by Patrick Evans-Hylton | Posted on September 12th, 2014
September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a time for folks to enjoy an imbibe that is truly American.
The celebration was set aside by a Senate resolution in 2007 and reads in part:
“Whereas the history of bourbon-making is interwoven with the history of the United States, from the first settlers of Kentucky in the 1700s …”
As a Virginian, I couldn’t agree more, for when the first settlers came to that region, that region was Virginia. In fact, it was Virginia until the commonwealth of Kentucky was established in 1792.
The geographical area today famous for the spirit – Bourbon County – was Virginia until this separation.
And the man noted as the father of modern bourbon, Elijah Craig, was born in Orange County, Va. in 1738 and began distillation in that region in 1789 in charred oak casks that, he writes, is “a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique tastes.”
But the road to bourbon began before the 18th century.
The process of making distilled spirits using grain mash (from barley, rye and wheat, among others) as a base is millenniums old. Among the round-up: gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. Bourbon is a type of whiskey.
Corn, being a New World agricultural product, was new indeed to European settlers coming to the Americas. And bourbon is made from a mash of corn.
A key crop for Jamestown settlers, corn cultivation and use was introduced to the English by Native Americans. It was used to feed livestock, and to feed people.
Another use was found around 1620 by preacher, physician and surgeon George Thorpe, at Berkeley Hundred (now Berkeley Plantation,) just a short distance northwest of Jamestown along the James River.
“Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drink good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that,” he writes.
Not exactly bourbon, but a good start to crafting truly American whiskeys in the developing nation.
Virginia fostered this corn whiskey, and many farmers found that they could make about three gallons from a bushel of corn, and that the price they could fetch on their distilled spirits surpassed that of the corn at market.
This tradition made its way as the frontier opened up into the Shenandoah Valley, and across the Allegheny Mountains into what is now West Virginia and Kentucky.
A proposal to tax this drink to cover war debts from the Revolution caused the Whiskey Rebellion in those parts, the first armed conflict between citizens and the newly formed American government.
But it wasn’t just farmers that got in on the act; what would become Virginia’s largest commercial distillery of the day opened in 1797 at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Rye and corn grown on the estate was used in the mash, and production leapt from 80 gallons the first year to 11,000 gallons the following year. By the early 19th century, however, the distillery ceased operations.
In 2006, the site was excavated and a reconstructed distillery was built on the foundations, and tours are available as well as limited productions of whiskey using George Washington’s recipe.
Whiskey was in abundance during the 19th century, but by the early 1900s Virginia moved towards Prohibition, adopting laws in 1914 that forbid alcohol production, sales and consumption across the state. The whole country went dry in 1920.
Although A. Smith Bowman Distillery began operation in 1935, shortly after Prohibition’s repeal, quality production of bourbon and other spirits were slow on the return, but the Old Dominion now has more than a dozen distilleries now offering artisanal quaffs flavored with history.
And what’s better than enjoying some of the imbibes from across Virginia than actually visiting some of the businesses, seeing the operations, and speaking with the distiller themselves? We’ll raise a glass to that.
Be it bourbon, or another distilled spirit, that calls your name when 5 o’clock comes, Virginia has more than a dozen distilleries offer quality quaffs for enjoying in a cocktail, on the rocks, or served neat.
Look in state ABC stores for the offerings.
Many distilleries offer tours to see the process up-close. Check with distilleries for details as not all are open to the public.
Belmont Farm Distillery
13490 Cedar Run Rd., Culpeper
Offerings: Kopper Kettle Virginia whiskey, Kopper Kettle vodka, Virginia Lightning corn whiskey (original and apple pie or cherry flavors.)
A. Smith Bowman Distillery
1 Bowman Dr., Fredericksburg
Offerings: Bowman Brothers Virginia small batch bourbon, John J. Bowman single barrel bourbon, Abraham Bowman small batch whiskey, George Bowman small batch Colonial Era-style dark rum, Deep Run small batch vodka, Sunset Hills small batch gin, Virginia Gentleman bourbons.
Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
120 W. Main St., Purcellville
Offerings: Roundstone Rye, Roundstone Rye 92 Proof, Watershed Gin, Roundstone Rye Cask Proof, Mosby’s Spirit (rye), 1757 Virginia Brandy, Pearousia (pear brandy), Short Hill Mountain Peach Brandy,
Chesapeake Bay Distillery
2669 Production Rd., Virginia Beach
Offerings: Blue Ridge Vodka, Chick’s Beach Rum
1603 Ownby Lane, Richmond
Offerings: Potato-based, hand-crafted, small-batched vodka.
Copper Fox Distillery
9 River Lane, Sperryville
Offerings: Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky, Copper Fox Rye Whisky, Copper Fox VirGin, Wasmund’s Single Malt Spirit, Wasmund’s Rye Spirit, Wasmund’s Barrel Kit (to craft your own whiskey at home.)
Although based in New Jersey, the company obtains all its apples from orchards in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where it owns a distillery. It has been distilling apple brandy since 1780.
Offerings: Laird’s Applejack (apple brandy)
1800 Summit Ave., Richmond
Offerings: Bourbon, Wheat Whiskey, Rye Whiskey
9374 Rockfish Valley Hwy., Afton
Offerings: Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin, Blackback Whiskey, Blackback Bourbon, Blackback White Whiskey, Beringei Sweet Tea Vodka (coming soon.)
Virginia Sweetwater Distillery
760 Walkers Creek Rd., Marion
Offerings: Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine, War Horn Whiskey
George Washington’s Distillery
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon
Offerings: a limited production is offered at the distillery – sign up on the website for email notifications when new batches of whiskey become available; folks can also get a taste of George Washington Rye Whiskey Estate Edition through a partnership of Mount Vernon and Hillrock Estate Distillery (www.HillrockDistillery.com)
Woods Mill Distillery
1625 River Rd., Faber
Offerings: Woods Mill Harvest Apple Brandy; note – a bourbon is in the barrel aging and should be available within a year
Also of note for your travel plans: the Blue Ridge Whiskey Wine Loop
So you’ve visited Virginia and toured several distilleries. You have a couple of bottles of bourbon as souvenirs. Now what? It’s cocktail time. Here are three of my recipes for making some drinks that will carry you back to the Old Dominion with each sip.
Of note: one of the most famous bourbon cocktails, the Mint Julep, is also a Virginia native: the first reference was in 1803 and described as “A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
The classic recipe is attributed to The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, then in Virginia, now in West Virginia.
This party punch puts local spirits to good use and satisfies the southern palate for boozy, sugary drinks with equal parts bourbon, lemonade and sweet ice tea.
This recipe is from my cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia.
- 4 cups Virginia bourbon
- 4 cups lemonade
- 4 cups sweet ice tea
- 1 cup ginger ale (like Virginia’s Northern Neck Ginger Ale)
Combine the bourbon, lemonade and tea in a 9-by-13-by-2 inch baking dish. Freeze overnight.
Remove the frozen mixture from the freezer 30 minutes before serving. Break up the mixture slightly and transfer to a punch bowl. Add the ginger ale. Stir until a slushy consistency is reached and serve immediately.
Yields 12-16 servings
The Virginia Highland
Virginia is the southernmost state that produces maple syrup, and we combine that delicious flavor with Virginia bourbon, complimentary orange bitters and garnish with a tasty slice of Virginia bacon just because.
- 1/2 ounce Virginia maple syrup (from Southernmost Maple)
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- 2 ounces Virginia bourbon
- 1 slice extra crisp Virginia bacon slice
In a highball glass add the maple syrup and bitters and stir. Add one or two ice cubes and add bourbon. Garnish with Virginia bacon slice
Yield 1 cocktail
The Winchester Wink
- 3-4 thin slices of fresh, peeled ginger
- 2 ounces Virginia bourbon
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Virginia cider
Add ginger, bourbon and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker; fill with ice and shake to combine. Strain into a highball glass and add one or two ice cubes. Fill to the top with Virginia cider.
Yield 1 cocktail
- One of the first Native American tribes that English colonists encountered is named after food.
The Chickahominy, whose name translates to “The Coarse Ground Corn People,” is today among the 11 officially recognized by the state.
The Chickahominy River, named after the people, feeds into the James River just to the west of Jamestown.
- Congress declared bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964, making it the only spirit distinctive to this country.
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.