Virginia and Alcohol

roadside taverns served whiskey, beer, rum punch, and other forms of alcohol, and provided community gathering places
roadside taverns served whiskey, beer, rum punch, and other forms of alcohol, and provided community gathering places
Source: Library of Congress, Barroom dancing (by John Lewis Krimmel, c.1820)

Native Americans in Virginia did not develop alcoholic beverages, so there was no beer, wine, or hard liquor crafted in Virginia until the arrival of the Europeans. Alcohol became a popular trade item between the European colonists and the original residents of Virginia.

The Spanish, English, and other sailors who came to the Chesapeake Bay brought rum, and the settlers brewed beer and tried to make wine from the native grapes. Because there was so little sugar in those native grapes, the fermentation process created very little alcohol. In addition, the grapes had a high acid content, and grapes from the "fox grape" (Vitis labrusca) contained a bad-tasting chemical also found in the musk of foxes.1

The colonists made beer, distilled brandy from local fruit, and imported rum made from sugar cane grown on the Caribbean islands. There were no Singapore Sling or Moscow Mule cocktails then, but mixing different components was common. A popular drink was "flip," made with a combination of beer, rum, dried pumpkin, plus eggs or cream. The ingredients were stirred together in a container, and a hot metal rod ("flip-dog") would be thrust into the center to create a heated frothy drink.2

Alcohol was thought to be safer than drinking the alternatives:3

Alcoholic drink was one of the few items that colonists could not live without. In a place where the water was unsafe, milk was generally unavailable, tea and coffee were too expensive for all but the very wealthy, and soda and nonalcoholic fruit juice were not yet invented, alcoholic beverages were all that colonists could drink safely.

Even so, colonist imbibed startling amounts of alcohol. By 1770, the average white man drank the equivalent of seven shots of rum per day, and an average white woman drank almost two pints of hard cider per day. Children consumed alcoholic drinks daily, as slaves likely did as well.

Cider from fruit and beer were brewed at home, primarily by women in household kitchens through the 1600's. The low-alcohol product was difficult to store, so alcohol was traded through a barter system where different chores were exchanged. Later, alcohol production shifted to larger operations requiring more equipment. Brewing and distilling were "re-gendered" out of the kitchens dominated by women, and became a responsibility of men.4

Much of the alcohol created by Virginia's colonists in the 1700's was brandy produced from orchard fruits (especially apples), rather than distilled from grains such as corn or rye. Only the wealthy owners of large plantations had the capital to set up a distillery. After fruit trees were planted and began producing, the fruit was harvested and fermented into cider with the alcohol equivalent to what is in a beer today. Cider could be reprocessed through distillation into a higher-alcohol brandy, which could be stored and transported easily compared to beer/cider.

The wealthy elite also could make arrangements to import other forms of liquor from England, France, or the Netherlands, or rum from the Caribbean. Large planters such as George Washington typically sold their crop through "factors," representatives in England who charged high prices to sell hogsheads of tobacco delivered to England and to buy manufactured goods/luxury items requested by the large planters. Small farmers settled for beer/cider, or purchased hard liquor from those large planters.

The traditional pattern of alcohol production and sale changed after passage of a law in 1730 to create tobacco inspection warehouses. New towns developed near tobacco inspection warehouses in Tidewater, and Scottish merchants opened stores in those town. The merchants came to Virginia to buy tobacco directly, provide credit immediately to the tobacco growers, and then recycle that credit back into the merchants' pockets by selling items - including brandy and hard liquor in wooden casks - to the tobacco growers.

Alexander Henderson of Dumfries is known as the "Father of Chain Stores" because he opened multiple stores in separate locations to dominate business with small farmers from Stafford County to Alexandria. Thanks to his stores, small farmers no longer needed to ask large planters to order items from England as a favor and to wait up to 18 months for delivery.

The new towns that emerged after the 1730 tobacco inspection act also led to the emergence of taverns to shelter and feed travelers, and created a market for commercial sale of liquor at those taverns.

George Washington built his distillery in 1797, speculating that he could convert rye and corn selling at a low price into a more-profitable product. When he died in 1799, Washington's distillery was the largest in the United States.5

Mount Vernon has rebuilt George Washington's distillery, next to his mill on Dogue Creek
Mount Vernon has rebuilt George Washington's distillery, next to his mill on Dogue Creek

Smooth-drinking Virginia bourbon, aged in charred oak barrels for seven or so years, was not developed until after the Revolutionary War. Prior to 1800, rum imported from the Caribbean was the primary liquor in Virginia. Virginia ships would carry pork and wheat to the islands and return with slaves, rum, and sugar. Rum was usually mixed with sweet juices and served as a punch. Various types of punch could be formed by different combinations of alcohol, juices, and sugar to create a special treat in colonial times:6

They put in three jugs of beer, three three jugs of brandy, three pounds of sugar, some nutmeg and cinnamon, mix these well together & when the sugar has melted they drink it, & while making away with the first, they prepare another bowl of it.

