The History Of Corn Whiskey

This chapter, which chronicles the evolution of corn whiskey, is summarized from Joseph E. Dabney's authoritative book on the Appalachian moonshine culture, Mountain Spirits1.

Mountain Spirits is highly recommended reading if you are interested in a more detailed history of corn whiskey.

To appreciate the roots of American whiskey distilling, which was born in the Appalachian frontier in the 1700s and 1800s, we must trace back to our Scottish, Irish, French, German, and English ancestors who brought the distilling art to North America over two centuries ago.

The first distillers in Western Civilization were probably the famous old Arabian and Egyptian alchemists who were trying to discover the elixir of life, which was supposed to impart long (or eternal) life, health, and youth. The first alembics (distilling pots) were built in Egypt, and the term "alcohol" is derived from the Arabian term "al-kohl", which is described as a material produced by refinement. One of the popular heroes of the subsequent distillation saga was an Arabian alchemist, Abou-Moussah-Djafar-Al-Sofi (nicknamed Geber), who lived around 700 AD and who put the distillation principles to paper. Ironically, the Arabs were prohibited by their religion from drinking alcohol.

When distillation was first discovered, it was considered by the Europeans to have been a revelation from God. Indeed, for many years after reaching Italy, Spain, and the heart of Europe, the secret of distilling was hoarded by the monks in the monasteries for those who were closest to God.

The result of distillation was dubbed "aqua-vitae" (water of life), and was revered as a highly prized wonder drug dispensed by the monks, alchemists, and the apothecarists. Then from aqua-vitae we go to whiskey. The popular beliefs are that the distilling secret went from the Arabians to the Spaniards (possibly by the invading Moors in the 8th century) to Ireland where whiskey was invented. Another theory is that St. Patrick brought the secret back to Ireland from Egypt around 400 AD where he learned it from the famed alchemists.

But then, St. Pat wasn't Irish. He was a Scot Lowlander born at Dumbarton near the Firth of Clyde, where he lived until he was kidnapped by Irish Celts at age 16 and spirited away to Northern Ireland, which in a way would give the credit for whiskey to the Scots.

The question of who invented whiskey, the Scots or the Irish is disputed to this day and will probably never be settled. However, there is no doubt that Ireland and Scotland were both in the vanguard of the distilling saga and that it was in those countries that the name "whiskey" came into being. The Gaels of the old Ireland called it "usquebaugh", Gaelic for aqua-vitae.

1 Mountain Spirits, published originally by Scribner and now in paperback, along with its companion volume, More Mountain Spirits, both published by Bright Mountain Books, Asheville, N.C.

From this it became "uisge-betha", "uisge", and then simple "whiskey". The ancient Irish called their early whiskey "poteen" (pronounced put-cheen), which means, small pot.

In nearby Scotland, whiskey was highly admired and extensively manufactured as early as the late 1400s. While grain spirits were known in Scotland's Highlands and its Lowlands to the west as "usquebaugh", the early Scot distillers, just as the Irish, had their more familiar colloquialism, "poit du", meaning black pot.

The Scots traditionally have spelled "whisky" without an "e", right to this day. So do the Canadians. The Irish and Americans spell it with an "e". Just why this is so, nobody seems to know.

This leads us into considering that hardy race of people, the "Scotch-Irish" of Ulster, or "Ulster Presbyterians". The Scotch-Irish brought corn whiskey-making to America. More than anyone else, they popularized it, despite the mighty inroads of "rumbullion" (rum).

King James I, the first joint king of the two countries to come from Scotland, planted Scottish Protestants in the province of Ulster (the ten counties of the Catholic Northern Ireland) beginning in 1610. The intent, in part, was to make the "wild Irish" more peaceful. Just before James' predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, had died, her British troops had finally brought the rebellious Irish in Ulster to heel after having literally burned and starved them into submission. At that point, Ulster's two clan chieftains, the Earl of Tyrone (Hugh O'Neill) and the Earl of Fyrconnel (Red Hugh O'Donnell), who had led the bloody rebellion with the backing of the Pope and with the help of troops from Spain, fled to France. With their departure, almost three million acres (1.2 million hectares) of land reverted to the British crown.

