It’s Virginia Spirits Month and to celebrate, Catoctin Creek Distillery co-owner Scott Harris provides a glimpse into the history of whiskey as well as why he started this Purcellville-based business with his wife Becky a decade ago.
Two of the reasons we started Catoctin Creek Distillery were (1) our love of whiskey, and (2) our love for Virginia. Many Americans, when asked, "What is America's native spirit?" will answer, "Bourbon!" This is actually incorrect, as the first whiskey to be enjoyed in America was actually rye whiskey from Virginia, which predates bourbon by about 100 years. Prohibition did many things, including wiping out most of the old family-run distilleries of the 1800's, but it also gave us a cultural amnesia when it comes to our alcoholic history.
So, please allow me to illustrate that history for you here.
When the British started coming to America in the 1600s and more massively in the 1700s, the spirits they drank were almost exclusively rum. This was because sugar was easy to obtain in the Caribbean, and trade routes brought both raw sugar, molasses and finished rum to America. It was used in all kinds of ways, from making punch to making tinctures and medicines. Rum was the king spirit in a land full of citizens of the British crown. When the colonists rebelled against King George III, going as far as to declare war against him, he cut off the supply of sugar, molasses and rum coming into the country.
Americans were an enterprising sort, and after the war in the 1780s and 1790s, having found themselves in a country with many Scots, Irish, and English peoples, lots of arable land, and we must acknowledge a large enslaved African work-force, colonists began making whiskey in large scale for the first time. Distilling whiskey had been done for years in America; nearly every small-grain farm was producing small amounts for home consumption. But with the rum gone, and many new city dwellers to quench, whiskey production goes commercial. In the states from Virginia, through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and even up into Canada, the grain that grew best was rye (not corn).
And so, rye whiskey production goes big and goes commercial.
George Washington, our first president and revolutionary general, had retired at his estate at Mount Vernon, and began producing rye whiskey commercially. His distillery was the largest commercial distillery during his lifetime. His biggest production — rye whiskey.
Those early settlers in the "wild west" who started to experiment with corn (a grain introduced to them by the Native Americans), would start producing corn whiskey that we today call Bourbon. In those early days, however, Kentucky territory was still called Virginia! (Kentucky doesn't become a state until 1794.)
And so it may be cheeky to say — I'll say it anyway — Virginia is also the birthplace of Bourbon!
Therefore, we honor Virginia and the birthplace of American whiskey. What we produce at Catoctin Creek is meant to honor that spirit that would have been very common in our area in the 1800's.
September is Virginia Spirits Month and visitors are encouraged to join us for one of our free popular bottling workshops or our fall dinner, where we'll serve a four-course meal with cocktail pairings. For something a little different, join us at Aldie Mill for milling demonstrations and an evening filled with history, good food and good drink at our Aldie Mill Distillery Dinner. There's always lots of fun happening at Catoctin Creek, so check the website for details, raise a glass and let your imagination wander a bit...