Salem Spirits

After the various map posts, which go viral immediately and retain a steady following thereafter, the most popular posts on my blog have been those focused on spirits, in particular an examination of a peculiar Salem drink from colonial days named Whistle Belly Vengeance and the story of a libelous temperance pamphlet directed at the wealthy rum distiller who happened to build my house. I can understand why: there’s just something very alluring about alcohol! The process of distillation, in particular, has always had a rather mysterious and even diabolical reputation, from the days of alchemy to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, when a certain ambitious temperance minister named George Cheever targeted the largest rum distiller in town, John Stone (who built my house and styled himself Deacon for his role at the First Church of Salem) in an allegorical pamphlet entitled  The Dream, or, The True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery (1835). In the thinly-veiled Deacon Giles, who concocted barrels of cholera, murder, fever and delirium with the aid of his demon workers, Deacon Stone saw the inverse of his pious self: both men were (hypocritical) bible-society members, both lost relatives in the diabolical vats of their distilleries, both had alcoholic sons, both made demon rum. Stone sued for libel and won, but Cheever became a cause celebre and temperance hero during the trial. His little story was reprinted for a national audience, and within the next decade Stone’s largest distillery was converted into a sawmill.

Deacon Giles Frontspiece 1835

Domestic and Demonic Distillation: Rebecca Tallamy’s Book of Receipts. Written in the margins and blank spaces of a copy of John French’s Art of Distillation, 1651, Wellcome Library, London; the frontspiece to George Cheever’s True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery, 1835, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

But now Deacon Giles, and rum distillation, has returned to Salem in the form of a new (and real) craft distillery named after the fictional distiller. Deacon Giles Distillery, located just off Canal Street, not only reflects the current appetite for crafted spirits, but also Salem’s rich rum-selling past. Rum is as “Salem” as the Witch Trials of 1692, Samuel McIntire, Hawthorne, and (unfortunately) Halloween: with eight distilleries in operation in 1821 and a reputation for the best “New England” rum around, the city logically became the target of the evangelical temperance movement in the next decade. It wasn’t just all about Deacon John Stone! And as the distillers were walking me around their beautiful “still house” this afternoon while talking about their triple-distillation process and pursuit of “purification”, I couldn’t help but think back to the days of the medieval alchemists, who also pursued the ultimate quintessence, or “elixir of life”, through a multi-step process in which distillation, the next-to-less step, effects the ultimate purification.

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Deacon Giles Distillery, 75 Canal Street, Salem: Tasting Room mural, the distillers at work, the products–Liquid Damnation Rum and Original Gin.

Deacon Giles was aided by the path which Salem’s craft hard cider brewery, Far From the Tree, paved and the amendment of the Salem zoning ordinance to allow Massachusetts Farmers Series licenses allowing them to produce, pour, and sell. Both businesses have great tasting rooms and really knowledgeable people eager to tell you all about their products while you sip them. I was really tempted today, but I didn’t think having a swallow of rum (or more) was a good idea when I had class in an hour!

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The Far From the Tree Tasting Room on Jackson Street in Salem and two Far from the Tree ciders: they also have Rind (my favorite–but I think it is a seasonal variety), Spice, and several others. These ciders are great because they are really dry, as advertised. Next up: Notch Brewing on Derby Street!


4 responses to “Salem Spirits

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