Did you know many of the Civil War’s most powerful personalities are connected to Davenport, Iowa? We believe it is more than a strange turn of coincidence Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln and Dred Scott all spent significant time on banks of the Mississippi near the site of Davenport’s first distillery and today’s Artisan Grain Distillery.

Robert E. Lee
A bit of background, the American Military Academy at West Point turned out more than soldiers. The fine cadets of the Long Gray Line also received training as engineers. From the summer of 1837 until 1840, First Lieutenant Robert E. Lee was assigned the task of surveying and improving navigation around the section of the Mississippi River called the “Rock Island Rapids.”
It was Lt. Lee’s work which led to the building of a number of lateral dams designed to direct the main channel of the Mississippi through routes which would provide deeper water and fewer of the tight turns which created navigational hazards. Many of these lateral dams are still in place (although now submerged) and many a Davenport pleasure craft owner will relate stories of prop and lower unit damage which came about because of their presence.

The rugged frontier conditions, incessant bugs and heat experienced on the Mississippi River are well documented in many of the surviving letters Lee inked to his wife Mary Custis Lee who remained home in Virginia during Lee’s lengthy trips to the area.

We have no doubt that (later to be) General Lee, may have been speaking about Davenport style whiskey when he remarked, “I like whiskey. I always did, and that is why I never drink it.”

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln also played an important role in the history of Davenport, Iowa. One of the trial cases which propelled Lincoln’s career and fame as an attorney came in 1856 when a steamboat collided with the first railroad bridge spanning the Mississippi.

The bridge – which connected Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa and points westward (and touched Davenport just a few hundred yards from the modern day location of Artisan Grain Distillery) – was viewed by the river boat industry as an impediment to navigation. Immediately following the collision in which both the bridge and Riverboat Effie Afton burned.

Captain Hurd, the owner of the river boat sued the bridge company for the then princely sum of $50,000 dollars. The bridge company brought in Abraham Lincoln to defend their actions in Federal Court. Because of the political importance of navigation versus westward expansion, this trial was one of the biggest stories of the day.

We know Lincoln visited the sight of the crash and according to a scholarly article by Jay Shultz appearing on Illinois Periodicals Online:
Lincoln mastered all of the facts about the river, the bridge, the steamboat operation, and the crash, and prior to the trial Lincoln visited the crash site.

No doubt during this visit, Lincoln had the opportunity to sample the smooth flavor and rich aroma of Davenport whiskey. There are numerous historical mentions of President Lincoln’s fondness for a smooth drink of whiskey as a social nicety, but we loved the story related by fellow New Salem, Illinois resident and Lincoln friend Daniel Green Burner:

Physically, Mr. Lincoln was the strongest man I ever knew. That is saying a good deal. Let me tell you what I saw him do. He took a full barrel of whisky, containing forty-four gallons, gripping each end with one hand, raised it deliberately to his face and drank from the bunghole. In doing this he won a ten dollar hat from Bill Green.

We don’t know what happened to the hat and we certainly don’t recommend you give this practice a try while sitting in your favorite chair, but we sure do wish we could give Mr. Lincoln one of the easy to hand bottles from Artisan Grain Distillery. We know he would have enjoyed the experience.

Dred Scott
Another and slightly less fortunate soul to visit the Davenport area was the enslaved African-American, Dred Scott. Scott unsuccessfully sued for the freedom of himself, wife and two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the “Dred Scott Decision.”

This lightning rod case’s foundation was that Scott had lived with his “owner”, Dr. John Emerson, in states and territories where slavery was illegal according to both state laws and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The U.S Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott. Many believe this case was one of the touchstones which ignited the Civil War.

Scott lived in Davenport for a short while as Dr. Emerson worked for the Army. The site of his residence is marked with a bronze marker just a half block up the street from the historic location of Artisan Grain Distillery.

But the question remains, were enslaved peoples allowed access to Davenport’s uniquely blended style of whiskey. We don’t know for sure, but we can say this. Lea Vander Velde’s book Mrs. Dred Scott: A life on Slavery’s Frontier, mentions whiskey over 30 times. We believe Dr. Emerson most likely understood the value of good quality whiskey as tonic for tired muscles and a soothing way to relax and allowed Dred to sample the blend.

Davenport Whiskey
Everyplace has their own whiskey. The Irish and Scotch have unique blends. The bourbons of Kentucky are renowned. Tennessee sour mash has claims of its own. Some of this is happenstance, a lot is the result of marketing hype. But, Davenport, Iowa has a 180 year-old tradition.

The blend of cultures created a taste which was nearly lost. A smooth flavorful blend of new spirits created from the finest grains on the planet. In an age before mass marketing and factory made brands, Davenport’s whiskey was carried up and down the Mighty Mississippi and westward by early pioneers.

Thankfully, one man had a vision. A vision of the powerful past. A desire to turn out the very finest of this old time taste; Artisan Grain Distillery relives the simple days when whiskey was an undeniable pleasure.

The best part of the whole deal is this, the area surrounding Artisan Grain Distillery is as steeped in tradition as the product coming out of the old-style still. Relax with a glass of this fine drink and engage your friends in a conversation about days gone by.