Eight Shires Colonial American Distillery: Meet Virginia Makers

Our mission at Williamsburg Distillery is to research, document, preserve, teach, and present the history of distillation from the Colonial American Period, the years 1600 to 1775. We are researching and preparing presentations on medicines, extracts, perfumes, and alcohol.

During the colonial period, methods associated with alcohol distillation for consumption developed new and much more palatable products. Until Rum and Genever Gin were developed, distilled spirits tasted much like moonshine. Rum and Genever Gin’s superior tastes opened new doors to the art of distilled ethanol presentation, overwhelming the taste and sales of the ”moonshine like whiskies.” Barrel aging or ”putting up” then revolutionized the whiskey industry creating what we now know as bourbon and Scotch.   

Distillation technology changed dramatically during the colonial period, allowing for more discreet separation of products. Alcohol and other products could be separated to new levels of purity. London Dry Gin was born of the necessity to separate bastardized drink from pure drink. Distilled extracts from plants now found new uses in food preparation, science, perfumes, and medicine.

Sugar and carbohydrate sources for distilled spirits have changed since colonial times.

Maize/Indian corn, discovered in the new world, was found to be useful as a food source. First documented as a fermentable grain by Reverend George Thorpe in 1620, it quickly became the base grain for liquor in the Americas, replacing the deficits for sugar in the colonies when wars inhibited commerce in the Caribbean. Modern liquor production utilizes modern GMO grains that have a significantly higher carbohydrate yield. Since Indian corn is not commercially available, Williamsburg Distillery contracts with local farmers to produce heritage American Indian Maize for use in our bourbon and Genever Gin. We are the only distillery we know of using heritage Indian corn in bourbon and Genever Gin.

Thought to be first produced from the left over molasses from sugar production, modern rum is produced from sweet molasses or sugar, much different from colonial molasses. Williamsburg distillery is the only distillery that recombines molasses components to recreate colonial style molasses for rum production.

The distillery is currently being challenged over use of the word ”Williamsburg” by a local winery.  Attempting to maintain a colonial connection, the name 8 Shires was chosen. The Virginia colonies were given mandate by the king to establish a government. The Virginia Territory was divided into eight shires, each with a reef overseeing the government within each reef. The ”Shire’s Reef” what is thought to be the origins of the word “sheriff.” 

Our research has even carried us into mixology, or the presentation of mixed drinks. Our Stone Fence drink is derived from the story of Ethan Allen. Mr. Allen was a furniture maker as we all know….NOOO, he wasn’t! Ethan was actually an American patriot who fought for independence in what is now known as the Connecticut area. He headed a band of ruffians known as the Green Mountain boys. They were famous for winning local battles first because of their guerilla style, and for being aggressive due to being hung over from a night of excessive apple cider.   

That April, Benedict Arnold went to join the group, which added about 40 men to the band, for a total of 75 men. With that large a group, they felt brave and decided to try to take Fort Ticonderoga which only had about 400 men at the time. In April, there is not much cider left over from fall apple season, so the men keeping in tradition of drinking before battle, reinforced the remaining cider with rum. They got so drunk that they decided to go that night, not following the traditional rules of battle. They found the guards asleep, not expecting an evening raid. The fort was taken with no blood shed and proved to be a major turning point in the revolution, providing much needed munitions and cannons to defend the Boston Harbor.

Our research has led us to the great-great-great-great grandson of the coppersmith who helped George Washington with the whiskey rebellion. The colonial coppersmith Mr. Eisenheart designed and built a ”bottom” still in 1750. The design was not as efficient as pot stills, but was easy to use in the home and quick and easy to make. No remnants of bottom stills are known to exist.

We were able to commission Mr. Eisenharts great-great-great-great grandson and the original patterns, and the original tools were commissioned to make a reproduction from the original design of the bottom still. We are also commissioning Mr. Eisenhart to create a period pot still similar to those originally used at Mt. Vernon. Further, we plan to distill period wort from period type stills, and bottle them in hand-blown period bottles to recreate period spirits as best as can be approximated on a period style, wood-fired flue. 

A tour through Williamsburg Distillery, soon to be 8 Shires Distillery, is not just a distillery tour. It’s a trip back in time, and a trip through history.