“History repeats itself” is a phrase we have all heard, and it is true. Recently, Madison County is experiencing a rebirth of hops growing. Drive south along Route 46 in the late summer or early fall and you will see the bines climbing at a number of farms. Growth of the crop is expanding to Sullivan and Cazenovia, meaning all ends of the county can experience a rebirth of the industry.
Along with the expansion of hops, breweries are emerging in the area. It harkens back to when James Coolidge planted the first hops plant near Bouckville (a site that is now marked by a historic marker on Route 12B in Madison). While we recognize Coolidge we forget that during the first hops era we had a thriving distilling and brewing industry throughout central and southern Madison County.
Distilling was more common than brewing in Madison County during most of the 19th century, and we will focus on that in this article with the next article discussing early breweries.
According to the 1835 and 1845 business censuses, distilling was the third-largest industry in the dollar value of the products it produced, behind only grist mills and woolen factories, producing around $120,000 in product in each census. At its peak in 1855, Madison County distillers produced (not every distillery reported its numbers to the census, we are only including those that did report) 750,000 gallons of high wines (high wine is alcohol that has undergone two distillations; it would be mixed with flavors to create different liquors like whiskey or vodka) worth an estimated $300,000. Madison County distillers also produced more than 400,000 gallons of whiskey which had an estimated value of $160,000.
All told, the $460,000 reported in production in distilling and brewing in 1855 would be worth approximately $12 million in today’s dollars. The industries employed at least 45 people during 1855 in Madison, Eaton and Cazenovia.