The History of Virginia Spirits
The distillation of beer and wine dates to the 8th century. An alchemist named Geber developed the alembic still, noting that the heated wine from the vessel released a flammable vapor “of little use, but of great importance to science.”
Little did he know of its joy as a social lubricant.
In Virginia, the history of distillation was primarily driven by the failure of the English to make palpable wine. As with any business endeavor, the Virginia Company, who sponsored the intrepid colonists, was created to make money.
Upon landing in Jamestown in 1607, the newcomers noted it was a land “where wild vines grew so profusely, cultivation would produce veritable rivers of wine.” Alas, ‘twas not true. The wine tasted awful.
The inability to make wine set the stage for the distillation of fruit and grains and led the young Nation on a course of distilled spirits production, primarily maintained until craft beer and artesian wine gained traction in the 1980s.
Wine and beer are produced through fermentation and while spirits by distillation. The former is a spontaneous action—albeit managed—the latter fully controlled by man. Distilling is simply removing the alcohol in wine and beer, aging it and then bottling.
Today, Virginians are circling back to their whiskeys, gins, brandies and more. The industry is poised for dramatic growth.
George Washington might be smiling as he gazes down on what’s unfolding in his native state. In the 1780s, Washington was producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year at Mount Vernon. He was the largest producer of spirits in the young country.
Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher from Orange County, Virginia, is credited with producing the first bourbon in the late 1780s. His secret was to age the alcohol in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its reddish color and unique taste.
Virginia Spirit’s Colorful Past
Rich in fabled history, Virginia does possess a few skeletons in its liquor closet; most notably the production of moonshine.
In the distant past, distilling was an economic necessity, enabling farmers to convert any surplus corn crop into a lighter weight liquid easily deliverable to market via mule trains. Twenty-four bushels of corn could be converted into two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey.
Whiskey farming enabled the backwoodsmen to buy nails, sugar, coffee and other necessities.
These hardy pioneers peacefully distilled until 1791 when the Federal government implemented an excise tax on whiskey. The frontiersmen’s wrath erupted in the form of the Whiskey Rebellion as 5,000 hot-tempered home distillers descended on Pittsburgh in an unsuccessful attempt to torch the town.
In 1794, George Washington, in command of 13,000 troops persuaded the rebels to forgo their cause without any loss of life. Illegal distilling was driven into the hills and hollows of Appalachia.
As for the traditional moonshine trade in Virginia, in 1941, the ABC Division of Enforcement seized an all-time high of 1,771 illegal stills. In 2011, a collaborative four-day air and ground operation between the ABC and Virginia State Police resulted in the discovery and destruction of just 25 inactive but operational stills in Franklin, Pittsylvania, and Carroll counties.
Clearly, things have settled down since the heyday of moonshiners.
Virginia Spirits Bright Future
With a legendary past and an unlimited future, the Commonwealth today is home to 70 licensed distilleries, up from 30 just five years ago. Whether your glass longs for bourbon, rye, single malt, legal moonshine, gin, brandy, rum or vodka bottles are available from all quarters of the state.
Even more exotic spirits such as aquavit, absinthe, pastis and a variety of flavored liqueurs can be found in the Commonwealth.
And nothing succeeds like success. In 2017, Virginia distilleries sold spirits valued at over $14 million. The state is riding the wave of craft spirits driven to an extent by commercial brewers who recognized mashing grain was just a step away from a more ‘spirited’ enterprise.
The industry’s impact on Virginia’s economy is valued at $163 million. It supports 1,477 full-time jobs, paying wages of $60 million. Over 296,000 spirits lovers dropped by a craft distillery last year.
Chuck and Jeannette Miller own Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper. Featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” show, theirs was the first craft whiskey distillery in the United States. “We were also the first to introduce “farm-to-table” spirits. We feel our pioneering spirit set a path for others to follow,” said Chuck Miller.
Concurrent with the industry’s expansion is accolades pouring in on the success of master distillers around the state. The Virginia Distillery Company in Lovingston won the Whiskey Magazine award for Best American Single Malt Whiskey for its Virginia Highland Malt.
The A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg was awarded the World’s Best Bourbon title for its John J. Bowman Bourbon Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It was the second time the distillery had been thus recognized.
By any measure, Virginia craft distilling is on a flavorful roll.
In support of the burgeoning industry, the Richmond based Virginia Distillers Association is focused on legislative and marketing efforts that will propel the state even further forward in the future.
“I think Virginia is going to be the next Kentucky or Tennessee as far as distilling goes,” said Amy Ciarametaro, executive director of the association. “We have the provenance more than any spirits region in the country. Our story is rich and layered beyond the Jamestown settlement.”
Ciarametaro points out that unlike our neighboring states are also known for whiskey production, 70 percent of Virginia’s product is primarily produced by raw materials grown in the state. Kentucky and Tennessee bring in a considerable amount of neutral spirits from western states for production and aging.
“I won’t give a number for Virginia’s future growth, but we will absolutely see a lot of growth, especially in small and medium distillers maturing into larger ones. It’s coming down the pipeline,” said Ciarametaro.
The importance of the Virginia spirits industry—coupled with the wine and craft brewery trade—cannot be understated on the impact on the state’s tourism efforts. The Old Dominion is gifted with the richest historical story in America. Showcasing that history in concert with a thriving libation industry can only produce positive benefits for the state and its citizens in the decades ahead.
As Mark Twain reminded us over a century ago, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
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