In Old Virginia, Whisky Was Infra Dig.

John Fiske was a New England-born writer and historian, working in the latter 1800s.

He authored many books including a multi-part history of Old Virginia and adjoining regions, Old Virginia and Her Neighbours. While, today, his reputation is (as we gather) as a non-professional historian whose writing is coloured by enthusiasm for social Darwinism, his work is full of tenor and moment.

It has real insights for the social historian, in my opinion.

His comments on the drinks favoured by the planter class in the Old Dominion, so basically from founding of the Virginia colony to approaching the Revolution, are instructive.

A wide range of drinks was consumed – beer foremost with cider and many imported wines – and spirits too. For the latter, rum and brandy figured mainly. Cider and other fruits were distilled sometimes to make applejack.

What was whiskey’s role? Almost nothing. Fiske seemed not to like the cereal liquor, and perhaps this affected his judgments, but still, he states clearly that whiskey, indigenous or imported, had no writ in the Old Dominion.

This is not surprising, as until the 1800s, whisky, as I’ve discussed earlier, was simply not an English drink. It had adherents in Scotland and Ireland, from crofter to laird, but was strictly a regional preference in Britain until quite late.

And so, if English-origin Virginians did not seek to make or drink whiskey, who did in America?

It had to be the Scots-Irish and the Rhineland Germans, as countless writers have stated, to my mind with good reason. And when did they arrive? Not until the last three quarters of the 1700s.

Virginia, famously settled at Jamestown in 1607 and propelled initially by the Virginia Company, had existed for over 100 years before the Scots-Irish and German incomers started to make a cultural impact in America.

Now, true it is that in the early 1600s whisky was relatively novel even in Scotland and Ireland, at least in society. It was still emerging from the misty vales and Highland hills as a semi-licit invigorator.

But still, the best French, Spanish, and German wines and brandies were imported for the First Families and other English emigres on the Tidewater and inland. Had whisky any market or cachet in southern England whence most Virginians and many Marylanders came, it would have been available too. It wasn’t.

Did they drink juleps scented with mint, those second sons and retinues? Very likely, but with brandy, as the oldest recipes for spirituous juleps attest.

Read John Fiske on old Virginia. He cites another historian, Philip A. Bruce, who had more to say – a lot more – on the bibulous preferences of old Virginia. More to come soon, from that quarter. Is there a hint of Puritan disapproval in Fiske’s phrase, “a minute account of the beverages… [our emphasis]”?

A safe bet we think – a metaphor Fiske would not have liked either.

3 thoughts on “In Old Virginia, Whisky Was Infra Dig.”

  1. Without doubt, whisy/whiskey did not come into it’s own until the mid 1800’s at the earliest. American whiskey as an industry may have emerged earlier than Scotch as an aged spirit. Consider that.

    • At a minimum, both industries developed more or less concurrently. You find references to aged Scotch whisky in the early 1800s and that is when old American whiskey starts to be advertised as well, I think both hit on it from seeing the effects of aging, as previously occurred with rum and originally French brandy, from shipping the product a distance. Eg. Monongahela gets a reputation in Philadelphia and Baltimore even when brought in the days of pack horse. Whiskey was made east of the Alleghenies too, but the long transport of the western variety was I believe the main factor to recognizing its quality.

      In terms of the artisan tradition, it appears the Scots and Scots-Irish (Ulster Presbyterians) simply continued in America something they knew at home, and the Germans who came to Pennsylvania too.


    • Tony, see e.g. this 1823 ad for 10 year old Irish whiskey. Bourbon is only first mentioned in print in 1821. However, American whiskey of similar ages was known then as well, see Carson’s “A Social History of Bourbon”.

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