An Authentic Taste of History

From grain to still, making spirits the really, really old-fashioned way.

An engraving of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys.” 

Image courtesy of Library of Congress

When Bill Dodson created 8 Shires Distillery in Williamsburg, he did so intending to craft authentic Revolutionary and Colonial-era whiskey, rum, and gin. And he goes to extremes to ensure historical accuracy. Instead of using today’s GMO-infused corn, he contracts with a local farmer to grow maize for the fermentation process. And he’s the only distiller he knows making rum with 18th century-style molasses.

For the equipment, he built a new pot-style still to mimic those of our Colonial forebears. “When John Smith came over to Jamestown,” says Dodson, “they didn’t have enough room to bring their big stills with them. What they did bring with them were small scientific stills. They would use them to separate metals, separate other liquids or chemicals, whatever they needed to separate scientifically. So one day they could be using it with things that had mercury in them, the next day they could have things that have alcohol in it.”

8 Shires Distillery’s Jamestown 1608 Single Malt Whiskey.

Photo by Chuck Thompson

Although distillation in Jamestown was never documented, archaeologists have discovered pieces from seven of these scientific, or “alembic,” stills in graves and old wells. Dodson has fashioned reproductions of these artifacts, with just a few minor modifications to meet current safety requirements. 

Additionally, 8 Shires uses 5 ½-foot-tall wooden fermenting tanks with open tops and no temperature controls. The open air interacts with the bubbling broth in a way that would ruin beer but enhances whiskey. “When contaminants get in there, they create carboxylic acids,” says Dodson. “If you put them in a still with alcohol, they create esters, one of the most fantastic chemicals ever invented. They give us some of the best smells, the best tastes that you’ve ever had. Today’s whiskeys are all pure and as uniform as can be. But the old whiskeys have a lot more flavor to them.”

The end product is a series of Colonial- and Revolutionary-era drinks that 8 Shires serves in a setting that harkens to early America. The tasting room features a plank floor, a wood-top bar with a live edge, and Windsor chairs clustered around barrel-top tables. The walls’ décor includes plans for stills made at Mount Vernon and shelves packed with historical artifacts and replicas from the distillery process. 

The menu includes such libations as the Wicked Maiden and the Salem Smash, or a tasting flight of three drink samples. On one day, the sampler includes a Strawberry Shrub (made with Silver Rum with tart undertones), a Stone Fence (made with Gold Rum and a mixture of apple and vanilla), and Grog (a gin-based drink with citrus undertones). While some of the drinks are based on Colonial history, others have Revolutionary backgrounds. The Stone Fence, for example, is a drink that Ethan Allen gave to his Green Mountain Boys the night before they were supposed to go into battle. Seriously soused, the soldiers decided to attack that night, taking Fort Ticonderoga by surprise. “The British had rules about fighting,” Dodson says. “You got dressed at a certain hour, you stood on the battle line at a certain hour, you had tea at a certain hour—that’s how you fought a civilized battle. Well, the Americans, they were barbarians. They got drunk and went to the fort while the commander was still sleeping. He came out in his pajamas and said, ‘The fort is yours. Take it. I’m going back to bed.’ So they took it with no bloodshed. They got cannons that defended the Boston Harbor and kept the British from making Boston a foothold. … A lot of people don’t realize how important rum is to our freedom.”

Dodson recently undertook a project with assistance from Jamestown archaeologists, who gave him 10 gallons of water from the famous settlement’s well. 8 Shires used it to make their most authentic creation yet. Says Dodson, “We imported an old barley from England that would have been close to what they used at the time, and we’re going to bottle that up to give you as authentic a period drink as we can.”

This special batch of single malt whiskey, released at the end of 2019, is packaged in handblown glass bottles with traditional-looking labels. The limited one-time run will be released 100 bottles at a time, so you’ll have to act quickly if you want to taste history for yourself. 

This article originally appeared in our February 2020 issue.

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