Monday, March 15, 2010

Bottoms Up: New York's Distilling History

John Morrissey was known as a drinker, a habit that got him into a number of tussles in his youth and may have contributed, in part, to his early death. So what was his poison? He tended to drink wine and brandy, but wasn't above imbibing in whiskey and later, as his star began to rise, champagne.

While much of the wine and related inebriates were imported from Europe during Morrissey's time, distilled alcohol was mostly produced stateside and quite a lot was produced in New York, which had a long distilling history.

The distilling of grains and fruits to produce alcohol has been intimately entwined with the history of America, from George Washington plying his soldiers with spirits to the rise of a national movement that temporarily banned alcohol across the country in the 1920s and gave rise to the bootlegger. New York State once had a thriving distilling industry, but it was the temperance movement and prohibition that helped kill it.

Beginning in the early-1600s with the Dutch colonization of what is now New York State, alcohol played an important part in the lives of the settlers. The Dutch in particular enjoyed their tippling and drank heartily of beer, brandy and eventually, rum.

“Weddings and funerals and all occasions of feasts and merry-making were opportunities for hard drinking, of which the guests took full advantage,” wrote Esther Singleton in her 1909 book “Dutch New York.”

Alcohol, and the tavern, played such a central role in the lives of the colonists that the law took drunkenness into consideration in contractual agreements and even criminal cases. A man had 24-hours to sober up after making a drunken deal, repudiating his actions the day after they were made.

While the Dutch West India Company, the chartered Dutch trade organization that held dominion over part of North America, imported much of the hard liquor to the colony, It didn’t take long for the newcomers to begin distilling their own alcohol.

Willem Kieft, the director general for the colony from 1638 to 1647, before being fired for mismanagement, was distilling brandy in Long Island, apparently encroaching on his employer’s privilege to control the product.

According to Harvey W. Wiley, writing in 1919, it was likely that what was referred to as brandy during this period in North America was not distilled from grapes, but rather from grain and would be considered a whiskey today.

By the mid-1600s New Amsterdam (New York City) and the Hudson Valley saw a number of distilleries of both brandy and gin begin production.

Gin was considered to be a drink of the lower classes, but was none-the-less popular. Home-grown liquor was also plentiful, and inventive, being made from peaches, pears, sweet potatoes and apples.

Dutch colonist Adrian Van der Donck, writing in the mid-1600s, claimed that the English even made a liquor from watermelons. But all these would soon be eclipsed by a product being produced in the neighboring English colony to the east—“that cussed liquor, Rhum, rumbullion, or kill-devil.”

The above was how 17th century New England colonist John Josselyn described rum, distilled from molasses, which began to be produced in huge quantities in New England by the 1670s.

Molasses from the West Indies came to New England where it was converted to rum, shipped to Africa and traded for slaves.

By this time New Netherland was firmly in the hands of the British, and as such, rum became popular, and rum production, although small in comparison with Massachusetts, came to New York.

If gin and brandy defined the Dutch era in New York and rum that of the revolutionary period, it was whiskey that exemplified the young country, and New York.

By the early-1800s the continued strife with England, specifically the War of 1812, dried up the country’s supply of molasses and so Americans turned to whiskey produced from native grains and corn.

Early whiskey distilling used water power to grind the grains or corn, with the stills nearby. Creating the mash used to produce the final product was mixed by hand. Most whiskey at the time was raw, unaged and fiery.

George Washington helped the whiskey industry take off in America by becoming a distiller himself after retiring from public life. He operated the largest distillery in America at the time, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799 at his farm at Mount Vernon.

By 1825, New York State had more than a thousand small distilleries, and produced a large quantity of the nation's whiskey. But the country’s thirst appeared to be on the wane.

Hunt’s merchant magazine of 1842 decried the decline in the whiskey trade that year.
“A most remarkable reduction has taken place in the demand for this article during the past twelve months. The demand was much reduced a year ago; but now it is not half what it was then,” wrote Freeman Hunt. “The distillers, four or five years since, were running their works night and day, pressed with the demand for whiskey, and consuming rye and corn in immense quantities; at one time four thousand five hundred bushels daily. Now the consumption is less than two thousand bushels daily, and is rapidly diminishing.”

This decline coincided with the rise of the temperance movement.

As early as the Dutch period, people complained of the drunkenness prevalent in the colony and it only got worse.

The government cracked down on drunkenness, forcing taverns to close at nine at night and shuttering them during church services.

In Massachusetts, Increase Mather, a Puritan minister influential in the colony’s government, complained in 1686 that “it is an unhappy thing that in later years a kind of drink called Rum has been common among us. They that are poor, and wicked too, can for a penny or two-pence make themselves drunk.”

That colony also took steps to try and stave the inebriation, with little result.

The mid-19th century saw the strongest backlash against drinking with a number of New England ministers and reformers take up the teetotaling banner, with barnstorming lectures across the country.

Soon a number of well-organized groups were formed—The Prohibition Party in 1869, the Women's Christian Temperance Foundation in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League of America in 1893, among many.

In fiscal year 1917 New York State was in the top seven producers of distilled spirits in the country, but two years later, with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Prohibition began and New York’s distilling industry died.

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