Virginia Spirits

By Dan Gill


In May of 1607, Captain Newport, John Smith and company sailed up the James River seeking gold, trade goods and a shortcut to the Orient. They were running a little short on food, but were well supplied with casks of sack (fortified wine), beer and distilled spirits called "aqua vita". Aqua vita is Latin for "water of life", the generic term for distilled spirits throughout Europe during the age of discovery. In French it is "eau de vie" and in Irish and Scottish dialects it is “usquebaugh” and “uisgebeathe” respectively, from which we get the word “whiskey”. Europeans and especially the English had learned that water was not to be trusted, so they drank beer, wine, ciders and ardent spirits for their good health. The “Morning Draught”, usually of beer, was considered essential protection against the “miasmatic exhalations of the marshes”. They were right: Beer is generally safe to drink since the water is first boiled and alcohol and hops have anti-microbial properties. The English did not even want water to touch their skin, so they did not bathe or brush their teeth, much to the disgust of the Powhatan Indians.


Native Americans were familiar with fermented fruits but were not accustomed to the strong waters of the English. In return for native hospitality, Captain Newport shared some of his aqua vita with a local chieftain. The poor fellow, being unused to strong spirits, fell into a stupor and thought he had been poisoned. Newport mumbled some magic words over the distraught chieftain and told him that he would be cured by morning. Of course by morning he had sobered; Newport was credited with a miracle cure, and all of the natives descended on him wanting to know when they would be cured of various ailments.


Unfortunately, stores of alcoholic beverages from England soon ran out and re-supply was sporadic at best: Colonists had to make their own or drink the contaminated waters of Jamestown and risk death from disease. They planted wheat and barley for beer, grapes for wine, and apples, pears and peaches for cider and brandy. By 1609, they were advertising for brewers and had two alehouses in Jamestown.


Mature grapes, berries and fruits generally have enough sugars to feed yeasts and produce alcohol. Grains, including corn, have their sugar stored as starches, which must be broken down to be fermented. Sprouted grains, especially barley, contain enzymes designed to do just that in order to fuel the young plant with sugar. The process of sprouting and drying grains is called malting and the result is malt. In 1623 the Assembly recommended that all incoming colonists bring in enough malt to brew sufficient liquor to drink, instead of Virginia water, until they became “hardened to the climate”. Seventeenth Century Virginians learned to ferment just about anything that contained sugars, or starches that could be converted to sugars. They were fond of persimmon beer and also used sassafras, Tuckahoe roots, green corn stalks and mulberries.


In September 1619, the Margaret sailed from Bristol with settlers bound for an 8000 acre grant of wilderness on the James River later known as Berkeley Hundred. Provisions included “5 1/2 tuns of beer, 6 tuns of cider, 11 gallons of sack, 15 gallons of aqua vitae..." The primary sponsor, Lord Berkeley, sent specific instructions as to how the affairs of his new venture were to be conducted: "Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god." Thus on December 4th, more than a year before the pilgrims sailed, Captain Woodleif led his band of settlers to a grassy clearing to kneel and give thanks. There was no feast: no turkey or venison. After almost three months at sea there was precious little left to eat and no time to hunt. Judging from the list of provisions, however, they could at least drink the health of the King and Lord Berkeley and his household, down to the scullery maid. (Incidentally, the story of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving is a fabrication that didn’t even surface for a few centuries.) One of the company, and a sponsor, was the religious zealot George Thorpe. George brewed some beer from the native corn and declared that it was “much better than British ale." He then ran some through his still, probably an alembic as shown below, and made the first corn whiskey, the forerunner of moonshine and bourbon. (Actually, bourbon didn’t come along for two more centuries when a Baptist minister in Bourbon County, Kentucky filled some fire-damaged barrels with corn whiskey.) George was later instructed to convert natives to Christianity and establish a college for their education. Unfortunately for George, they were quite happy with their own beliefs and resented being preached to. During the massacre of 1622, Reverend George Thorpe was singled out for special treatment: Bits and pieces of him were found scattered all over the compound. Thus ended any plans for converting natives to Christianity and educating them, at least for a long time.


About the same time, the Pilgrims were heading for a harbor in Northern Virginia (now in the vicinity of Manhattan Island, New York) but were delayed by leaky ships and were blown off course by storms. By the time they fetched up on Cape Cod, they had consumed their stores of beer and had started on the ships stores. The colonists wanted to sail south but the crew, faced with the prospect of having to drink water on the return voyage, refused the delay and put them ashore in an abandoned Indian corn field at Plymouth. It was only after much pleading that the captain shared some of his precious beer (for medicinal purposes) before sailing back to England.

The Alembic Helm

This odd-looking ceramic artifact was found in a rubbish pit at Martins' Hundred near Williamsburg, Virginia, not far from Berkeley Hundred. A local potter made it sometime around 1630. The inside is lead-glazed and features a trough near the bottom, which drains into the spout. Further research by archeologist Ivor NoĎl Hume identified it as the "helm" or top part of a distilling apparatus called an alembic. It could be used to distill herbs and alcohol or make nitric acid to assay gold. By 1600, the more efficient copper still was in use in Europe and presumably available in Virginia.

Reference and Photo: Martin’s Hundred by Ivor NoĎl Hume


The Eighteenth Century was the golden age of alcohol production and consumption in Virginia. Alehouses, taverns and ordinaries were located at every crossroads, river crossing and town. Court days, elections, horse races, barbecues, and political gatherings were well attended and well provided with strong beverage. Most plantations made their own cider and beer. Many had their own malt house and distillery, including Mount Vernon. Prosperous planters imported huge quantities of European wines, mostly fortified.


