William Faulkner Said it Best: “Civilization Begins with Distillation”


A jaunt down Route 151 in Virginia’s Rockfish Valley breathes life into Faulkner’s observation. For decades it was known simply as the valley’s “Main Street”—a stretch of pavement skirting the base of the Blue Ridge winding through small towns named Greenfield or Nellysford. Then things changed. What started with a single vineyard has transformed the Rockfish Valley Highway from a sleepy thoroughfare into what locals now call “Alcohol Alley,” reflecting the presence of wineries, breweries, distilleries, and even a cidery. With fermentation came opportunity, prosperity, and an improved community. Today, visitors from all walks of life flock to the region to enjoy what nature has to offer (including nature’s other offerings of hiking, fishing and skiing).

Making whiskey is but one piece of the Great Story of Spirits. The Big Picture is the story of incremental progress, of continual innovation by degrees and accidents. It’s the story of how something of value is perfected by many without being planned, organized, or controlled. 

It’s a story focused on tradition. The essential distilling process has gone largely unchanged over centuries. I've seen it up close throughout Speyside and Islay and other Scottish regions, and of course along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

It is also a story of globalization and exchange. Distilling technology has traveled as peoples have migrated and settled in new places. At times, government intervention forced distilleries out of one region, only for them to spring up elsewhere to meet demand. James Anderson, driven from England by Parliament’s Scottish Whisky ban, immigrated to America, where he assisted George Washington in creating the renowned—and recently revived—Mount Vernon Distillery.

It is a story of entrepreneurship. Whiskey production celebrates the spirit of the individual, as it has for centuries. Distillers began charring the inside of reused barrels to eliminate the fish flavor from them. It also accidentally imparted the smoky taste now expected in a good glass of bourbon. Today, spirits are commonly aged in barrels that previously held other products in order to impart a certain characteristic or flavor. Barrels are reused and exchanged in a complex network connecting whiskey producers with winemakers and other varieties of spirit maker.

But at its core, the story of whiskey is the human story. In a recent edition of Whisky Advocate, Jeffrey Lindenmuth shared anecdotes of whisky craftsmen. As he said, “Preachers and politicians, architects and artists—it would be futile to attempt to list every man and woman who helped shape the whiskey in our glass.”

There are some good ones, though.

Masataka Taketsuru learned English to travel to Scotland in 1918 to study whisky making. He returned to Japan with his new craft and Scottish bride to found what are today some of the most revered whisky companies around the globe: Suntory and Nikka. 

Phillip “Pip” Hills purchased Scotch malt whisky directly from distilleries for consumption among friends in Edinburgh in the late 1970s. It soon grew into a “syndicate of friends” and is now the largest international whisky club, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco is credited both as the father of craft brewing and craft distilling

The father of single malt, Charles Gordon, broke the trend of blended whiskies in 1963 with a Glenfiddich Single Malt giving birth to my particular whisky love: single malt Scotch

Lindenmuth dubbed Brothers Robert and Walter Pattison “the speculators,” who were too busy with advertising stunts to promote their Pattisons Whisky—like training 500 African Grey parrots—to notice the dwindling market and crashed with too much supply.

I have one too. It’s about John Washburn, who in 1985 noticed 50 acres of beautiful property in Nelson County, Virginia. As fermentation and distillation came to the Rockfish Valley, he had an idea to produce craft cider. He cold-called, Brian Shanks, a New Zealander who has pioneered cider-making techniques across the U.S., Europe, China, and Australia. Together they formed Bold Rock Stone Cidery—now a must-see along Alcohol Alley. 

I stopped by recently and discovered a gem of a drink on tap, their own unique “India Pressed Apple”—hard cider blended with hops and aged in bourbon barrels, thus making the distillation marriage complete. 

With I, Whiskey: The Spirit of the Market, we aim to tell these and other stories: be they about rebels or scientists, criminals or statesmen, holy men or bootleggers. 

In other words, it’s the story of us.