Party Like It’s 1620

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Lucky for us, what happened in Jamestown didn’t stay in Jamestown.

Early Jamestown might have been a healthy, happy party town if only George Thorpe had made more whiskey.

Thorpe, an early leader in the settlement, suggested much of Jamestown’s misery was caused more by “disease of the minde than of the body.” Writing to a friend back in England in late 1620, Thorpe said he felt healthier in the New World than he ever had in his native land. His secret: He had distilled a “soe good drinke of Indian corne” that he and his friends favored not only over the barely potable water of the colony, but even the “good stronge Englishe beare.” 

Thorpe’s 400-year-old letter is widely considered the earliest record of whiskey (or “whisky,” without the “e”) being produced in North America. As such, we can argue that Virginia is the birthplace of whiskey, and that Virginians have four centuries of whiskey history to celebrate by trying all the new Virginia-made whiskies that have cropped up in the last decade or so amid the state’s burgeoning distillery industry. 

If you’re a whiskey aficionado, you’ll enjoy yourself immensely. Virginia’s many distilleries have punched above their weight in international competitions, meaning a tour of the Virginia Spirits Trail or the more specific Virginia Rye Whiskey Trail will expose your palate to dozens of award-winning spirits.

Among them is the Cask Proof Roundstone Rye Whisky (they forgo the “e”) from Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, which won a double gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2017 (among a host of other awards) and was the highest-rated whiskey in the premiere issue of American Whiskey magazine the following year. I sniffed the newest batch of Catoctin Creek’s concoction during a tour of Virginia’s northernmost distillery. I stopped drinking seven years ago—I enjoyed spirits too much and it became a problem—but judging by the complex, bold, and appealing odor, Catoctin Creek’s whiskey must taste amazing.

Fortunately, the history of spirits, and the stories of the bold entrepreneurs now building healthy local businesses making them, can be enjoyed without imbibing. So I skipped the tasting and just talked whiskey history with two experts in such things: Dave Givens, the head archeologist with Jamestown Rediscovery and a home beer-brewer himself, and Scott Harris, co-founder of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company and maker of the brilliant batch of rye I didn’t try.

Givens has found both physical and written evidence of whiskey being present in early Jamestown. Besides Thorpe’s 1620 letter, Givens’ team has unearthed three alembics at the settlement. The simple dual-chambered apparatuses were used for preserving plant samples for transport back to England, but also were critical in the distilling process, he said. 

Written accounts earlier than Thorpe’s also support the idea that whiskey was present at Jamestown. Captain John Smith even mentions using “aqua vitae” (the term for whiskey means “water of life” in Latin) for medicinal purposes. Givens and his team have also found corncobs in their Jamestown digs, so Thorpe’s contention that he was making whiskey of “Indian corne” by 1620 is wholly plausible. 

What Givens and Harris both know for sure is that Thorpe’s whiskey was nothing like the top Virginia whiskies of today. “It was basically moonshine,” says Givens. “That’s what it was like up through George Washington’s time and beyond. For a long time, Virginia whiskey was clear and probably not terribly interesting.”

Then, in 1789, out in far western Virginia, a preacher named Elijah Craig started aging corn whiskey in barrels. Three years later, that part of Virginia became Scott County, Kentucky. The mystical art of barrel-aging whiskey was perfected in the area and, in time, Kentucky became the capital of American whiskey production.

However, Virginians are reclaiming their heritage and even beating their Kentucky brethren at international competitions. And many of them are doing it using Virginia ingredients in every step of the process. “You have Virginia grain, Blue Ridge water, Virginia white oak, Virginia-made barrels, and other specifically Virginia ingredients getting worked together in this hot Virginia climate,” Harris says. “Virginia whiskey is unique to this place for all kinds of reasons. What we’re definitely finding is that this Virginia flavor is something that translates well around the world.”

Honestly, though, while George Thorpe may have started the American whiskey revolution 400 years ago, it’s unlikely that first batch was very good by today’s standards. Even if it was, both Givens and Harris agree, there’s no way, from the information Thorpe left behind, to confidently make a concoction that might taste like George Thorpe’s aqua vitae. “The flavor of that stuff won’t ever likely be known for sure,” Givens says. “The one thing I do know: The stuff they’re making now is a lot better anyway.” 

Harris says, “We’ve learned a lot over those 400 years about how to make a better whiskey.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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