A Distilled Account

Churchill, moonshine and the devil's drink: Richmond's history with alcohol.

1606 The Virginia Company sets out on a five-month journey with passengers en route to Jamestown. A daily, per-person ration of a gallon of beer is provided. The low-alcohol content of the brew kills micro-organisms that swim in tamer stuff, making it safer than water — even for children.

1607 Jamestown settlers enjoy a very merry Christmas during the earliest recorded year that the eggnog was consumed.

1619 Alcohol use within colonial America was common, so you can imagine the disappointment when laws go down on the books about drunkenness in some of the first attempts to regulate America’s new favorite pastime.

1623 Virginia prohibits public intoxication under penalty
of a fine. Temperance Day is declared on March 5, 1623, by Gov. Sir Francis Wyatt and the colonial legislature.

1741 Tavern keepers are prohibited from selling the devil’s drink on Sundays. This rule is later relaxed to curb liquor sales only during the hours when folks would be going to and from church.

1757 Despite earlier crackdowns on taverns, George Washington finally acknowledges that spirits are key to snagging the loyalty of voters when seeking a post in the House of Burgesses. As a result, he treats them to a liquor-drenched smorgasbord that includes rum, wine, punch and brandy, and toasts their participation in the electoral process.

1781: Traitor’s Ultimatum

During the American Revolution in 1781, Connecticut-born Benedict Arnold — the brilliant general-turned-legendary traitor — leads 800 of his British troops up from Charles City County into Virginia’s new capital city. Gov. Thomas Jefferson and his government flee. Arnold sends a letter to the residents of Richmond and Manchester (which was then a separate town) that if all rum and wine supplies, along with other commodities, are delivered to him, he’ll pay half the going price. Otherwise he’ll set fire to the place. When Richmonders refuse to comply, he torches their town. Manchester goes unscathed.

Footnote: Despite gaining independence from England in 1781, the United States remains heavily dependent on imported goods. But relations with the mother country are again extremely tense in 1808 because of naval conflicts off the Virginia coast. In that year Richmond’s council enacts a law that only American-produced liquor, no English, can be served at Fourth of July celebrations.

1788 Members of the recreational Quoit Club drink themselves silly by the river and consume copious amounts of barbecue, toddies and an alcoholic elixir they call “punch.”


1797 George Washington sets up two stills at Mount Vernon and cranks out his first 80 gallons of whiskey.

November 1814: Tavern Owner Crackdown

It’s every Virginia restaurant owner’s nightmare to be denied a liquor license. This isn’t new. In the South Side of Richmond in November 1814, grocer John Henry is hauled before a Chesterfield grand jury for selling booze without a license. At the same hearing white tavern owners William Archer, John McCollum, Samuel Sizer, John Rozell and an African-American, Robert Smith, are tried for the same offense.


Footnote: Half a century later it is still difficult to keep a handle on “spirited” South Siders. During the 1860s “riotous behavior” from drinking is cited in newspapers as a recurring problem, especially in the vicinity of the Danville train station on Hull Street near the Mayo Bridge. A Richmond Dispatch article reports that although one particular bartender there served more than 300 drinks in an evening, he had only 40 cents to show for it.


One-time Richmond resident Edgar Allan Poe joins the Sons of Temperance only to be seen with drink in hand just a few months later. Shortly thereafter, he dies after deliriously wandering the streets of Baltimore in an alcoholic haze.


April 3, 1865: Gutters Runneth Over

It is the waning days of the Civil War. Early in the morning of April 3, 1865, after the Confederate government has fled Richmond for Danville, City Council orders that all liquor supplies be destroyed. Receipts are issued to vendors promising payment at a future date. Some 80 barrels are rolled out of warehouses near Cary and 14th streets. Bottles of brandy are thrown out of upper windows, smashing onto sidewalks. With axes, the barrels are smashed, and soon men, women and children, lured by the smell of alcohol, are in the gutters on their hands and knees scooping up the brew with hats or any available container. Later that day, while the Union troops enter the city, Richmonders offer them cups of water — and whiskey.

Footnote: In 1870, five years after liquor pours into the streets, Richmond officials still haven’t settled with irate spirits distributors whose stock was destroyed. In March a city sheriff, acting in favor of plaintiffs B. Jones & Co. and W.B. Ratcliffe, seeks to settle the so-called whiskey claim by seizing all the equipment of the Fire Department. This gets the attention of city officials and they form a committee to settle the claim. Many years later the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rules against the distributors, citing that the seizure of the booze had been for the public good.



1865 Richmond is burning at the hand of the Confederate army, but a local newspaper, The Richmond Whig, mourns the loss of liquor and taverns more, calling the situation “a real catastrophe” when City Council orders all booze to be destroyed.


1897 Home Brewing Co. opens near Harrison and Clay streets as one of several post-Civil War breweries.


Early 1900s: The After-Party

In the early 1900s the Richmond German presents popular but discreet dance parties. They are often held at the Masonic Lodge at Broad and Adams streets (today the Renaissance building). The young ladies never wear makeup — “pale and interesting” is the preferred fashion. The dance usually starts at 9 p.m. and lasts till midnight. Although there is no legal age limit for drinking, refreshments aren’t served. But a dinner follows. When guests are seated a cocktail of champagne is set at each place. But because it isn’t proper for a lady to imbibe, her escort scores an extra drink. Wine follows with the various courses — for men only, of course.

