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1,300 years of whiskey history

August 09, 2006

Western Maryland has deep roots in whiskey history. The largest still ever found in Maryland was Blue Blazes Still - just outside of Thurmont, Md. While it's unclear who owned the still (some say it had Hagerstown owners; others say the owners were from Baltimore or Washington, D.C.), the still's impact on the region was unquestioned, as local people worked the still to provide for their families. The drink's history, however, dates back centuries.

· A.D. 700 - An Arabian alchemist records the principles of distillation. This process produces what's known as a wonder drug, or "life water."

· 1527 - A German surgeon publishes a paper claiming "life water" could heal sores and promote hair growth.

· 1623 - The Virginia Assembly encourages newcomers to the colonies to bring enough malt beverages with them until their systems could adjust to the water, which they fear to be "poisonous."

· 1700s - By the early 18th century, colonists are consuming 12 million gallons of rum a year. The process of distilling corn (key for whiskey making) isn't perfected until 1750. Converting corn into whiskey condenses the crop, making it easier to transport to market, where the product is traded for other goods.

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· 1791 - Congress enacts the excise tax on whiskey to raise funds for debts incurred during the American Revolution. The tax rouses so much anger that Western Pennsylvania colonists rebel. As a result, George Washington sends federal troops to quell the insurgents, who are later pardoned. Historians say the government spends $1.5 million to stop the rebellion. The tax is repealed in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson.

· 1862 - The whiskey tax is reinstated as a means of funding the Civil War. The year also marks the birth of the Internal Revenue Service. Thousands of illegal stills continue operation.

· 1919 - The Volstead Act, which prohibits the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages, changes whiskey making from a low-scale family operation to an industry controlled by businessmen.

· Oct. 22, 1927 - The Blue Blazes Still, which is a product of prohibition, is raided for the first time. Historians say the raid is so uneventful, it's seldom mentioned. Shielded by the forest and mountains, trucks would leave the still with loads of "corn meal," the code name for hard liquor.

· July 29, 1929 - Blue Blazes Still grows, becoming the largest still ever find in Maryland. Law enforcement officials find 25,000 gallons of mash set in 2,000-gallon vats when they raid it in 1929. As the story goes, law enforcement officer Clyde Hauver gathered a posse of local citizens to shut the still down. But, a lookout man sees the crew coming and fires a shot. A shootout ensues. Hauver is the sole casualty. The moonshiners hear the guns and disappear into the woods.

· 1933 - Prohibition is repealed. Historians often refer to the period between 1921 and 1933 as the "lawless years."

· 1950s - Charles Lewis, the man arrested and tried for killing Hauver, is pardoned by the governor. Folklore suggests that Hauver was killed to settle a grudge held by a member of his own crew. Others suggest Hauver was tangled in a love triangle. Lewis died a few years after his release.

- Source: Debra Mills, park ranger at Catoctin Mountain Park; and FBI Archives

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