modern day Massachusetts.
Unlike the hardships encountered by the first Virginians, the Pilgrims met with greater success largely thanks to an early treaty with the local Indian tribes from which they were able to trade fur, cod and timber with nearby colonies in exchange for molasses from the West Indies. Used in everything from cooking to medicines and distillation, molasses became a major commodity in early colonial life.
Famine, disease, hostile natives and the general absence of authority made colonial life a hard one. A deep-seated faith went some way to maintaining a civil order but like most colonial attempts throughout history, liquor in any form became more than just a reprieve from the hardships of the daily grind, but a medicine and currency in equal proportion. Wine and beer were the cultural norm but expensive, in short supply and when rarely available, had almost always turned sour from the long voyage across the Atlantic.
On December 19th, 1620 a member of the Kings Privy Council and ex MP named Cpt. George Thorpe arrived into the Virginia colony to help establish and drive colonial industry and education. While also attempting to establish a school for native Powhatan Indians and a community college, Thorpe also focused on the farming and harvesting of colonial tobacco. Most interesting for us however was his appreciation of the pot still. As mentioned in a letter sent to his business partner John Smyth in England in December 1620,
“…wee [sic] have found a waie to make soe good drinke of Indian corne as I [pro]test I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge Englishe beare and chosen to drinke that”.
George had also tried his hand at viticulture planting over 10,000 grape vines which failed largely due to the labour required to maintain them.
Since Jamestown was founded on Powhatan lands in 1607, an uneasy co-existence between colonials and the natives sustained until finally boiling over in 1622 with a series of coordinated Indian surprise attacks on at least 31 separate Virginia settlements and plantations. Despite Thorpe writing earlier of the natives “peaceable & virtuous disposition”, the Powhatan people had endured years of broken promises, mistreatment and attempted religious conversion. By the end of just a single day of raids, almost 400 colonials (1/3 of the total white population) lay dead including George Thorpe and eight other people at the estate of Berkeley Hundred. With these losses, went any further record of early attempts at corn distillation.
George’s small home colony of Berkeley Hundred would remain abandoned long after the raids until the Virginia Company eventually returned 12 years later to inventory Thorpe’s possessions. Among a collection of personal goods was also listed one “copper still, old” along with “3 runs of Virginia”. A run refereed to a runlet or small cask which was coopered in colony (most likely native White Oak) and the term Virginia implying a colony produced product.
While there is a chance these casks may have been filled with another type of alcoholic beverage, the runs were also listed as being “drunke [sic] out amonge the people that fetcht downe his goodsOnly a highly alcoholic liquid wouldn’t spoil after 12 years in a cask and be good enough to drink on the spot. So, with Thorpe’s own mention of making a “soe good drinke of Indian corne” more than a decade earlier, the odds are good that his “3 runs of Virginia” is our first record of an American whiskey.
The year was 1634 and while there are those that would argue the barrel was not likely to have been ‘charred new oak’ (as required today), it is on this impressive record that I boldly pin the birth of American whiskey.
Some 230 miles away and 25 years previous, a Dutch vessel named the Halve Maen commanded by English explorer Henry Hudson, entered the mouth of the now self entitled Hudson River. In search of a potential route through to the riches of the East Indies, the crew of the Halve Maen eventually arrived at “that side of the river that is called Manna-hata by the locals”. Laying anchor next to an island that would be described by Hudson as “the finest for cultivation I have ever set foot upon”, the modern-day island of Manhattan and its surrounding areas, were marked for Dutch settlement. This was fulfilled a mere four years later in 1613 when the first Dutch colonists arrived into the ‘New Netherlands’ territory.Thanks to a profitable early fur trade agreement with the native Iroquois Indians, The Dutch settlement successfully grew until, in 1626 under the newly founded Dutch West India Company or GWC, established a colony capital on the tip of modern-day Manhattan Island called New Amsterdam. It’s important to note at this stage that the Dutch were arguably the most experienced Western distillers of the period [see: Gin: The Complete History – Part 1].
While there is little definitive evidence of the Dutch distilling and maturing a spirit from local corn earlier than George Thorpe, they were already well established long before Thorpe even set foot on American soil. And with a pre-existing culture for distilling jenever (corn based gin spirit), the odds are good that they too may have made “soe good [a] drinke of Indian corne”. What further muddies the waters of history is the misleading use of the word brandy or brandewijn (‘burned wine’) to define almost any distillate of the period, irrelevant of ingredient or technique.
