A Toast to Virginia—Birthplace of American Spirits

A Toast to Virginia—Birthplace of American Spirits

Celebrating the 400th anniversary of America’s first documented distillery

It was 1620, when British settler George Thorpe distilled his first batch of “corne whiskey,” Thorpe shared his news in a letter to British explorer John Smith, and the historic document establishes when the Commonwealth of Virginia became the birthplace of American spirits. This proud culture of spirit-making continues today, as Virginia is home to more than 70 distilleries producing small-batch, artisan spirits. 

To honor the 400-year milestone, Virginia Distillers Association recognizes 2020 as “Virginia Spirits Month” and has created the Virginia Spirits Trail to promote the state’s enduring legacy. Following this trail is the best way to learn and sample premium liquor.

Virginia Spirits Trail 

The Virginia Spirits Trail represents thirty Virginia distilleries whose collective goal is to educate the public about spirits that are available and to provide a road map to each participating distillery. You can visit the distillery’s tasting room (or stop by to purchase a bottle), and pick up your Virginia Spirits Passport. After earning ten stamps on the Passport, you’ll receive a commemorative T-Shirt.

Have you visited any distillers in the Northern Virginia Area yet? Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville; Murlarky Distilled Spirits in Bristow; K.O. Distilling in Manassas; Dida’s Distillery in Huntly; and George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon are all nearby stops on the Virginia Spirits Trail. 

Photo credit: Virginia Spirits

The Modern Distillery

Two reasons that Virginia distilleries have been so successful are the climate and terroir. Think maritime breezes off the Atlantic, elevation changes within the Blue Ridge, hot, humid summers—all these conditions contribute to the quality of spirits. For artisan makers, the distilling process is done by hand, using grains like corn, wheat, barley and rye. 

Some Virginia’s distillers incorporate products from adjacent farms and makers. One example is Vitae Spirits in Charlottesville, a distillery creating a superior line of small-batch spirits. Dr. Ian Glomski, founder of Vitae, explains his process: “Vitae Spirits for the most part, does not grow our basic ingredients, with a few small exceptions.” Rather, Glomski and his team support their local community by tapping into generations of expertise. “It is this network that gives us the highest quality spirits allowing our community’s pride and joy to shine through.” Two examples of this philosophy are found in Vitae’s Damson Gin Liqueur, infused with ripe summer plums from Dickie Bros. Orchard, and Vitae’s Coffee Liqueur, which features coffee beans roasted at Charlottesville’s Mudhouse Coffee Roasters. These are consumed straight up, or can be mixed into cocktails.

Photo credit: Reneé Sklarew

“At Vitae Spirits we very much see Virginia distilling as a community” says Glomski. “The Virginia Spirits Trail is a way to showcase and promote the diversity, expertise, and passion that we all have for our spirits.” In addition to operating a distillery, Dr. Glomski is a professor of microbiology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and was trained at the Pasteur Institute of Paris. His co-founder, Eric Glomski, previously established vineyards in Arizona, while partner Zuzana Ponca is the designer behind Vitae’s stylish bottles. 

Other examples of innovation include Murlarkey’s Honey Whiskey created by Irish-American cousins Tom Murray, Mike and Jim Larkin using honey from their own bee hives. The makers at Catoctin Creek ferment casks of 100% local apples, peaches and pears to create luscious fruit brandies; these are not sweet, but instead, capture the fruit’s essence.

Photo on right credit: Reneé Sklarew

In 2021, the Virginia Spirits Roadshow, a traveling group of Virginia distillers, will host several collaborative events where people can taste a variety of spirits.

Virginia’s Distilling Heritage

The Commonwealth’s first distiller, George Thorpe, owned the Berkeley Plantation near Charles City, and described his whiskey as “corn beere,” which he made from “Indian corn.” Thorpe tells Smith, “I never have had my health better in my life then I have had since my coming into this Countery {sic}.” Producing whiskey surely lifted his spirits!

Appreciation for spirits grew in the colonies, as Scotch and Irish immigrants brought their family recipes to Virginia. Here, they distilled American whiskey without aging it, and Appalachian whiskey is still made this way. Before the Louisiana Purchase of the 1780’s—when Kentucky was part of the Commonwealth of Virginia—bourbon became the top choice for spirits drinkers. In fact, “Kentucky County” was known as “Old Bourbon.” About that same time, native son, President George Washington, started his own distillery, operated by Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James and Timothy, craftsmen who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. In 1799, this prolific team produced nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey. 

By 1810, the U.S. Census recorded more than 3,600 distilleries in Virginia, although the majority were destroyed during the Civil War. Distilleries re-established themselves until Prohibition—a law prohibiting the making and drinking of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933—which shut most of them down. Nevertheless, Virginia’s Franklin County was notorious for producing moonshine, a term that historically implies that the liquor was produced illegally. Today, Virginia’s first-rate makers, like Belle Isle Moonshine and Twin Creeks Distillery, are making lawful moonshine and prospering.   

Photo on left credit: Vitae Spirits

Keep Your Spirits Up

After Prohibition, only a few distilleries operated in the Commonwealth, but in the last two decades, many new distilleries have opened, and as they have, enthusiasm for cocktails has greatly increased. Buying local makes you realize their value. “It is worth investing in better quality spirits,” says Dr. Glomski. “If a person is hesitant and just buys the cheapest bottle because they aren’t willing to ‘commit’ to a better quality spirit, chances are they aren’t going to like that cheap bottle. They may never come back to try the quality spirits that probably would have given them a much more positive experience.”

A trend during the pandemic is to practice mixing drinks at home, and you can support the state’s recovery by buying from artisan distilleries like Whiskey Wright, a Black-owned spirits-maker near Harrisonburg. 

Creating premium spirits is a tradition that began 400 years ago on Virginia soil. To learn more about distilleries both near and far, visit Virginiaspirits.org

South of the Boarder 

By TJ Drake; Difficulty: Easy

This recipe uses Vitae Coffee Liqueur,
tequila, coffee and cocoa, and is perfect for quaffing on a cool autumn day. 


1  oz Vitae Spirits Coffee Liqueur

1/2 oz Tres Agaves Blanco Tequila

1 oz Cold brew coffee
  (Snowing in Space Gimme Dat)

1/2 oz Half-n-half

0.5 oz Cocoa Agave Simple syrup*


  • Add ingredients to a shaker with ice
  • shake vigorously
  • strain into a cocktail glass
  • garnish with cocoa powder

Cocoa Agave Syrup

Bring 1 cup Agave nectar, 1 cup water to a simmer and add 1 tbls of cocoa powder. Stir until mixture is in solution. Take off heat and let cool. Store in refrigerator with for up to one month.

Pictured at top:
Photo credit: Washington’s Mount Vernon

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