Man learned to make alcoholic beverages several thousand years ago, but the first such drinks were fermented without heat. Distilling–the technique of boiling a fermented “mash” and then cooling the alcohol-laden steam back into a liquid–was practiced in Asia at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. By 500 B. C. the Greeks were using stills. Distilling know-how spread throughout Europe long before Columbus saw the New World. By 1620, just 13 years after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia colonists were distilling corn on the James River.
The English, Germans, and Scots-Irish who settled the western Virginia backcountry in the 1700s all brought with them traditions of turning fruit into brandy and grains into whiskey. In addition their farming techniques, foodways, social customs, medical beliefs, business talents, and attitudes toward government affected the making and use of alcohol. These beliefs and customs were already well in place when the United States government set its first tax on alcohol in order to help pay the costs of the Revolutionary War.
From the time of early settlement to the industrial boom of the late 1800s, small farm and community distilleries were a natural marriage to the agricultural character of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Roads were rough in rural areas, and farmers often faced difficulties getting crops to market in a timely manner. Ripe fruit was especially apt to spoil in transit. Thus distilling was one way to condense and preserve grains and fruits.
Using a copper turnip-type still and wooden barrels for mixing mash and storing whiskey, a farmer could produce enough liquor to meet family and local community needs. Three bushels of dried corn or seven bushels of apples could be distilled into about two gallons of alcohol. The whiskey had a higher cash value and took up less space than the raw ingredients. The “slop” left in the still after the distilling process could be fed to livestock. (Old-timers talk of Blue Ridge farmers selling their corn to moonshiners and then buying back the post-distillation slop at a lower cost for hog feed.) Middle- and upper-class farmsteads of the pre-Civil War era sometimes featured dedicated stillhouses. Even George Washington made liquor commercially at Mount Vernon.