What is mentioned in records, is two early Dutch distilleries existing by 1640. The first was credited to a “…Wilhelm Kieft, Director-General of the Colony, [who] erected a distillery on Staten Island, putting it in charge of Wilhelm Hendricksen”. A record which somewhat boldly follows with the claim of “…the first in North America to make liquor and spirits from grain” (Beverages, Past and Present by Edward R. Emerson – 1908).
The second record mentions a brewery being erected with the first colonial buildings in New Amsterdam around 1633. Marking this account, the first ever commercial brewery established in New York (located north side of present-day Bridge Street between Broad and Whitehall). These same records mention a brandy being distilled on the same site circa 1640 although the odds are good that distillation would have been practiced from the time of it’s erection. After all, the Dutch were also well experienced in the production and consumption of spirituous tipples. And as fellow colonists, adhered to the old mantra;
“If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips”
– Old colonial melody
Unfortunately for the residents of New Amsterdam, the dream wasn’t to last. By 1674 the settlement and island had been invaded and surrendered to the English for the second time where it was renamed (also briefly called New Orange) as ‘New York’ after the then Duke of York. In the end, this little community of some 200 residents had been captured three times during three successive Anglo-Dutch Wars, been traded to the English in return for the 1.9 mile by 0.62 mile wide nutmeg island of Run in Indonesia, and gifted to a spoilt Duke as an 18th birthday present.
Despite such an early beginning to the practice of distilling endemic corn and grain, the whole evolution of American whiskey would take a large step backwards due to a booming triangle trade in sugar, rum and slaves. And while the colonists of the North American mainland toiled with famine, unruly natives and themselves, the Caribbean (West Indies) was beginning to boom. Sugar was the source and slaves were the means.
As a natural bi-product to the sugar making process, the pilgrims of New England and colonials of Virginia and New Netherlands, traded widely in Molasses from the turn of the 17th century. The earliest recorded mention of rum distillation on mainland America (lovingly known as kill devil or taffia) isn’t until 1657 in Boston, Massachusetts – although there is good reason to believe it was produced much earlier than this.
While cane spirits were widely consumed by colonists of all nations, it was more respected for its medicinal benefits rather than its social ones. Whether ailments of digestion, scurvy, dropsy or flatulence, rum was regarded equally an antiseptic, anaesthetic and antifogmatic (“a cure for the effects of fog and other inclement weather”) alike. Such credit was given to the medicinal qualities of rum that when Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar almost 150 years later, the ship’s doctor aboard the HMS Victory was heavily criticised for preserving his body in a barrel of brandy instead of rum for the return voyage to Gibraltar [see: Admiral Nelson Preserved in Brandy].
Regardless of it’s brutal name and clearly brutal nature, kill devil quickly became popular among American colonists from around 1650, distancing what little appreciation for grain distillates there was. As described by a visitor to Barbados in 1651, “The chief fuddling they make on the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”. Rum also became a common drink for the Royal Navy sailor and merchant seamen around this time after Admiral William Penn elected to replace his sailors traditional (and spoilt) ale ration with that of kill devil, after capturing Jamaica in 1644. An accumulation of factors which by the end of the 16th century, found cane spirit and not grain spirit, common place among American settlements of all nations.
For a resurgence in whisky, rum had to be defeated first. And as the new century was born into a fanny of overproof grog, so followed the Golden Age of Piracy and whispers of revolution. Both of which would aid in whiskey’s strong return to the minds and lips of the American people.
See: The Story of American Whiskey – Part 2: [COMING SOON]
- Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit by Dane Huckelbridge – 2014
- Whiskey: A Global History (Edible Guide) by Kevin R. Kosar – 2010
- The Whiskey Wash: 1,000 Craft Distilleries (and Counting!) Now Operating in the USA by Margarett Waterbury – 2016
- The New Amsterdam Trail. Henry Hudson & the Dutch Legacy in New York – Gateway to America guide brochure
- Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips and Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer by Corin Hirsch – 2014
- George Thorpe (bap. 1576–1622) – Encyclopaedia Virginia
- Dictionary of the Scots Language: “Usquebae” – Web
- Online Etymology Dictionary: “Whiskey” – Web
- Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed – c.1580
- Drinking Cup: History of Rum – Part 1 – Web
- Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking by Henry G. Crowgey – 1971
- Beverages, Past and Present: An Historical Sketch of their Production, Together with a Study of the Customs Connected with their Use by Edward R. Emerson. (Edward Randolph) – 1856
- A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860 by J. Leander Bishop A.M. M.D. – 1866
- The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society by Harvey J. Graff – 1987