Before he opened his distillery, George Washington was well-versed in the economics of converting grain into rye whiskey. One of the major challenges that he faced in his second term as president was the Whiskey Rebellion. It helped two Virginia leaders establish the authority of the new Federal government.

Washington's Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton) convinced the US Congress to impose an excise tax on whiskey in order to fund the Federal government. The Federal government needed revenue to pay for the Revolutionary War debts absorbed by the Federal government from the states, in the compromise that had resulted in the capital being located on the Potomac River.

Farmers in western Pennsylvania felt the new Federal tax on whiskey was unfair. It was not economical to ship grain to Philadelphia or New York because the roads over the mountains were so poor, but distilling grain into whiskey reduced the bulk and made it possible to transport a high-value product that would not spoil. Farmers living east of the mountains who already had good roads paid no Federal tax on their grain, but western farmers with limited economic opportunity were forced to pay the new Federal tax on their alcohol production.

Pennsylvania farmers refused to pay Federal taxes on whiskey and physically blocked tax collectors from doing their job, while officials in the new state of Kentucky took a simpler approach: they just refused to collect the excise tax.7

President George Washington assembled an army of over 10,000 troops - the largest force of revenuers ever created - to suppress what was portrayed as an armed rebellion against the new Federal government. Virginia Governor Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee led the troops from Bedford, Pennsylvania into the western part of Pennsylvania.

Washington had understood the importance of symbolism and drama since his early youth in colonial Tidewater society. The refusal of those Pennsylvania farmers to pay Federal taxes on whiskey gave the first president of the United States a chance to demonstrate that the national government was empowered to enforce within the states laws passed by the US Congress created by the new Constitution ratified in 1788.

Washington, Adams, and Hamilton took advantage of the crisis. They used the Whiskey Rebellion to draw a clear contrast between the powerful Federal government created by the Constitution ratified in 1788 vs. the weak national government that existed under the old Articles of Confederation. The military force that Washington assembled in 1794 included far more soldiers than was necessary to defeat a few poorly-armed farmers; he wanted to ensure that the supremacy of the Federal government was clearly recognized.

The 1794 Whiskey Rebellion was one of the first sectional threats that could have broken the union of the United States, which finally occurred with secession of southern states followed by a civil war in 1861-1865. Once "Light Horse Harry" Lee marched into western Pennsylvania in 1794, the rebellion dissolved and pardons were quickly issued for most participants.8

Transporting grain across the Blue Ridge of Virginia was also not economical. Distilling became a tradition in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, as small farmers converted high-volume, low-value wagonloads of grain into easy-to-transport barrels of whiskey. When Prohibition blocked sale of alcohol through official channels, liquor production continued. It was called "moonshining" because, in theory, the stills were heated at night when smoke would not be so visible.

Virginia implemented Prohibition before the national ban was established through an amendment to the US Constitution. In 1903, the General Assembly passed the Mann Act, which essentially limited sales of alcohol to just urban areas. The entire state voted in favor of Prohibition in 1914, and it went into effect on October 31, 1916.

In 1933, Virginia was the 29th state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution ending Prohibition. Over 60% of Virginians voted in favor of ending prohibition and creating a state-controlled monopoly to manage liquor distribution and sale. Prohibition ended in Virginia in 1934.9

The "ABC" of Legal Liquor in Virginia

Beer and Breweries in Virginia

Distilleries in Virginia

Grapes and Wine in Virginia

Hops in Virginia

Moonshine (Illegal Liquor) in Virginia

Prohibition in Virginia

hop vines growing on porch, Blacksnake Meadery (Carroll County) hop vines growing on porch, Blacksnake Meadery (Carroll County)
hop vines growing on porch, Blacksnake Meadery



1. "Gravitating Toward Grapes," Humane Living blog, November 30, 2013, (last checked September 27, 2015)
2. "5 Colonial-Era Drinks You Should Know," Serious Eats blog, April 9, 2014, (last checked September 29, 2015)
3. Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home A Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, p.1, (last checked October 22, 2014)
4. Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home A Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake, p.5
5. "Distillery," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, (last checked October 22, 2014)
6. Durand de Dauphine, A Huguenot Exile in Virginia, or Voyages of a Frenchman exiled for his Religion with a description of Virginia and Maryland, (Gilbert Chinard, editor), The Press of the Pioneers, New York, 1934, p. 138
7. Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.151, (last checked September 29, 2015)
8. "The Whiskey Rebellion," Mount Vernon, (last checked October 27, 2013)
9. "The Old Dominion goes dry: prohibition in Virginia," Brewery History, Number 138 (Winter 2010-2011), (last checked October 22, 2014)

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