With the flight of the earls, King James gave his support to the expanded plantation idea, hoping "that the sea-coasts of Ulster might be possessed by Scots, who would be traders proper for his Majesty's future advantage." Doubtless he also envisioned the opportunity to spread the Protestant faith to Ulster. The Scottish lairds who received big land grants from James drew thousands of willing settlers from the ranks of the poor across the Lowlands, who leapt at the opportunity presented by the Ulster land. The Lowlanders could get on a 31-year "feu", virtually a lifetime lease. Under general circumstances that were far better than those available under the caste system in Scotland. Further, social order did not operate so rigidly in Ulster. Immigrants, however lowly in station, considered themselves "royal colonists". They could live where they pleased, could own a gun, could distill and drink their corn whiskey without interference (that is, before it was subjected to an excise), and perhaps most important of all, they could worship as and where they pleased, which meant, of course, in the Presbyterian "kirk".

By 1640, there were 40,000 Scots in Ulster, drawn mainly by economic opportunities. Additional thousands came in succeeding years because of religious freedom.

Now, it was during the Ulster colonization that the English Parliament adopted excise laws on spirits, mainly to raise money to finance the suppression of the Civil War which broke out in 1642. With the advent of this excise, smuggling of spirits in Britain became rampant. In addition to what they already knew, the Scotch-Irish learned everything possible of the distilling art from the renowned Irish poteen makers.

During their years in Ulster, the Scots learned to drain the marshy bogs, converting former wasteland into fertile farms. The city of Belfast became a monument to Scot enterprise. The deep-water port was literally carved out of the bog, becoming Northern Ireland's centre of export and import. The Scots introduced the potato, and, with the help of newly arrived Huguenot Protestants from France, who were great industrial technologists, they developed booming woolen and linen manufacturing industries.

But all of these industries were soon in dire straits, because the English industrial and agricultural interests could not stand the competition. Parliament was persuaded to enact laws that in effect eliminated the exporting of goods and livestock from Ulster.

Of all the harsh penalties to hit the Ulstermen, "rack-renting" was the worst. The Scottish proprietors, who had benefited from the great improvements made by their tenants, "screwed up" and "racked" the rents to double and triple their previous amounts. The Scotch-Irish farmers, feeling a sense of injury, refused to accept the outrageous rack-rent. The new leases therefore went to native Irishmen. The intransigent and dispossessed farmer had an alternative of leaving the country, to either go to Scotland, or to cross to America.

As a result, America beckoned. After only five generations in Ulster, the Scotch-Irish were ready to move on. And move they did, bringing with them to this country an almost pathological thirst to own land, a strong Protestant faith, and a great tradition of whiskey making and free trading.

The first big wave of Scotch-Irish immigration began about 1717 when Lord Donegal led the way in rack-renting his Ulster tenants in County Antrim, which was followed by four other waves of immigration, and continued until 1776. It is estimated that a quarter million Scotch-Irish poured into America during the five heavy waves of the great migration. While they landed at many ports from Boston to Charleston, most of them came into Philadelphia, New Castle, and Chester, flocking into Pennsylvania and its "three lower counties" which were to become Delaware.

As pioneers, the Scotch-Irish proved their mettle. They were a new kind of settler, the real pioneer, who brought strong convictions to America, including a love of whiskey and a love of liberty.

To say that the drinking and the making of liquor came naturally with the American frontier would be an understatement. To the colonist, suspicious if not deathly afraid of the "poisonous" water of the New World and faced with the reality of the rugged frontier, strong drinks were a dire necessity. From the earliest days at Jamestown, the colonists up and down the seaboard looked on alcoholic beverages as essential for survival.

It was only natural, therefore, that brewing and distilling would command an early and important role in the New World. The Virginia Assembly in 1623 called on all newcomers to bring in malt to brew liquor to tide them over until their constitutions became accustomed to Virginia Water.

By 1625 two brew houses had begun operation in Virginia. Several years earlier, an Episcopalian missionary, Captain George Thorpe, had learned how to convert Indian maize into liquor and had set up a crude distillery at Berkeley Plantation on the banks of the James River. To a friend in London he wrote that he had found a way "to make so good a drink of Indian corn as I protest I have diverse times refused to drink good strong English beer and chosen to drink that."

While Indian corn (i.e. the everyday North American food-grade corn) was destined to become the base for the true blue American drink, the first spirits made and consumed in volume in America came from the fruits that grew wild and from the lush orchards that soon proliferated under the hands of the early day Johnny Appleseeds.

In the years leading up to the migration of the Scotch-Irish to the American frontier in the 1700s, the early Americans began making wine from pumpkins, grapes, currants, elderberries, and parsnips. Indeed, it appeared there was no fruit or grain that was not "grist for the mill" to satisfy the colonists' desire for fermented and/or distilled spirits. They were distilling ardent spirits from blackberries, persimmons, plums, whortleberries, sassafras bark, birch barks, corn stalks, hickory nuts, pumpkins, the pawpaw, turnips, carrots, potatoes, and small grains.

