25 October 2012

Whiskey and the Frontier

The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hodgeland, 2006, Excerpts

Whiskey came in vogue early in the eighteenth century with the influx of Scots-Irish settlers, who brought expertise in domestic distilling. The Scots-Irish were notably tough descendants of Protestant Scots peasantry, who had resettled in Ulster and then been forced, by exorbitant rents and English taxes, to migrate to North America. By the time of the revolution, domestic whiskey was gaining popularity and would replace rum as the country’s drink.

Eighteenth-century Americans distilled whiskey just as their ancestors had, using a pot still. The good product was clear. Inhaling it would water the eyes and rustle nose hairs. Swallowed, it made a hard impact, then a glowing heat; in the end, the feeling was surprisingly smooth, and soon after recovery, another shot might seem to be in order. Barrel storage darkened the drink and brought out redolent grain, woodsmoke, sugar. Drunken raw or aging, whiskey abruptly makes the drinker and the world different.

Many small farmers distilled seasonally. Whiskey was consumed by men, women, and children at all times of the day and every sort of gathering muster, church, election, work, dance, and fight. Often a community distiller kept pot stills going through the harvest, and farmers brought in their grain and took away the whiskey, paying the distiller in a portion of product.

The best whiskey was known to come from the Forks of the Ohio, whose “Monongahela rye” possessed consistent strength and purity. The region achieved brand recognition. Its whiskey was known by name in Philadelphia and in New Orleans. More than a fourth of the stills in America were located at the Forks of the Ohio.

Whiskey became currency in places where coin wasn’t seen. Barter paralyzed local economies, but whiskey was a true medium, always exchangeable for cash somewhere down the line, thus maintaining value against metal. A liquid commodity both literally and figuratively, the drink democratized local economies, offering even tenants and sharecroppers laborers a benefit. Tenants often wanted to pay rent, and laborers often got paid, in a portion of the grain they harvested. Community stills transformed, for a cut, such cumbersome forms of payment into something fungible. And while landlords often refused in-kind crops, or demanded them in extravagant quantities, they’d take whiskey for rent. 

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