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Creating the Spirits of Early America


Corn, rye, and malted barley were
mixed together with boiling water to
cook; yeast was added and the mixture
was left several days to ferment before
it was ready to be distilled into whiskey

Whiskey made from corn and rye displaced rum made from molasses to become the most popular alcoholic drink in America in the years following the end of the Revolution. Although part of the reason for this change was due to nationalistic feeling, since molasses in large quantities had to be imported from the British West Indies, the real cause was economic. Duties placed on the importation of rum and molasses by the federal government made the spirit more expensive, while whiskey could be produced cheaply and easily using plentiful American grain. What’s more, once distilled into alcohol, the value of the product increased, and it became easier to store and to transport. Consequently, while rum accounted for almost all of the distilled spirits consumed in the American colonies in 1774, by 1790 whiskey had climbed to one-third of the total, and by 1810 whiskey consumption had increased to the level claimed by rum 20 years earlier.

Another reason for the popularity of whiskey was that it was relatively easy to produce. The raw ingredients (usually corn, rye, and malted barley, together with water and yeast) were combined in a hogshead (a large barrel usually between 110 and 120 gallons, referred to as a mash tub) and allowed to ferment. This process normally took between three and five days. The resulting beer was poured into a copper still that was heated by a wood fire. Since the temperature at which alcohol turns into a gas (160 degrees) is lower than that for water, the alcohol would vaporize and separate from the water, rising to the upper chamber of the still. An opening at the top allowed the gas to pass into a spiraling tube (worm) that then wound through another barrel (the worm tub) that was filled with cool running water. As the gas passed through the worm, the coolness of the water helped it condense back into liquid form. The condensed liquid would consist of roughly 30 to 40 percent alcohol. The alcohol was reintroduced into the still for a second distillation to increase the proof and to lower the level of impurities.



Master distillers from several leading producers gathered together in 2003 to distill whiskey according to Washington's recipe and using a replica 18th-century still.

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