Virginia has been one of the best places in America to have a tipple since approximately Day One. Our incredibly vibrant craft distilling industry reflects not only Old Dominion’s agricultural bounty but also centuries of booze-making: from those colonial geniuses who pioneered corn whiskey to the industrious moonshiners who kept those stills a-humming during the dark days of Prohibition.
To celebrate Virginia Spirits Month this September, let’s dive into some tippled trivia about this “birthplace of American distilled spirits,” a mantle we’re mighty proud of.
Corn Whiskey & Bourbon Were Born Here: You’re Welcome
Given the abundance of corn in the New World, you knew it was only a matter of time—and not much time, as it happens—for thirsty settlers to figure out how to make booze from it. The first batch of American corn whiskey is credited to Gloucerstershire-born colonist George Thorpe, who whipped up the good stuff at Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation in 1620.
Props for distilling the first bourbon, however, go to the Baptist preacher Elijah Craig of Orange County, Virginia, who in the late 18th century aged his whiskey in casks of charred oak and thereby achieved that one-of-a-kind bourbon flavor and reddish tint we’re all obsessed with today.
Bourbon County, Kentucky? More Like Bourbon County, Virginia
Yeah, yeah, Kentucky’s the heartland of bourbon, but credit where credit’s due: Bourbon County, Kentucky was originally part of the swath of Virginia called Old Bourbon, becoming part of the newly minted Bluegrass State in 1792. Given this and old Mr. Craig’s whiskey-aging innovation, Virginia’s definitely got its own “spiritual” stamp (yikes—sorry) on the spirit.
Father of His Country & Whiskey Bigwig
Sure, George Washington was Commanding General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States, but more importantly to this here discussion he was also a big-time whiskey man. (And we’re not just talking about the whole Whiskey Rebellion thing.)
In 1797, Washington—who happened to like him some fortified wines, porters, whiskey, and rum punch—set up commercial distilling at his Mount Vernon estate at the recommendation of his farm manager. This operation became the biggest whiskey distillery in the country, turning out a mighty impressive 11,000 gallons of the hard stuff in 1799. Visit Mount Vernon today and you can see a faithful reconstruction of Washington’s distillery—and even take home a bottle of the small-batch whiskey made there today. (Heads up: Mount Vernon is also kicking off its very first George Washington Whiskey Festival on November 9th, 2019.)
White Lightning Stronghold
Distilling didn’t exactly shut down in Virginia during Prohibition, to put it mildly. Heck, Franklin County was known as the “Moonshine Capital of the World” back in those days, whipping up more black-market booze than any other corner of the country.
Birthplace of Modern Craft Distilling
Virginia also lays claim to the first modern craft distillery in the U.S. Belmont Farm, was launched in 1988 in Culpeper and is still going strong. Today, the Commonwealth hosts more than 60 licensed distillers in an all-out thriving spirits industry that, in 2017, contributed about $163 million to the state’s economy.
The mild climate and rich soils of Virginia shake out to some of the richest agricultural land in the country, and that means the state’s craft distillers can draw from a smorgasbord of homegrown rye, corn, barley, wheat, and other ingredients. According to Virginia Spirits, close to 70 percent of the agricultural products used to make Virginia distilled spirits come from inside the state, setting the stage for a fantastic grain-to-glass, farm-to-bottle experience.
The Booze Breakdown in Virginia
Barrel-aged whiskeys, bourbons, ryes, and single-malts account for the largest share of craft spirits distilled in Virginia, with moonshine (“white whiskey”) and gin sharing second place. Other Old Dominion spirits include rum, vodka, brandy, and a plethora of liqueurs.
The Virginia Spirits Trail
You’ve heard of the Appalachian Trail, but maybe you don’t want to walk so far, and maybe you wanna do a little drinking at the same time. How about doing some distillery-hopping in Virginia instead, exploring the diversity of methods, products, geographic settings, and stories that make up the state’s craft spirits industry? You can do just that by taking to the Virginia Spirits Trail, which encompasses not only distilleries but also restaurants, bars, and modern-day speakeasies that serve the state’s world-class liquors.
The Spirits Trail also includes a variety of attractions along the way, everything from historical sites such as Mount Vernon (and its distillery!), Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and Colonial Williamsburg to outdoor destinations such as Old Rag Mountain and McAfee Knob, which happens to be arguably the scenic pinnacle of the entire Appalachian Trail (just to bring things full circle here).
So put on those traveling shoes of yours and take to the Virginia Spirits Trail, where you can combine samples of such prestigious products as John J. Bowman’s Single Barrel Bourbon (a World’s Best Bourbon winner in the 2017 World Whiskies Awards) and Vitae Spirits Distillery’s Platinum Rum (which nabbed a silver medal in The Fifty Best awards this year) with Old Dominion sightseeing and all-around road-tripping fun. Happy Virginia Spirits Month from all of us at VA Foodie!