Towards the late 1600s, apple cider, applejack, and apple brandy became the staple alcoholic beverages of New England and south along the eastern seaboard. In every colony, breweries and distilleries sprang up, most of them on individual farms. The stillhouse, usually a windowless log cabin, became an important appurtenance on many plantations in the South and on the farmsteads of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Amsterdam, and New England.

One basic role of spirits in the early days of the colonies was as medicine. Settlers drank spirits to prevent malaria and to speed the recovery of anyone taken ill. Whiskey was to the pioneer what tranquilizers, stimulants, disinfectants, vitamins, rubbing alcohol, and anesthetics are to us today.

During the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, rum became the distilled drink of Colonial America. Rum was consumed in many forms, from straight to mixed with cider or beer to mixes with sugar, water, and nutmeg. Some rum drinkers even plunged red-hot loggerheads into their tankards of "flip", a rum, beer, and sugar combination. By the early 1700s, the colonists were consuming twelve million gallons of rum per year.

Despite its ascendancy, rum began losing ground to the increasingly popular corn and rye whiskey coming from the American frontier. Throughout the colonies, the pioneers had been perfecting the distilling of corn.

It is about this point in time that we rejoin our friends, the Scotch-Irish from Ulster.

Down the Great Valley of Pennsylvania and Virginia, through the 1730s to the 1770s, rolled one of the greatest movements of people in American history, people who were destined to change the drinking habits of the North American continent, and more important, play an important role in opening up the western frontier and waging the War of Independence.

The majority of the Scotch-Irish immigrants headed to the wide open Southwest, the great American frontier of Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia. Between 1720 and 1775, some two to three hundred thousand Ulstermen got off ships at the Delaware River ports of Chester, New Castle, and Philadelphia, and most of them swung down the verdant Great Valley of Pennsylvania, continuing into the Valley of Virginia, today's Shenandoah Valley.

By the time of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia Valley was well populated, and North Carolina's backcountry had sixty thousand settlers. Anson, Orange, and Rowan Counties, North Carolina, which in 1746 had less than a hundred fighting men, had blossomed to at least three thousand by 1750. North Carolina Governor Tyron reported that in 1765 alone, more than a thousand immigrant wagons passed through Salisbury. Neighbouring South Carolina had eighty-three thousand people on its backwaters.

Wherever the Ulsterman went, he took his whiskey. Pennsylvania's Dr. Benjamin Rush put down some disparaging descriptions of the fellow Presbyterians he had observed on a tour of the frontier. He blamed what he felt were the Ulsterman's indolent habits on the ever-present stillhouses. Rush blamed whiskey-making for all of the Ulsterman's troubles, including his quarreling ways, his unkempt farms, and stump-filled fields. He reported that the Scotch-Irish loves spirituous liquors, and eats, drinks, and sleeps in dirt and rags in his little cabin.

What Rush did not acknowledge was that whiskey-making had a very practical purpose for the Scotch-Irish. A settler's first job on arriving in the wilderness was to clear enough land for his cabin and then get in a crop, usually corn, which was easy to produce with only a hoe. Food wasn't a problem because the forests abounded with wild game of all sorts and the rivers were full of fish. What the settler needed was a cash crop to enable him to pay his taxes and thus retain his precious property, usually a few hundred acres. This was where his whiskey-distilling became an extremely important adjunct to his farming. With their whiskey, they had "legal tender" to pay their taxes and obtain the few necessities that they could not make for themselves, such as salt, nails, and cloth. Many Scotch-Irish had brought along their copper worms and small pot stills slung under their ark-like wagons, or on their packhorses. Some, however, brought only a knowledge of how to build a rig, and some, not even that. They quickly learned from one of their neighbours.

The fact that the settler was locked within the fastness of great mountain chains was another reason why it was almost inevitable that he would turn to whiskey-distilling. For although they could produce from forty to sixty bushels of corn per acre (and sometimes more on rich bottom land), it was virtually impossible for them to get ground cornmeal or flour to markets on the seaboard. They could easily and economically convert their corn or rye into spirits, however, and then with a packhorse, transport the liquid equivalent of twenty-four bushels of corn. A packhorse could carry eight bushels of grain, which would fetch about two dollars, not enough to cover the transportation cost. However, a packhorse could carry two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey, which would fetch at least 16 dollars. Practically every farmer, therefore, made whiskey.

