Tuesday, May 31, 2016

America’s First Commercial Whiskey?

In Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, I discuss in detail the rise of whiskey-making in the South. The practice got started in the colonial days, taking root first in the frontier areas of Pennsylvania and later moving down through the Carolina backcountry and over the Appalachians into Tennessee and, eventually, Kentucky.

For many decades, whiskey was not an article of commerce. Instead, it was made by farmers or millers to supply their own families and perhaps barter with neighbors. But, in my research I did turn up one aspiring whiskey-maker very early on—and in a rather unlikely place.

In 1767, Henry Snow hung out his shingle in Savannah and advertised himself in the Georgia Gazette as a “Distiller from London” who made and sold a variety of liquors.
His stock included “Fine Georgia Geneva” (that is, gin) along with aniseed and carraway waters, Brandy “equal to the French”, mulberry brandy, “Vizney or Turkish brandy" and something called "Madam Fatong" which I have been completely unsuccessful in being able to identify.

In an interesting twist, Snow also advertised “usquebaugh, little inferior to Irish.” Usquebaugh is the Gaelic term for “whiskey”, and the origin of the English word, being shortened first to “usky” and they morphing to “whiskey.”

Georgia Gazette (March 11, 1767)

Snow’s advertisement is the first example I have found of whiskey being offered for sale in the Southern colonies. This might not have been actual Irish-style whiskey but an imitation, though, for numerous recipes exist in 18th century English cookbooks for simulating “Irish Usquebaugh.” Most of them start with brandy and steep it with things like raisins, figs, licorice, fennel, and coriander seed.

Little else is known about Henry Snow, and his venture as a Southern whiskey-maker didn’t seem to have lasted very long. No traces appear apart from that one ad in 1767. It would be several more decades before whiskey—and not the Irish variety but rye whiskey from Pennsylvania and corn whiskey from the Georgia mountains—was again sold in Savannah.

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