Early Colonial drinking habits spanned the social classes but it was George Washington whose whiskey distillery came to symbolize what was truly American.
Part of a soldier’s daily ration at Valley Forge included a gill (approximately half a pint) of whiskey. One result of the British blockade of American ports during the Revolutionary War was an end to the importation of molasses, used to make rum. Historian Mary Miley Theobald writes that, “whiskey rarely appears on tavern price lists before the Revolution…The Revolution meant the decline of rum and the ascendancy of whiskey in America.”
George Washington became one of the largest whiskey producers after returning to Mount Vernon following his years as President. Alcoholic consumption in the seventeenth century was part of daily living for most people, beginning with the establishment of the first beer brewery in 1612 by the Dutch and the first whiskey distillery in 1620 in Virginia.
The Importance of Colonial Taverns in Everyday Life
Historian Peter Thompson identifies the colonial Philadelphia tavern as the best example of “public space,” arguing that, “Taverns were…the most enduring, the most easily identifiable, and the most contested body of public space in eighteenth-century America.” Taverns were not restaurants but places where men met to conduct business, talk politics, and relax. Writing in American Heritage, Stephen Beaumont and Janet Forman conclude that, “Our nation was born in taverns.” Taverns were also places men could sit and enjoy a dram or a pint of porter.
Although alcohol consumption impacted most colonial Americans (historian W. J. Rorabaugh estimates an annual consumption of 3.7 gallons), religious groups like the Puritans in New England the Pennsylvania Quakers discouraged its use. One early critic, Benjamin Rush, suggested that heavy alcohol consumption contributed to numerous illnesses, including liver problems. Beer, however, was tolerated as a less potent beverage. William Penn noted the Pennsylvania breweries when enticing Germans to migrate to his colony.
Even the Puritans sanctioned the tavern, an institution that, according to the New England Journal of History (Bruce Daniels, Fall, 1994) “gradually became a central social institution, where food, drink, conversation, and entertainment ameliorated the stress of daily living.”
Consuming Alcohol Instead of Water
By all accounts, water was considered unfit for drinking in many colonial communities. Alcoholic beverages were thought to be more reliable and safe. Additionally, alcohol was used for medicinal purposes. It was also consumed during holidays and special occasions. A favorite concoction in Colonial Williamsburg was Brandied Peaches. Washington, although he traded in whiskey, preferred Port or Madeira fortified with brandy. Whiskey, however, was still the drink of the poor. Medicinally, rum was always a key ingredient in such “cures” as a Hot Rum Toddy.
Jefferson’s tastes were such that, “This tall, red-haired man gave as much thought to choosing a cook or maitre d’hotel as he did to appointing a high-ranking government official.” The same could be said of the third president’s wide range of taste in expensive wines. From the Founding Fathers to the lowest tiers of the social scale, alcohol was an integral part of dining and entertaining.
Historian David Freeman Hawke discloses that for “many a settler, especially those suffering from malaria, a dipperful of hard cider, peach brandy, or something equally invigorating on rising let the new day start on a pleasant note.” Historian Ed Crews states that, “Many started the day with a pick-me-up and ended it with a put-me-down.” There is little doubt that consuming alcohol – in one version or another, was part of everyday living in the eighteenth-century.
From Whiskey Rebellion to Whiskey Production
Despite Jefferson’s efforts, wine never caught on as an American product. While in Europe, he visited France, Italy, and England to purchase wines. His only American purchase, according to Dave DeWitt, was Scuppernong from North Carolina. Washington, though producing whiskey – the poor men’s spirits, drank wines and brandies.
During Washington’s presidency, farmers in Kentucky, lower Ohio, and western Virginia refused to pay an excise tax on whiskey, a measure devised by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. This was the “Whiskey Rebellion,” forcing Washington to raise militia troops in response. Mary Theobald refers to the farmers as “whiskey boys” and claims that the protestors were drinking the corn whiskey themselves rather than selling it.
Washington’s venture into whiskey production was tied to the abilities of Scotsman James Anderson. By the time Washington died, his whiskey enterprise had grown to be highly profitable, representing one of the largest operations in the growing nation. Archaeologists rebuilt the original distillery at Mount Vernon, opening it to the public in March 2007. According to one Colonial Williamsburg guide, “Washington’s whiskey would’ve been somewhere between 60 to 70 percent alcohol…” although he also produced a much stronger variation.
The Universality of Alcohol Consumption in Colonial America
There is a reason a brewery in Boston is still named for Samuel Adams. Drinking was part of the everyday experience – Ed Crews writes, for example, that even “craftsmen drank at work.” In many cases, what people drank reflected their social class. Thomas Jefferson, who toured northern Italy to purchase wines while in Europe, spent over a third of his presidential salary keeping the wine cellar in Washington City filled with the most expensive wines. His political opponent and erstwhile friend John Adams drank hard cider.
David Hawke states that, “…beer became the favored drink among the plain people.” The Continental army around Boston, for example, received a quart of malt beer daily. Average farmers grew orchards to produce fruit brandies – usually peach, while rum and hard cider, especially in New England, was cheap. Mixed drinks were enjoyed by everyone, the most frequently used example by historians being the “flip.” Recipes vary, but according to the glossary of Colonial American English, it was a hot drink of “spiced wine whipped up with egg.”
By the end of the American Revolution drinking habits changed. Washington’s Mount Vernon whiskey operations represented this transition from rum to what would later be called Kentucky bourbon in the nineteenth century. Despite his investment in money and labor, Washington’s operations ceased shortly after he died and the estate passed to a family member who may have lacked Washington’s vision.
Drinking has always been part of the American experience; whiskey added a unique sense of “Americana,” being made in the United States and affordable for most Americans. Taverns may have assisted in this process, forming a nucleus for contemporary gossip, debate, and entertainment – albeit male dominated. In this sense, alcohol bridged the private and the public sphere of everyday life.
- Stephen Beaumont and Janet Forman, “Liberty Inn,” American Heritage (June 2003, Vol. 54 Issue 3)
- Ed Crews, “Drinking in Colonial America: Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, And Flip,” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Holiday 2007
- Bruce Daniels, “Another Type of Meetinghouse: Puritan Ordinaries and Provincial Taverns in Colonial New England,” New England Journal of History, Fall 1994
- Dave DeWitt, Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2010)
- Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days (Stockbridge, MA: The Berkshire Traveller Press, 1974)
- David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life In Early America (Harper & Row, 1988)
- Richard M. Lederer, Jr., Colonial American English (Verbatim, 1985)
- Mary Miley Theobald, “When Whiskey Was The King of Drink,” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Summer 2008
- Peter Thompson, Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)