On the American Whiskey Trail with Scot-Irish Historian Stuart Rosebrook
June 28, 2013
The bottle of Spring44 Straight Bourbon Whiskey stands on the bar, the micro distillery in Loveland, CO, a dramatic backdrop, as two glasses are set out and a tradition as old as our nation, and the native glens and hills of our earliest settlers from Scotland and Ireland, continues with the pulling of the cork and the pouring of a neighborly dram of aqua vitae, the “water of life,” what the Gaelic called usige beatha, what we know as whiskey. Poured with the same independent spirit of America’s earliest Scot-Irish settlers, Spring44’s Bourbon symbolizes the regional renaissance of American small-batch distilling, echoing the classic era of 19th century American and Scottish distilling that has defined the production, trade, sale, and enjoyment of finely crafted spirits for two centuries.
Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River in LeClaire, Iowa, just above its confluence with Illinois’ Rock River, the historic paddle wheeler at the Buffalo Bill Museum stands in contrast to the over-burdened barges hauling corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, rye, and oats south to St. Louis, New Orleans, and countless unknown ports beyond. On the bluffs of LeClaire, like the sentinels of history, are the historic homes of the river pilots who captained the mighty Mississippi in the childhood days of Bill Cody and Mark Twain’s youthful years working on the river. In their shadow, stands the Mississippi River Distillery, a legacy of those halcyon days of river boating and the early Scot-Irish who broke the ground for new settlements throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, turning their hard earned farms of corn into whiskey, distilled into barrels for sale down river, fueling a young nation’s thirst for independence and corn liquor. Staring out the window of the micro-distillery, www.mrdistilling.com/index.shtml, sipping on a farm to table bottle of Cody Road bourbon whiskey, you can imagine those early days of American distilling, the excitement of the river crowded with keel boats, canoes, and paddle wheelers, America on the move, building a nation, and a proud tradition of distilling, one farm, one crop, one barrel at a time.
The roots of American distilling begin with its earliest settlers from Scotland, Ireland, and England. Like their forebears in the glens and hills of Scotland and Ireland, the Scot-Irish settlers brought their heritage of distilling with them to their new settlements along the frontier line from New England to the South. Fiercely independent, the Scot-Irish mashed and distilled their New World whiskies with excess grains, creating liquid assets, easily traded, bartered, sold and shared in colonial America. In the colonies, corn became the dominant grain, whereas in Ireland and Scotland they distilled with malted barley and other grains. In Boston, the first licensed distillery made rum, a by-product of Yankee ingenuity, and the infamous trade of sugar, rum, and slaves between Great Britain, the Caribbean and New England. When war broke out between the British and the American Colonists, the new American corn whiskey became the currency and preferred spirit of the young nation.
With independence, the Scot-Irish settlers, led by men like Daniel Boone, pushed into the Appalachian frontier, setting up private stills at farms throughout the mountains of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and beyond. The corn they raised was easier to get to market on flat boats down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to St. Louis and New Orleans as whiskey, and more valuable, than the heavier bags of grain in wagons over the mountains to the mills and markets. President George Washington’s first political battle actually was with his Scot-Irish allies, when his federal whiskey tax, imposed to help pay for the costs of funding a young nation, was met with hostility, becoming the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Ironically, Washington became one of America’s earliest whiskey barons, starting a distillery at Mt. Vernon in 1797 which within two years was the largest in young nation, producing 11,000 gallons a year. Today, visitors to Mt. Vernon can enjoy watching the distilling process, where Washington’s whiskey is mashed and distilled to the exact specifications of the original 1797 recipe www.mountvernon.org/visit-his-estate/plan-your-visit/distillery-amp-gristmill.
Today, across America, from the mountains of Colorado to the banks of the Mississippi in Iowa, from the hills of San Francisco to the mountains of Kentucky, the earliest traditions of Scot-Irish distilling has been rediscovered and American distilling is experiencing its greatest resurgence since after the Civil War. Whereas after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, when American distilling rebuilt itself through large corporate distillers, the market today is as wide open after the Civil War for the growth of American distilling because of the relaxing of distilling laws across the country and consumers demand for superior, regional, farm to table products. American consumers want to know where there product is from, how it was grown, who made it, and why. The men and women who are distilling spirits at Spring44, are at the heart of this revolution in regional micro-distilling, pledging to you a purity in its product, just like the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution pledged their hearts and minds to a new nation over two centuries ago.
Jeb Stuart Rosebrook