By Patrick Evans-Hylton 

In 1606, London was crowded with taverns, offering up pewter mugs of beer, cider, and wine. There was drink meant for heartier souls too, including genevere, a gin-like, juniper-centric liquor, and a somewhat ubiquitous distilled spirit known as “aqua vitae”. 

On December 20 of that year, three small ships were docked in the east part of town, the Discovery, the Susan Constant, and the Godspeed with 144 boys and men aboard. Perhaps they had visited some of those taverns to gather liquid courage before setting sail to their destination on the other side of the Atlantic. Four-and-a-half months later, on April 16, 1607, after stopping in the Canary Islands and the West Indies, the ships anchored at Cape Henry, in present-day Virginia Beach. A few days later, the ships made their way up the James River and established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.  

Raise a Porcelain Cup to Jamestown 

Historic Jamestowne says that as early as 1607, the early colonists were drinking aqua vitae, more than likely informed from the Netherlands. Aqua vitae, also spelled aqua vita,” comes from the Latin for water of life” and was a term used from the Middle Ages on for a period to describe many distilled spirits, including brandy. It would have been a bracing liquid, burning as it went down, and warming the body from the inside out.  

John Smith also mentioned, in his Generall Historie of Virginia, aqua vitae in the possession of colony president Edward Wingfield, in addition to other alcohol like beer and port wine, then called sack. 

But as Jamestown grew, not all spirits were imported. Because of spotty records, and records lost over time, exactly who was distilling what and when in Jamestown is elusive. But excavations at the historic site have yielded some clues. One is of a building known as the Factory, located at the perimeter of a fort addition. Historic Jamestowne says the building, which included three brick hearths, was large enough to have several uses, including a trading post with Native Americans, a storehouse, and a place for metallurgical processes. Excavation revealed several artifacts leading to another use, perhaps: distillation of spirits, including “a glass alembic [a domed vessel used in distilling], a distilling flask, crucibles, and distilling dishes,” the foundation says.  The glass alembic was probably used in distilling alcohol, says Historic Jamestowne.  

Other excavations throughout the space revealed items such as a fine Chinese porcelain cup in a flame frieze” decoration, which Historic Jamestowne noted was probably used by the colony’s gentlemen to drink their distilled spirits (aqua vitae)”; it was found in a circa 1610 part of James Fort. 

There has been other potential evidence of early distilling at Carter’s Grove near Jamestown. It’s believed some plantation owners along the James River would import small distilleries from the Old World for personal use. 

The Birthplace of the American Spirit

Distilled spirits like aqua vitae were supplied to early settlers, but a little more than a decade into the colony, a true American spirit was first crafted. Virginia began her growth radiating out from Jamestown, including north along the James River. About 20 miles upstream from the original fort, between present day Williamsburg and Richmond, settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred and established one of the first plantations in America.  

Thirty-eight folks arrived in 1619 on the ship Margaret with the supplies needed to get things started, including [s]ome fifteen gallons of aqua vitae, five-and-a-half tuns of beer, and cider.” 

The next year George Thorpe came to Berkeley and was appointed to the colony’s Council of State and put in charge of land set aside for a college and school for Native Americans. The statesman also farmed and dabbled – and failed – in viticulture (grape growing).  

But it was with spirits that Thorpe succeeded. In a letter to colleague John Smyth dated December 19, 1620, Thorpe wrote: 

Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drink good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that.” 

The creation was most likely white dog, a clear, un-aged, raw whiskey that, with a little time in charred barrels, would turn golden and have its edge taken off. It was more akin to moonshine, and not exactly bourbon, but it was the first documented start to crafting truly American whiskeys.  

Corn-based whiskeys would become a hallmark of Virginia, and the developing nation. Many farmers found they could make more money from a bushel of corn by distilling it than selling it at market. Plus, it was easier to transport, and had a relatively indefinite shelf life.  

Following Thorpe’s death, an inventory of his belongings noted “item, copper still, old,” and “ 3 runletts (casks) Virginia” – perhaps his corn whiskey – “which were drunke out among the people that fetcht downe his goods.” 

In 1964, congress recognized bourbon as “America’s native spirit.” 

Colonial Expansion

As the young colony expanded and towns were separated by some distance, the need for inns, ordinaries, and taverns grew. Even a 10-mile journey may require an overnight stay, and basics like food, drink, and lodging were offered to the traveler.  

Ordinaries and taverns also appeared in population-rich areas like Norfolk and Williamsburg where locals could stop by for a drink or two, and exchange ideas, information, and news. Ales and other styles of beer, hard ciders, wine, spirits, and early cocktails were among the tipples.  

Rum was popular, with imports coming from the Caribbean, but crafted in the colonies, too. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says that by 1770, there were more than 140 rum distilleries making about 4.8 million gallons annually across the colonies.  

The Virginia Gazette ran an ad on April 21, 1775 for a new distillery in Alexandria that promised their rum to be “equal in quality, either in strength, agreeable smell, and good flavour, to any made on this continent” 

Rum was an essential ingredient in the very popular punches of the day. According to the Norfolk County court, punches, “if made good” were regulated to be sold at ordinaries and taverns at 16 pence per quart, such as was the case at Redwood’s Ordinary in Norfolk in 1693. 

Punches were boozy and ubiquitous in Virginia, with potency masked by fruit juices, spices, and perhaps some loaf sugar.  

Made Good Punch Recipe

Ready to try your hand at something our early colonists may have enjoyed? Here’s a recipe for Made Good Punch inspired by Barbados-born John Redwood’s 17th century tavern:

Ginger Simple Syrup Ingredients

  • 1 3-inch piece fresh ginger
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

Cocktail Ingredients

  •  2 cups dark or spiced rum
  • 1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup ginger simple syrup
  • sparkling water
  • freshly grated nutmeg


Make the simple syrup by peeling the skin from the piece of ginger and slicing into thin disks. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, add the ginger, sugar and water and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Strain, add to a sealable glass jar and refrigerate until use, up to 1 month.

In a punch bowl, add the rum, lime juice, lemon juice, orange juice and ginger simple syrup. Serve half a cup of punch, top with sparkling water and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg. Yields 12–16 cocktails.


Patrick Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales-trained chef, food historian, and award-winning food journalist covering tasty trends in broadcast, electronic, and print media since 1995. He is the author of Virginia Distilled: Four Centuries of Drinking in the Old Dominion. Read him at