The frontiersmen found "whiskey farming" sensible, no different from turning corn into pork, or, as in the case of his compatriots in New England, harvesting syrup from maple trees.

By the mid-1700s, columns of steel blue smoke poured from hundreds of stills over the six-hundred-mile backcountry along the Appalachian Mountain chain. "Where there's smoke, there's bound to be whiskey" was the favourite expression of the time.

Across the western frontier of Pennsylvania during the final days of the Revolutionary War, a strong full-bodied whiskey called "Monongahely rye" was becoming famous and became well known back east in Philadelphia and even down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In Philadelphia, it commanded a dollar a gallon, and was recognized as hard currency much more stable than the continental dollar. Easily divisible, and constantly increasing in value as it aged in oaken kegs or sloshed around on a trip over the mountains or down the Ohio River, it was indeed the frontier farmer's greatest bank balance. They could easily barter their whiskey for the necessities of life, for salt at five dollars a bushel, or nails at fifteen cents a pound. With enough whiskey, he could buy a farm.

Every fall, the farmer-distillers of the Monongahela River County around Pittsburgh would put together mule trains and traverse the Alleghenies via the rutted Forbes Road. Strapped across the back of each animal would be two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey, 24 bushels of grain in liquid form, 128 pounds in all (each gallon weighing eight pounds). No wonder that practically every farmer became a "whiskey grower", converting his surplus grain into spirits.

Stills made by the coppersmiths of York, Lancaster, and Philadelphia proliferated on the frontier, particularly in southwest Pennsylvania. By 1790, of the 2,500 known distilleries in operation in the 13 states, 570 were concentrated in the four counties around Pittsburgh, 272 in Washington County alone. Hugh Brackenridge, the famed Pittsburgh lawyer of the era, declared the still was "the necessary appendage of every farm, where the farmer was able to procure it". A complete copper still and worm was literally worth a 200-acre farm within ten miles of Pittsburgh. Although not every farmer could afford a still, there was at least one in every settlement, with from six to 30 families sharing its output.

Now in 1790 word got around that the Secretary of the Federal Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, had devised a new scheme to pay off the country's 21 million dollar war debt: he would tax whiskey distilleries and whiskey production! The shock waves reverberated through the backcountry, riveting the frontiersmen with rage.

Instead of receiving the appreciation due its soldiers for their heroic role in the fight against England, the West found itself confronting a discriminatory excise on its whiskey. Why didn't the federal government open up river trade with the Southwest via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers? Why didn't it build some good roads to the eastern markets? No. What it planned to do was equivalent to a slap in the face.

Despite the West's protest and the opposition of many politicians, Congress paid no heed and on March 3, 1791, voted Hamilton's proposal into law. As amended later in an attempt to mollify the westerners, the tax was set at seven cents per gallon of liquor produced, or 54 cents per gallon capacity of each still. Adding insult to injury, the law also offered rewards to "informers" who would spy and report on unregistered stills.

This law provoked a furious reaction, and many incidents began to occur, which included gangs going around destroying the stills of the few distillers that acquiesced and paid the excise.

The most significant event revolving around the excise was the Whiskey Rebellion, which started with such a roar, and ended with a whimper. The frontiersmen formed a rebellious force of over 5,000 insurgents and descended on Pittsburgh ready to put the torch to the town, but the towns folk met the throng at the town limits, bearing whiskey and wagonloads of dried venison, bear meat, hams, and poultry, all designed to discourage a rampage through the city. The hospitality worked, and the threat of serious violence was subjugated.

Certain citizens of Philadelphia, particularly George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, were not smiling over the ominous turn of events. At Hamilton's urging, President Washington called on the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to draft armies for the job that lay ahead. Some 13,000 troops, including 11,000 infantrymen, were put on alert by the four governors, awaiting one last attempt to settle the issue without marching.

Washington sent commissioners to Pittsburgh, and it was agreed to hold a referendum asking the anti-excisers to submit to the new law by pledging oaths of allegiance. Those who signed would be pardoned for past offences. But the Westerners resented the oath, and the percentage of people who signed was far from overwhelming. Washington, under pressure from Hamilton, feeling no other recourse was left to him, ordered the troops to march.

Meanwhile, in Monongahela County, as the government forces swelled, the ranks of the rebels became contrastingly thin. Some 2,000 insurgents quickly disappeared from the area, among them, most of the ringleaders of the rebellion. Many fled down the Ohio River into Kentucky and beyond.

