There was a great deal of distilling happening in the early days of the American colonies. This wasn’t always a matter of recreation and crazy colonial partying, but more of a necessity. With impure or tainted water sources more the rule than the exception, ‘Aqua Vitae’ could literally be considered ‘the water of life.’ Sure, you might have a perpetual hangover, but it beat dying of dysentery. Even children were commonly fed a low alcohol content beer as an alternative to contaminated water. Distilling and fermenting were vital components to everyday life for many of America’s early colonists. So what were they drinking?
Captain James Thorpe of Virginia was one of the first recorded colonists to distill corn in 1620, but it hadn’t gained widespread popularity yet. Other colonists were distilling berries, squash and just about anything they could ferment. But the biggest raw ingredients at the time were molasses and sugar, and major rum distilleries were already established in the Caribbean and began popping up as far north as New England.
Rum was the most popular spirit of the 17th and 18th centuries, and an important foundation in Britain’s trade empire. Corn and rye distillation continued to grow, but rum reigned as king into the late 18th century. So what happened? Simply put, America went to war with England. Even after the colonists had won their independence, trade relations remained strained with England well into the next century, and sugar and molasses shipments slowed considerably. This forced North Americans to start looking for cheaper, more abundant ingredients to distill.
Our fledgling democracy also began attracting immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and Germany, all nationalities with deeply ingrained distilling traditions, who brought their old-world techniques to the new country. As people shifted west, corn and rye became even cheaper and more abundant, and surpluses were often sold to whiskey distillers. In 1776, the Commonwealth of Virginia offered up to 400 acres to any settler who could maintain a farm and build a cabin. This territory would end up becoming the heart of Bourbon County in what is today known as Kentucky. So on behalf of whiskey and bourbon fans everywhere, we’d like to take a moment to thank England for helping to make us what we are today.