Beer: Whiskey’s Foundation in Early America

When you think of Jamestowne and Plymouth in the early 1600s? A ragtag group of settlers and pioneers in search of a new land? Hardened foragers and pioneers in animal-skins braving the harshness of snow-blanketed plains?

Would you imagine beer?

Beer was the first alcohol to be widely consumed in the new world. English ships would bring copious supplies of beer and spirits to the newly budding Jamestowne, but with such a long time period between arriving ships, and slowly increasing population, the wares were consumed faster than they could be replenished for the group of hard working settlers. So, in true pioneer fashion, they decided to do something about it.

 After Jamestowne had been built enough to turn their attention to the drink shortage in1609, they planted a field of barley and sent a request back to England for a couple of brewers to make their way to the New World. Later that year two brewers took the call and made their way across the sea and brewed the previously mentioned field of barley into delicious, fizzy, golden beer. It was here in Jamestown that the first brewery was established. You can still find what remains of America’s first brewery in Jamestown, now preserved at the Jamestowne Historical Site. 

Now, a few years later, in 1620, the Pilgrims sailed to the new world on the Mayflower. Their destination? Virginia. However, they ran low on ale supplies. With the ale gone and water low, they made a stop short at what we all know now as Plymouth. 

Of course, the Pilgrims had two major priorities after landing. First, build a church. Second, brew some beer. 

As the months wore on, populations grew and the winter months slowed travel. Both shipments of ale and the crops needed to brew them would dwindle dangerously low for the liking of the early American settlers. While they did import things from across the ocean, like brandy and and fortified wines, they were looking to become proficient in creating their own supplies instead of relying on the inconsistently timed supplies from their homeland. 

Captain James Thorpe in Virginia wrote to his friends about how the supply was so scarce, he would brew beer from local corn supplies. He said that the beer was light and sweet, and that he would even sometimes choose it over the English ale when it did arrive in town. And further north, other Pilgrim towns were beginning to experiment by adding different flavors such as molasses, fruit, and berries. 

These experimentations with brewing and distillation would be the key ingredients to unlocking the future of whiskey in early America. 


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