There are many myths and misleading claims in the whisky industry. One of the most egregious is the claim that George Thorpe was America’s first grain distiller, let alone a distiller of corn whisky (he never distilled or brewed). Since the 1950s, many publications, articles, and industry associations have repeated this assertion, denying America’s first corn brewers and distillers recognition.
George Thorpe Esq., lawyer, landowner, and New World investor, was landed gentry. He was allocated acreage near the James River at Berkeley Hundred Plantation in Virginia and charged with the responsibilities upon his arrival to build and oversee the Church of England University and Indian School at neighbouring Henricus. Menial or manual work was beneath his station and inclination. After disembarking at Jamestown in April 1620, he employed Richard Smyth, his wife Joan, and their two young sons to run the plantation from September 1620.
The Smyths undertook duties in animal husbandry, horticulture, farming, and preparation of the household victuals, including beverages. Joan Smyth likely deserves credit for brewing Berkeley plantation’s first beer.
In Elizabethan times, household chores, especially brewing and distilling, were the chief responsibility of women. Thorpe’s letter to a colleague in England on 19 December 1620 references the brewing of beer, “goode drink of Indian corne”, comparing this beverage with his refusal to drink his “good stronge Englishe beare”, having transported 18 tuns from a Bristol brewery.
In the Powhatan Uprising 15 months later, Thorpe, the Smyths, and 342 colonists were massacred. When Thorpe’s son William contested his father’s probate estate at a Bristol court in 1634, listed among the plantation’s audited items from 1624 was a copper still. However, of the thousands of itemised household goods Thorpe shipped from England in 1620, no copper still was in his manifest nor record of its purchase at Jamestown.
Before Jamestown journals made mention of brewing corn mashes post-1610, the first corn beer brewed was at Roanoke Island, Virginia, in 1585. Scientist Thomas Harriot wrote in 1588 that Raleigh’s colony traded ‘pagatowr’ – the local word for West Indies ‘mayz’ – with the local Secoton tribe. “Wee made of the same in the country some maulte, wherof was brued as a good ale as to be defired.” The first European brewer of Indian corn at Jamestown was one or more of 100 women residing at the settlement by 1610, perhaps the London apothecary John Tuyt.
In 2000, an archaeological dig found fragments of a London redware distilling vessel in the remnants of
one of Fort James’ first shelters that dated from 1607, the year of settlement. Jamestown colonists immigrated with an unknown number of domestic stills for food preservation, medicines, and liquor libations. Six doctors and three apothecaries disembarked during the first two years of settlement. Most, if not all, were familiar with distillation to prepare medicinal treatments and beverages.
One doctor who deserves a special mention is Laurence Bohun. The Englishman arrived in Jamestown in May 1610. He obtained his doctorate at Leiden University, studying under the famous physician-distiller Franz Sylvius de la Boe. Bohun was sent to Jamestown to undertake pharmacological studies of local plants, of which corn was the most important staple for the colony’s survival and prosperity. Colonists had traded Indian corn with the Powhatans since 1607, growing their corn from 1609. Bohun distilled alcoholic ‘cordialls’ and fermented wine from native grapes. He likely used glass alembics made in Jamestown by eight German and Polish glass makers at America’s second manufacturing enterprise in 1609.
The archaeological and primary records indicate corn brewing and distilling activities around Jamestown a decade before Thorpe. The first distiller mashing Indian corn may never be identified, but it was not George Thorpe.