Alcohol has always played an important role in American culture. In 1620, when the pilgrims settled in America, their ranks included a brewer and they brought beer with them. In 1640, Cornelius Toun distilled the first recorded brandy in New York. This was most likely made from wine imported from Europe, but could also have been made from apples or some other fruit grown locally. In 1648, eight years after the first brandy, the first recorded rye whiskey was distilled in Salem, Massachusetts by Emmanuel Downing. By the 18th century, trade with the British Caribbean colonies started bringing sugar cane and molasses into the northeastern ports and rum became a popular product. The rum had to be shipped to British ports, but it did start an export business in America for distilled spirits. Unfortunately, the distillation of rum supported the horrific enslavement of Africans, as sugar cane and molasses went to New England and was made into rum: rum went to a British port where it was then used to trade for African people who were forcibly transported to the West Indies and America.
By the 18th century gin was becoming a popular drink. There is no indication that spirits other than brandy were being aged in charred oak and even whisky from Scotland, according to Dr. Nicholas Morgan speaking at United Distillers in the 1990s, was often flavored with herbs making it very “gin-like”. If rum was placed in charred barrels, I have not seen any written record of that, but it was possible. The colonials would have filled barrels for the export market, but if those barrels were charred, then it was most likely only because they were re-using wine or brandy barrels as their shipping container. Gin distilleries did appear in the American colonies. The Corlis-Respess papers at the Filson Historical Society show that John Corlis owned a gin distillery in Providence Rhode Island in the late 18th century, before he moved to Kentucky in the early 19th century.
Brandy was another spirit that was being produced in Colonial America. As fruit trees matured, the fruit was being turned into apple, pear and peach brandy. Out west, in Spanish California, they were making wine and brandy. In Colonial America, brandy was considered the best drink. Apple and peach brandies were the spirits that cost the most in the taverns. Many of the frontier distillers also made brandy along with whiskey. The frontier distillers used the traditional fruits of apples, peaches and pears, but also made brandy from other native fruits available to them such as blackberries and pawpaws.
These colonial distilleries were pot still distilleries fueled by open fire. Some of the larger distilleries in the late 18th century could have been heated by steam heat, but the majority of the whiskey distilleries of the time were still using open fire heated by either wood or coal. Fermenters were wooden tubs or barrels. These spirits were not often stored in barrels on the frontier because they simply did not make enough in a day to fill a barrel. They would fill stoneware jugs and use the spirit to barter for other goods. Only after the pioneer increased the size of their distillery would they start filling barrels. Of course barrels had the disadvantage of soaking up some of the production into the wood, so jugs remained very popular.
The spirits produced were often made into other products by adding flavors. There are recipes from the late 1700s at the Filson Historical Society for making gin, cherry bounce and blackberry cordial. These flavored products were popular in the local taverns of the time.
Distilled spirits were popular in Colonial America. Distilleries were found in every state. The larger distilleries were located in the cities where the spirit could be exported to bring in hard currency and credit. The smaller, farmer distilleries were rural and the spirit was used as barter, but even these spirits would be gathered by the merchants and sent to the larger cities for hard currency and credit. Distilled spirits were an important part of the economy in Colonial America.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller