In the United States, our modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly, though not unanimously, traced back to a sparsely documented celebration at Plymouth (now modern-day Massachusetts) that took place in 1621. The celebration was inspired by a good harvest, with newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathering to feast. Later, in 1789, President George Washington declared the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration in America on November 26, “as a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
Historians believe the first feast at Plymouth Colony included venison, waterfowl, lobsters, fish, clams, berries, squash, fruit, and pumpkin. But surely they would need something to wash this all down...could they have been drinking whiskey? If so, could it have resembled bourbon?
While there is nothing suggesting the first Thanksgiving guests sipped on anything that would resemble what we now recognize as modern-day bourbon, it is possible that corn beer or something that might have resembled unaged whiskey was on the menu. The first settlers brought a supply of ale and spirits with them from England, but when those supplies dwindled they began making their own. By the early 1620s colonists were brewing beer themselves. Captain James Thorpe, a missionary in Virginia at the time, wrote about a drink made from Indian corn. Could this have been similar to modern-day corn whiskey? Probably not, but the fact is we may never really know.
Upon Washington’s Thanksgiving day proclamation in 1789, we can draw a conclusion that whiskey was on the menu, and plenty of it. Whiskey was being made by many at the time, mostly operating as small farm distillers with local grains and regionalized processes and mashbills, though this varied wildly. As of that time names we recognize today had started settling in Kentucky, and are believed to have raised their first stills shortly thereafter; names include Elijah Pepper (1776), Jacob Beam (1780), Robert Samuels (1785), The Brown Family (1792), and Daniel Weller (1794).
Washington himself planted deep roots in American whiskey history, opening the first commercial distillery in 1797, making him the largest whiskey producer in America at the time. While he distilled a variety of whiskey, brandy, and vinegar, his most popular product was whiskey made from 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley. At the time his whiskey was not bottled, branded, or aged, but rather stored in wooden barrels (typically 31 gallons) and then sold to nearby merchants. Today, Washington’s contribution to whiskey can be experienced firsthand at the historic Mount Vernon site in Virginia. While the original distillery building burned to the ground in 1814, knowledge of the operation was well documented in Washington’s writings. With that knowledge, whiskey is being made there today in a similar way as Washington was believed to have done it.
Happy Thanksgiving from Breaking Bourbon! What will you be drinking?