American Whiskey:

It Wasn't Always Bourbon, Y'know...

IN FACT it didn't even start out being Whiskey at all. But distilled alcoholic beverages were an integral part of America right from the very beginning, and the "Spirit" of freedom in the New World was far more than just a figure of speech. The founding of the American colonies and their transformation into a free and independent new nation is richly intertwined with the history of American whiskey. You cannot possibly increase your understanding of the one without adding to your appreciation of the other. And so we decided to spend some time exploring a few of the sites among the hills and valleys where it all began.

The whiskey of the twenty-first century is whiskey that has been pretty much cut loose from the stereotypes of the 1900's. Such ideas as that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky; that American whiskey can only be made from corn or rye; that any good whiskey must be aged for at least whatever number of years the current tax laws allow; that whiskey is only made to be drunk neat. The beginning of the current century is exploding with innovative spirits made from "new" grains, made in new ways, and targeted at new audiences.

The whiskey of the twentieth century was mostly the whiskey of a relatively small part of Kentucky. Known as Bourbon, some say because of the area with which it was first identified, it was a whiskey made mostly from corn and is still what people usually think of when they order American whiskey. Although most people don't realize it, bourbon can be made anywhere within the United States, but before the 2000s nearly all of it came from Kentucky.

The whiskey of the nineteenth century was the whiskey of a similarly small area in western Pennsylvania. Known as Monongahela, from the river that runs through much of that country, it was a whiskey made mostly from rye. It didn't taste exactly like the rye whiskey we know today, and it probably didn't taste anything like the blended Canadian whisky that Americans tend to call "rye". It became popular enough that the style was copied in other places, such as eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and especially Maryland, where a variant developed with characteristics of its own. In 1810, when Kentucky produced 2,220,773 gallons of distilled spirits, Pennsylvania barreled up no less than 6,552,284 gallons, most of which was prime Monongahela rye. There are only a few rye whiskeys made today, and all are from Kentucky. They're more closely related to the Maryland variety than to the west Pennsylvanian. And until this millennium not a single commercial whiskey distillery remained operating in Pennsylvania or Maryland.

The whiskey of the eighteenth century -- such as there was of it -- was the whiskey made in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, the Carolinas, and Georgia. It was mostly distilled for home consumption but some was produced commercially. It, too, was mostly rye. Corn, or rather maize, didn't take off in popularity until the Kentuckians worked their magic on it much later. In fact, long before Indian maize was used for making whiskey, colonial and early American distillers understood the eastern European word "korn", meaning "grain", to refer to rye. That was the kind of whiskey George Washington distilled and it was very different indeed from the bourbons and ryes we know today. For one thing, it wasn't reddish brown, because it wasn't aged in barrels. In fact, it wasn't aged much more than however long it took to get it home from the distillery. Fritz Maytag, the gentleman who brews Anchor Steam Beer in San Francisco makes a rye whiskey that he believes comes as close as possible to duplicating that whiskey. He calls it Old Potrero, also for the location -- in this case a hill in San Francisco. By federal law, he can't even label it "Rye Whiskey", because the law defines rye whiskey as a completely different product. It's labeled "Single Malt Whiskey", as if it were a kind of scotch (he does bottle a product that meets the legal definition,  and is labeled "Rye", but it isn't quite the same). Old Potrero is hard to find and costs a lot because Fritz doesn't make much, but if you want to understand the roots of American whiskey you should have a bottle. Prepare to be surprised at the flavor; it probably won't be your favorite whiskey. But then again, it might. John (the "Jaye" part of "L and J Dot Com") loves it. But then John also loves pure, unaged corn whiskey too.

And by 2002, Old Potrero is not alone. Rodney Facemire in southern West Virginia began producing legal clear, unaged rye whiskey and bottling it at a less-threatening 80 proof. He was instrumental in getting laws passed that allowed small distilleries to exist legally for the first time since Prohibition, and much of the current environment for artisan distillers can be directly or indirectly traced to his operation at Kirkland Winery in Summerville. His Isaiah Morgan Rye tastes remarkably like young cognac. It's also probably a lot closer to the sort of rye whiskey that George Washington's customers were drinking than the 125+ proof Fritz Maytag distills it at.

The whiskey makers in the Monongahela River valley made the same kind of whiskey. And they sent their whiskey to the same east coast markets for sale. But by the time it had  been stored in warehouses and then traveled the long route from there to civilization it had spent months in barrels and picked up a flavor and a deep reddish-brown color that became characteristic of the type. An example of Monongahela-type rye whiskey can be found pretty easily; just look for Old Overholt in the bottle with Abraham Overholt himself glaring sternly at you from the label. It's not really Monongahela rye. It's made in Kentucky. By Fortune Brands, who also make a rye under their Jim Beam label. But it doesn't taste like Jim Beam Rye, or any of the other fine Kentucky rye whiskeys. It's flavor is quite different, and very reminiscent of the real article, distilled in Pennsylvania at the Broad Ford of the Youghiogheny river. and if you mix a little of your Old Potrero with it, you'll have a pretty good idea of what that whiskey might have really tasted like. There's also a Canadian rye whiskey, Lot No. 40, that is directly descended from the original Monongahela types, and  also has that very distinctive flavor.

