Virginia lays claim to the birthplace of American distilled spirits as the first batch of whiskey, albeit from corn, was documented to have been produced as early as 1620 by English settler George Thorpe near Jamestown. Rye’s presence and dominance in what later became the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia was in great part due to socioeconomic factors and geography. In Europe, wheat was a staple meant for the tables of the affluent, whereas rye was a poor person’s staple. Immigrants to the new land in search of a better life were mostly poor, bringing with them what they knew best. “The original settlers from the Germanic areas grew rye for bread and whiskey,” said whiskey historian John Lipman. He cites the ship Mary Hope which had sailed in 1710 to Philadelphia carrying the Oberholtzers (née Overholt) and Böhmes (née Beam) to the New World as a lineage point.
When the Revolutionary War started, many who wished to avoid conflict or conscription headed west across the Appalachian Mountains as far as where the woods met the source of the Ohio River in Allegheny Pennsylvania. “Whiskey wasn’t the drink of choice for the educated class, it was preferred by the same people — farmers — who made their own clothes,” said Lipman. “If you were an educated, urban tavern-goer you drank cider, ale or rum.” Spirits carted east from the new settlements aged in barrels were sold as “Monongahela” and often misconstrued as rum.
Rye’s popularity in the new country grew out of necessity, prompted by the lack of Caribbean molasses for rum distillation at commercial coastal distilleries — a consequence of English hostility, whose navy maintained control of the Atlantic Ocean — and neither was it a drink for patriots. By the late 1700’s, there were thousands of small grain distilleries each in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. Corn was native throughout, though more widespread and easier to grow in the south. Barley lacked the hardiness required for a staple crop, and rye was much easier to grow.
Recently retired President George Washington was considering a gentlemanly retirement at his Mount Vernon, Virginia estate when his farm manager James Anderson in 1797 proposed growing rye and corn for the distillation of whiskey. He granted the Scotsman dispensation to furnish the new operation with five copper stills, boilers, tubs and wooden troughs; by 1798 the distillery was in operation.
In March 1791, the new government enacted the first federal excise tax with the intention of retiring the debt incurred during the Revolutionary War, a tax on distilled spirits referred to as the Whiskey Tax. According to Sam Komlenic of West Overton Village & Museum, whiskey was then viewed as currency, a practice Treasurer Alexander Hamilton wished eliminated, because farmers trusted it more than the new country’s currency. From 1791 to 1794 a rebellion arose, most notably in what was then western Pennsylvania, with 13,000 soldiers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia led by President Washington. In late 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion was quashed with the arrest of many, the deaths of few, the convictions of several and the pardoning of all. East of the mountains it was relatively easy for the new government to monitor whiskey production, although west it was harder, leading the Feds to tax farmer’s stills for maximum capacity of production, forcing western still operators to either ramp up enough to pay taxes or consolidate to become more professional distillers rather than diversify as farmers.
With bulk transportation of large amounts of grain impractical during this era, and corn not generally native north of the southern edge of Pennsylvania, distillers making high rye content Monongahela were known for its full-bodied and spicy nature. Mash bills for distillers operating in the more southerly Maryland and Virginia were typically a mix of mostly rye with some corn, making these sweeter and more mellow than their northern cousin.