On November 13, 1794 the government troops squashed the rebellion, and numerous arrests were made. In the end, Washington pardoned all who were arrested and the rebellion was over.

The rebellion cost 1.5 million dollars to squelch, much more than the total excise collected in a year's time. But the effort apparently had the effect that Hamilton desired: it gave credibility to the power of the federal government.

But the settlers did not stop making whiskey during the excise years. Indeed, the rebellion helped set the stage for the beginning of America's widespread distilling activity, for it pushed whiskey-making deeper into the West and South, into Kentucky and down the Appalachians into the Carolinas and Georgia. Many a Monongahelan lashed his still onto a pack horse and headed for the promised land, where people could carry out "stillin" to their hearts' content away from the prying eyes of the excise man.

Soon almost every farm down the Appalachians and into Kentucky and Tennessee had a still of some type. Many farmer-distillers had two copper pot stills, a large one for the first run (i.e. a beer stripper), usually 150 to 200 gallons, and a smaller one (i.e. a spirit still), around 50 to 80 gallons, for the second since less volume was required for the doubling run (spirit-run).

In 1794, the British gave up their northwest posts and in 1795 Spain signed Pinckney's Treaty, allowing Americans to ship their whiskey and other products down the Mississippi. These developments added considerably to the Kentucky and Tennessee boom. In just two months of 1795, upwards of 30,000 people crossed the Cumberland River into middle Tennessee. Soon, 20-ton barges were plying the Tennessee River from east Tennessee, loaded with barrels of frontier spirits, destination: New Orleans.

Meanwhile, across the "southwestern" frontier (today's southeastern U.S.) deep into Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the great common denominator was corn. It provided hoecakes and hominy for the settlers, feed for the hogs and horses and, perhaps most important, the base for the settlers' favourite drink. Moreover, corncobs could be used as fuel and shucks to fill a mattress.

Getting the corn ground presented a problem, but the frontiersmen weren't long in meeting the challenge. "Grist" mills sprung up on many a stream, alongside waterwheels. Looking back on it, it seems a miracle that the people on the frontier came up with such contraptions. But the mountain people were ingenious. They had to be. There were scarcely any roads, and they could only carry in what could be packed on a horse. The water-powered gristmills became one of the real milestones of Appalachian Americana. Like the stillhouse, the gristmill became a commodity landmark and a centre of activity.

Many historians give Reverend Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher, the credit for discovering bourbon whiskey. In 1781, he set up a gristmill at Royal Spring in what is today Scott County, Kentucky. He employed his surplus corn and rye meal to make whiskey (bourbon, by today's Federal Government definition, is comprised of at least 51% corn and a large adjunct of rye). The story goes that he happened into storing his whiskey in charred oak barrels by using a barrel that had been accidentally burned on the inside and subsequently discovered its lubricious effects on the whiskey. Charred oak purges the clear whiskey of many of its impurities and gives it an amber colour, plus a smooth oak-flavoured bouquet and body. Today, charring the oak bourbon barrels is a federal requirement for the maturing of bourbon (minimum three years). Other accounts attribute the charred barrel to early coopers who burned straw inside new barrels to clear them of rough edges, splinters, and bacteria. Still others say that barrels were burned originally to clear out the rank odour of fish or molasses.

Regardless of how the corn-rye mix or the charred oak barrel came to be, they formed the definition of bourbon whiskey, and other styles of American straight whiskey. Today, the U.S. Federal Government regulation for Straight Bourbon Whiskey is: a whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% corn; distilled until the emerging distillate is no more than 160 proof; and aged in new charred white oak barrels for a minimum of three years. As well, in order to use the name "bourbon" it must be made in the appellation region (no pun intended) of Bourbon County Kentucky.

The excise years were drawing to a close. In 1800, a significant year for whiskey distillers everywhere, but particularly for those on the southern and western frontiers, Democrat Thomas Jefferson, with the great support of the democratic peoples of the West, won an overwhelming victory over the Hamiltonian Federalists and became President. One of Jefferson's early objectives was eliminating the "infernal" whiskey excise, which he felt was hostile to the genius of a free people. Craig and his fellow whiskey distillers across the West and South celebrated the repeal, which came on June 30, 1802.

So the frontiersmen at last were free from the excise. And, except for a three-year imposition of a tax following the War of 1812, they had a relatively long era without visits from gaugers, excisemen, and collectors. This reprieve lasted until 1862. During this happy period, they refined their distilling as well as American whiskey.

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Responses

  • venla
    Who invented corn whiskey?
    10 months ago

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