But our web site isn't about tasting whiskey. It's about visiting the places where it is (or at least was) made. And that's what we're about to do. There's a lot packed into these pages, because there's a lot more than meets the eye. In fact, there's very little to meet the eye anymore, and we will find ourselves spending more time trying to find some of these sites than actually visiting them.  Our journey into the misty, half-secret realm of whiskeys-that-are-no-more will have us traveling backwards in direction and every which way through time as we visit the sites where some of Pennsylvania's and Maryland's proudest distillers of fine American Rye once fired their stills and drove bungs into their barrels. Along the way, we'll visit areas where unthinkable ideas of independence and freedom were formed and would later be put to the test. George Washington really did sleep here. In fact he owned quite a bit of it. There was whiskey being made here then, by farmers and by millers, and we'll visit the site where farmer (and Revolutionary War hero) Israel Shreve operated his small distillery and grist mill in the 1790's. Carefully restored to its original condition, it's one of the earliest whiskey distilleries in Pennsylvania. We'll also visit Pennsylvania's last commercial whiskey distillery, which closed in the late 1980's. We'll sift through the rubble and broken bricks of what was once Old Overholt's distillery at Broad Ford, and we'll marvel at the fact that Broad Ford itself, nearly a hundred fifty years before that, had played an important role in America's settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. We'll hike along a twisting, narrow trail through the woods to visit a small pile of broken stones and twisted copper equipment marking where King's Maryland Rye was being made nearly a century ago. We'll drive from the site of a pre-Civil War Monongahela distillery, to that of a Prohibition-era moonshiner's outdoor mountain still, and on to the empty shells of a huge facility in Baltimore where Four Roses Whiskey was made during the twentieth century, and Baltimore Pure Rye in the nineteenth. And we'll get there by traveling over the first federally-paved "2-lane interstate highway" for automobiles in America, the Lincoln Highway, as well as the first federally-built road across America, period... the National Pike.

But it wasn't always bourbon, y'know...

Despite the contrivances of abstentionists to connect their viewpoint with our proud Puritan forebears, the fact is that the colonists of British North America drank beverage alcohol. They drank a LOT of beverage alcohol. In fact, by today's standards their average per capita consumption would be considered quite alarming. In the early 1700's the average annual per capita consumption of alcohol was over three and a half gallons (pure alcohol; that would be over seven gallons at 100 proof), or about double today's rate. About a third was in the form of beer or wine, the rest was distilled spirits.

And hardly a drop of that was whiskey.

Rum was by far the preferred spirit, with fruit brandy (especially peach, apple, and pear brandy) making up most of the rest. Whiskey was a homespun farm product, usually produced and consumed by the same farmers who made their own clothing and furniture. In Catoctin Park, near the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, the National Park Service has set up a display on the former site of a notorious (and large) moonshine operation once known as Blue Blazes. That had been a 25,000-gallon operation that was raided and destroyed in July of 1929, but the still equipment you can visit on the banks of Distillery Run today is quite different from that setup. The little 50-gallon Blue Blazes still on display may not do justice to the operation for which the site is named, but it is an excellent example of the type of still an 18th century farmer would have for converting his grain crops to transportable liquid. Before the 1791 Excise Tax, just about every farm had its own whiskey still.  Click here and we'll take a walk through the Maryland woods and visit this one...

As settlement expanded westward toward the mountains commercial areas and towns began to form, and with them rose a market for locally-obtainable whiskey. In those days, before the later temperance movements had created a different sentiment, whiskey was regarded as a necessary article of food, no different from beef or bread. And about the same time that butcher shops, bakeries, and candlestick manufacturers appeared, so did commercial whiskey distilleries. Reconstruction of Israel Shreve's 1790 Distillery

For one thing, farmers were quickly discovering the advantages of having a portion (sometimes a large portion) of their crop converted to whiskey for transport to market. As the frontier spilled over the Alleghenies into what would later become western Pennsylvania that advantage became a requirement. Transporting their grain to New Orleans down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was not yet feasible, due both to the distance and the hostility of the Spanish who claimed rights to that area. The only existing road leading east across the mountains to market was extremely difficult and dangerous. Their surplus produce must rot unless it could be manufactured into spirits which could be consumed at home or carried to a market. For the most part, only those products could be taken over the mountains as had feet of their own. A horse, it was said, could carry only four bushels of grain across the mountains; but he could take twenty-four bushels when converted into liquor.

Typically not long after a grist mill was built to serve area farmers a distillery would be set up, sometimes as a separate business or often as another service offered by the miller. The farmers would store a portion of their grain (which might also be a service offered by the larger area mills) and have enough of the rest ground into meal or flour as needed to sustain his family for the year. The rest would be mashed and distilled into whiskey. And in a barter-based society with an overabundance of agricultural products, whiskey served as an excellent medium of exchange.

Which, along with several miles of twisty and confusing back-country roads, brings us to Perryopolis, on the Youghiogheny river.

Click here and we'll visit the basic farmer's distillery operated by Col. Israel Shreve in the 1790s..


Looking for more about American Spirits?  Google  

          Contact us through 


Story and original photography copyright © 2003 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.