Whiskey in the Jar: American Distilling

Distillation came to America with the first settlers, who used distilling for making medicines, preserving food, and of course, making potable spirits. Water was held in low opinion, while beer, wine, and spirits were seen as healthful, wholesome, and even medicinal. At the time, they were right – there were no clean water systems or standards. Water could be polluted with everything from mercury to cholera, unsafe and even deadly to drink. Nearly every housewife had a “still room” – essentially a micro distillery where she preserved food, made medicines, brewed beer, and distilled spirits.

In Search of a Good Drink

Mead, ales, and metheglin came over with the first settlers, along with the brewing of cider and perry. Southern colonists distilled peach brandy, and there were even poteen-like brews made from turnips. Rum came from the sugar trade. Certain brave souls even tried to wring a decent drink from pumpkins, which has enjoyed a resurgence in craft brewing circles. However, the quintessential American drink for the past three centuries has been whiskey.

Whisky and Whiskey

Whiskey came over with Scots and Irish immigrants who used native corn, rye, and other grains to distill their drink. They were largely left to it until Alexander Hamilton convinced George Washington to pay off the young country’s war debts by taxing – among other things – beer, wine, and spirits. These cash poor small farmers who relied on whiskey as barter goods got… a little ticked off. In fact, it kicked off the Whiskey Rebellion.

A Great American Tradition

Distilling your own whiskey and spirits has been taxed, given a bad name, but in 1919 the onset of Prohibition outlawed all brewing and distillation. However, once Prohibition was repealed, the ban on come distilling and brewing remained. The ban on making wine and beer at home was lifted in the late 1970’s, but the ban on home distillation remains in place unless you have a valid permit and adhered to federal, state, and local guidelines.

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