Footnote: In 1934, at the end of Prohibition, Virginia’s first ABC Act sets the legal drinking age at 21. In 1974 the legal age for beer consumption is lowered to 18 (in 1981 it was raised to 19 for off-premises consumption). In 1987, however, the legal drinking age is re-established at 21.


Circa 1900: Rooster’s Punishment

One of the greatest characters in early-20th-century Richmond is Justice John Jeter Crutchfield of police court, which tries minor infractions. Among the offenses that fill his dockets: drunkenness in public. Around 1900 a young reporter for one of the daily papers reports that Crutchfield is merciless in his rulings. Sometime around the Christmas holidays a defendant had been brought before Crutchfield, and before he could say a word the judge snapped: “One year in jail.” Readers of the newspaper agree that Crutchfield is out of line. What the reporter hadn’t witnessed was the appearance two weeks before of the same man, Rooster Jones. He pleaded that if he were let off, he’d never take another drop of liquor and if he did, “You can send me to jail for a year.” Crutchfield just follows through.

Footnote: Crutchfield is a close friend and admirer of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Richmond-born dancer and star of stage and screen. One of Robinson’s most popular vaudeville routines is his impression of the justice’s persona on the bench.

1909 Armed with propaganda and financial backing, the Virginia Anti-Saloon League pushes legislation that bans saloons and bars in 86 of 100 counties.

1916 The Mapp Act, a statewide prohibition law, closes watering holes, but allows every household to import from outside the state: one quart of liquor, three gallons of beer, or one gallon of wine per month. When national prohibition follows, the “one quart law” is no more.


1920 Liquor lovers prove to be a creative bunch, outwitting police by clever means of hiding illegal hooch in fruit and vegetable crates as well as coal cars.


1922 Bathtub gin proves to be a hit at back-porch booze operations in working-class neighborhoods such as Oregon Hill.

1929: Quenching Churchill’s Thirst

In 1929 Winston S. Churchill is in Richmond for a few days as the guest of Gov. Harry F. Byrd and his wife. After the future British prime minister leaves the Executive Mansion, where he was staying while researching the Seven Days battlefields for a book he was writing, “The American Civil War,” Mrs. Byrd tells her husband, “I don’t know much about Mr. Churchill but I hope you won’t invite him to this house again.” Their guest apparently set the household into a flurry with demands for a particular brand of cigar and later, just prior to a black-tie dinner, a glass of brandy. Isn’t Mr. Churchill aware that Virginia is a dry state, and that America is the midst of Prohibition? Still, the governor is unfazed by Churchill’s request and sends out an SOS to his friend John Stewart Bryan, the publisher of the Richmond News Leader (the city’s afternoon paper). Bryan sends over some hooch from his North Side estate, Laburnum off Brook Road.


Footnote: Churchill’s mother, the New York-born Jennie Jerome Churchill, is credited with the creation of the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters and a maraschino cherry). She asks her favorite bartender to create a special drink to celebrate the election of Samuel J. Tilden as New York’s governor in 1874.


1933 Virginians vote to ratify the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition. The year becomes a trivia-contest question when it’s included on beer labels.

1934 Virginia legalizes alcohol consumption, but puts some controls in place. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is established to regulate the distribution and enforce laws regarding alcohol.

1935 The first canned beer in America, Krueger Cream Ale, is test marketed in Richmond by the Krueger Brewing Co. on Jan. 24. It’s an immediate success.

1936 The General Assembly grants full police powers to designated ABC agents so that they may investigate and take responsibility for enforcing the laws against bootlegging and moonshining efforts in Virginia.


Early 1940s: Moonshine Shortage

During the Second World War, heavy drinking is reported at American military bases. But there’s an actual decrease of moonshine production during the war. This is due to two factors: the possibility of bootleggers securing legitimate jobs working in the war effort, and shortages of sugar and other commodities, including metal needed to build stills. With low production, prices of moonshine are reportedly higher than at ABC stores.

Footnote: In February 1944 three Richmond men are arrested in New Kent County in one of the largest raids on a still in the state’s history. The plant has a capacity of 12,000 gallons. Too bad for the bootleggers that the raid is made during the first run of the illicit operation.


1969 America puts a man on the moon, but more importantly, Virginians may now buy liquor by the drink.

1980 The Farm Winery Law is established, allowing Virginia wineries to bypass the traditional three-tiered distribution system and distribute their product directly to retailers.

1993 Legend Brewing is founded and brews its first, frothy beverage.

2008 Virginia becomes the laughingstock of the nation when an antiquated law prohibiting the mixing of wine and other spirits is enforced in a Mexican restaurant for doing so when creating an authentic sangria recipe.


2011 The Virginia ABC reports a resurgence in moonshine, citing the tough economy as a contributing factor.


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