History – The American Whiskey Trail
© 2016 Sarah Becker
How do lawyers and historians pass their respective bar exams? Lawyers mostly study hard. Spirited historians sip booze. The American Whiskey Trail, championed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, includes local sites such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery and Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.
Reconstructed as of 2007, Washington’s Distillery was originally built in 1797. Two years later it was the country’s largest 18th century facility, producing approximately 11,000 gallons of whiskey annually. Whiskey sold for $.50 a gallon and a federal excise tax was paid.
Washington’s Distillery generated a substantial profit, thanks mostly to the efforts of experienced farm manager and Scotsman James Anderson. The Estate produced ample grain; the gristmill and water system were previously installed, and slave labor was cheap. Better still, the remaining slop—distilled grain—was recyclable. The Distillery was home to 150 pigs and 30 cows.
Alexandria’s George Gilpin was among the Distillery’s earliest customers. A King Street property owner, Gilpin sold Washington’s whiskey at his store. The un-aged whiskey was made from 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley.
Today the standard alcohol drink is either 12-ounces of regular beer, 1½-ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits, or 5-ounces of wine. Who has not heard about the health benefits associated with drinking red wine? Only recently did I hear that Colorado State University “is one of several colleges now offering a major in beer.” The curriculum includes biochemistry, microbiology, physics and organic chemistry.
The beer industry overall produces $101.5 billion in sales. Craft beer accounts for 19.3% of sales including Small Company Brewery of the Year Port City Brewery’s Optimal Wit. “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us happy,” Benjamin Franklin allegedly said. In truth the beer industry co-opted the phrase as part of a 1996 marketing campaign.
In an undated letter to French economist Abbe Morellet Franklin said: “You have often enlivened me, my dear friend, by your excellent drinking songs; in return I beg to edify you…We hear of the conversation of water into wine at the marriage of Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!”
“To confirm, still more your piety,” Franklin continued, “reflect upon the situation which it has given to the elbow…man, who was destined to drink wine, must be able to raise the glass to his mouth.” Today it is the millennials who enjoy good wine. They drank 42% of the country’s wine in 2015.
“The difference with beer and wine is we taste beer,” University of California Davis Professor Charlie Bamforth said. “And we swallow, none of this ridiculous spitting.” The country’s first light beer: Williamsburg’s Virginia Middling Beer.
Not that many years ago alcohol consumption was illegal. For 13 years—from 1920 until 1933—America said no to liquor. “The temperance movement hijacked Washington’s persona in a flagrant attempt to rewrite history by portraying him a non-drinker,” former Mt. Vernon Vice President of Preservation Dennis Pogue said in 2012.
The temperance movement reached its zenith in the early 20th century, the result of anti-lobbying activity which began in the 1830s. Alcohol use was associated with social ills, social reform, and German and Irish immigrants. Prohibitionists couched their middle class message in conformity and, as with any morality play, the ending was prescribed.
Prohibition exhibited many of the characteristics inherent in progressive reforms. Dr. Benjamin Rush, as early as 1784, argued “that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to health.” In 1789, two hundred Litchfield County, Connecticut farmers swore off alcohol during farming season.
The nation’s first temperance group formed in 1789; Virginia’s in 1800. Over time Rush’s call for drinking in moderation morphed into a religious cause. In Boston, in 1826, an all-male gathering of clergy and laymen founded the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance. Mark Twain was a Cadet of Temperance from 1846-1850; the Prohibition Party formed in 1869, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874. Tired of enduring drunken behavior at home, many of the early temperance advocates were women.
Maine, in 1851, became the first State to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages except for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes.” Although patent medicines were well-known for their alcohol content, such products remained protected. For example Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was a liquor-laced, herbal remedy sold to women with female complaints.
Although Maine’s abstinence law eventually failed, temperance education did not. Temperance was the panacea for poverty, crime, and domestic violence. Abolitionists and suffragists eagerly joined the temperance movement. Advocates like Carrie Nation sometimes resorted to violence, physically destroying bars with a hatchet.
In 1917 – perhaps timed to coincide with America’s entry into World War I and the country’s anti-German sentiment – the country’s Prohibition amendment passed. On January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified by the States:
“After one year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
The 1920’s were a behavioral experiment, a “noble experiment” Herbert Hoover said. Public behavior deteriorated and enforcement was difficult. Bootleggers, speakeasies, and bathtub gin were common. Hoodlums, gangsters and corrupt politicians teamed for financial gain.
By the 1930s the stock market had crashed and Americans were thirsty for change. Congress repealed the 18th Amendment n 1933. Alcohol flowed almost as easily as it once did at Washington’s Distillery. Moderate alcohol consumption was again the public’s behavior of choice.
Booze is big business. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump—a teetotaler—once promoted “T&T,” Trump and tonic. The brand: Trump Vodka. The slogan: “Success Distilled.” Unsuccessful the Donald now owns the largest winery on the east coast; Virginia’s former Kluge Estate. South Carolina’s Rational Spirits uses Lost Spirits Technology, a reactor to age its Sunteria Rum and Anheuser-Busch InBev proposes to buy SABMiller for $104 billion.
Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery is open seasonally, from April 1 through October 31. It is located on Route 235, three miles south of Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens. Visitors are invited to sip wine, locally crafted beer and other treats June 10 & 11 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Beer-brewing demonstrations are included. For additional information, visit http://www.mountvernon.org.
George Washington first attended Gadsby’s Birthnight Ball, an Alexandria tavern party given in his honor, in 1798. The Ball is now an annual Museum event. For more information, visit http://oha.alexandriava.gov/gadsby. Admission fees apply to both.
Travel the American Whiskey Trail. The Puritans knew the value of alcohol. They loaded more beer than water for their voyage to the New World.
George Washington’s Beer Recipe
To make Small Beer take a large siffer full of bran hops to your taste-boil these 3 hours. Then strain our 30 gall[o]n into a cooler put in 3 gall[o]n molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather draw the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot, let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of ye[a]st if the weather is very cold cover it over with a blank[et] let it work in the cask-Leave the bung open till it is almost done working-Bottle it that day week it was brewed. Note: The alcohol content is approximately 11%.