The French Huguenot, Durand, chronicled some of the goings-on at Rosegill in Middlesex County, including all-night card games and the consumption of prodigious quantities of wine, cider and beer. Durand found the wine so strong that he diluted his with water and remarked that the Governor (Lord Howard of Effingham) and Wormeley laughed at him as they took theirs straight and still managed to keep an even keel. The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe were so well supplied with aqua vitae, sack, Madera and cider, that is a wonder they ever found their way back from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In spite of the heavy, almost universal consumption of alcoholic beverages, drunkenness was not tolerated and was dealt with severely by society, the church and the law.


As more and more Scottish, Irish and German immigrants moved down the “Great War Path” and settled the valleys and hollows of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains, distilling took on a new economic role. The only practical way to transport a bulky crop to a distant market was to convert it to alcohol. This arrangement worked well until, following the Revolution, war debts resulted in substantial taxes levied on alcohol. It was actually not so much the tax at issue, rather the way it was applied to the disadvantage of small producers in remote areas. The independent settlers thought they had the God-given right to make whiskey for their economic survival; George Washington, also a brewer and distiller, disagreed resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion and the moonshine industry. Even now many believe that both the Federal prohibition on distilling for personal use and the severe penalties for the possession or use of any distilling equipment, regardless of size, are unreasonable if not unconstitutional and an affront to the concept of personal freedom. Some countries, such as New Zealand, now allow private distilling and there is a movement for similar legal reform in the United States.


“Something Different” is now officially classified by ABC as a “Gourmet Shop”. Though we are still an “ABC off” establishment, we can have wine and beer tastings. Our wine selection is relatively small, but diverse and highly selective. We are expanding our specialty beer selection and customers can assemble their own six-packs of micro-brews and fine imports. We now have a selection of the rare and expensive Lambic beers of Belgium. True Lambics are produced just like the original beers that were shipped over with the first settlers: Hops are used for preservation rather than taste, so more are used. The hops are carefully aged, and therefore do not impart the harsh bitterness of fresh hops. Cooled wort is exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria in the air to cause fermentation. After brewing, often with fruit, the beer is aged in wooden casks for several years like fine wine. Because of the slightly sour flavor and complex and refreshing taste, Lambics are more often compared to fine champagne and French wines than other beers.


Spirited Recipes


Dan’s Soon-to-be-famous Red-Eye Sunday Morning Wake-up Juice


Sunday mornings were always special in our family. Time to relax, reflect, and recuperate from Saturday night. In the winter, I would awaken to strains of Mozart or Hayden and wonderful smells wafting up from the kitchen: Salt herring and biscuits; or country ham and Mother’s buttermilk hotcakes; or country sausage and scrambled eggs.  The morning started with coffee and a Bloody Mary or two (the only time drinks were served before five o’clock). We would visit in the kitchen while Mother cooked. We talked of interesting stuff, such as family stories and local history; not business or work or daily problems. Making Bloody Marys at home was always a ritual. We put up our own tomato juice and seasoned it with salt, pepper, celery salt, Worcestershire, hot sauce, horseradish and a few other things if we could find them. Proportions varied somewhat, and we were often out of something critical, such as horseradish. Several years ago I decided to pre-mix all of the things that make exceptional Bloody Marys (except the vodka) and just stir a teaspoon full in each glass of tomato juice. I called it "Dan’s Soon-To-Be-Famous, Red Eye, Sunday Morning Wake-Up Juice Concentrate". It contains all of the stuff we couldn’t find on Sunday morning plus a few ingredients that Mother never thought of. Customers at the store liked it so much that I started packing it as "depth charges" sized for a 46 oz can of juice (Sacramento brand is a passable substitute for homemade), and as half pints, which season 12 to 16 quarts. Simply whisk into juice, add spirits of choice and serve over ice with a celery stalk or slice of lemon. Subsequently, we discovered that the concentrate is a perfect blend of seasonings for beef stew and other meat dishes.


The Spongy Ryder
(Published in Nov. Dec. PL)


Several years ago, my beverage of choice was the "Salty Dog": tall glass, salted rim, vodka and grapefruit juice. By and by I got bored and decided to try “Something Different”. I went to Café Mojo in Urbanna one evening and asked Wanda to substitute rum for vodka and top off the grapefruit juice with a little pineapple juice to compliment the rum. I thought it was a refreshing change, so I passed it around the bar for more opinions. Everybody liked it and suggested that I give it a name, but not something pedestrian. I said, "OK, I'll call it a 'Spongy Ryder'." Anticipating the vacuous countenances of my bar-mates, I followed with the explanation: "When I was in ‘The Nam’, we were assigned radio call signs that indigenous personnel could not pronounce. The army paid linguists good money to come up with unique call signs and mine was 'Spongy Ryder’.” Knowing that the chances of actually inventing a new drink were close to nil, I checked my bartender's guides to no avail. Then I went on-line and checked "Drinks-R-Us" and Googled the ingredients - again, nothing. "OK, maybe I have stumbled upon something original." Next, I checked with all of the professional bartenders that I knew but no one had encountered this particular combination. Encouraged that I may go down in the annals of drinkdom, I named the saltless version "the Easy Ryder" and the virgin version (with or without salt), the "C C Ryder". One night, a substitute bartender used cranberry instead of grapefruit juice and that became the “Red Ryder”. It still appears to be original so the question becomes; "how do I plant my flag and make it legitimate?" Well, my blurbs are copyrighted and published …..


Something Different Country Store and Deli
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© Dan Gill 08-06

Published in Pleasant Living magazine September- October 2006

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