The Birth of Amer­ica

Al­co­hol and the found­ing of the U.S.

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dana Ben­ner

One could say that Amer­ica, as we know it, wouldn’t ex­ist if it weren’t for al­co­hol. In fact, the very foun­da­tion of our Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment and econ­omy re­volved around the con­sump­tion of al­co­holic bev­er­ages. Al­co­hol is wo­ven deeply into Amer­i­can cul­ture, and it all started in the east­ern colonies.

Al­co­hol Ar­rives

Some sources say that Christo­pher Colum­bus brought sherry on his voy­ages to the New World, pos­si­bly in ad­di­tion to wa­tered-down wine or beer for the ship’s crew. Ship man­i­fests tell us that the Pu­ri­tans (Pil­grims) car­ried more beer than wa­ter on the Mayflower in 1620. Nu­mer­ous sources also re­port that the Pu­ri­tans were dropped off at Ply­mouth be­cause the Mayflower’s cap­tain feared that the crew wouldn’t have enough beer to last the voy­age back to Eng­land. It’s im­pos­si­ble to prove, but it makes for a great story.

So why was al­co­hol con­sid­ered more im­por­tant than wa­ter? One must re­mem­ber where th­ese trav­el­ers were com­ing from. Wa­ter in Europe wasn’t safe to drink due to pol­lu­tion caused by poor san­i­ta­tion prac­tices. It was safer to drink al­co­hol. The early set­tlers in what is now the United States had no rea­son to be­lieve things would be dif­fer­ent in their new home. Th­ese im­mi­grants didn’t re­al­ize it was the dis­till­ing process in­her­ent to mak­ing al­co­hol that ren­ders it safe to drink.

A Widely Ac­cepted Drink

Ac­cord­ing to the folks at Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg, most colonists be­lieved that al­co­hol was es­sen­tial for medic­i­nal pur­poses. Every­one drank al­co­hol. Crafts­men drank at work and farm­ers drank in the fields. A bucket of beer was a ubiq­ui­tous part of the work­day. Even Har­vard Univer­sity had its own brew­ery. Due to its “health-re­lated” prop­er­ties, al­co­hol was be­lieved to make peo­ple more pro­duc­tive.

Early on, most al­co­hol had to be im­ported from Europe, which meant it was ex­pen­sive. In re­sponse, many peo­ple be­gan pro­duc­ing their own. Farm­ers and those liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas far from the ma­jor port cities, while of­ten be­ing cash poor, were com­mod­ity rich, pri­mar­ily in pro­duce. Back­coun­try peo­ple be­gan mak­ing spir­its from car­rots, toma­toes, squash and even dan­de­lions and gold­en­rods—ba­si­cally any­thing that would fer­ment. Early set­tlers who ven­tured into what is now Ver­mont dis­tilled wild honey into mead (honey wine). In fact, the need to make their own prod­uct was so im­por­tant that many homes in colo­nial New Eng­land, and else­where, added small brew rooms to their liv­ing ar­eas.

Brian Fer­gu­son, mas­ter dis­tiller at Flag Hill Dis­tillery in Lee, New Hampshire, says that rye was the main crop on many ru­ral New Hampshire farms. With plenty of ex­cess rye, rye whiskey was a very pop­u­lar dis­tilled spirit made by lo­cal farm­ers. Home­brew­ing beer also be­came pop­u­lar, as did mak­ing cider from ap­ples and pears that were orig­i­nally im­ported from Europe.


The most im­por­tant drink in New Eng­land was rum. In fact, it was the first com­mer­cially pro­duced spirit in the New Eng­land colonies. Rum is dis­tilled from byprod­ucts of the sugar in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly mo­lasses. While the very best rum came from the Caribbean, it was ex­pen­sive be­cause of taxes levied by Eng­land, so the early colonists de­cided to make their own.

The first rum dis­tillery in Amer­ica was started in Bos­ton in 1700. Turn­ing cheap mo­lasses into highly prof­itable rum was

ap­peal­ing, and soon other dis­til­leries started ap­pear­ing through­out New Eng­land. New Eng­land dis­til­leries were pro­duc­ing rum in such quan­ti­ties that it soon be­came a ma­jor trad­ing com­mod­ity, which an­gered English of­fi­cials be­cause they were un­able to col­lect taxes on this lo­cally pro­duced prod­uct. As the eve of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion drew nearer, the rum in­dus­try be­gan to wane. This was due to the Bri­tish con­trol­ling the trade, with mo­lasses not only be­ing highly taxed (Sugar Tax), but also in short sup­ply. Rum prices soared, driv­ing the colonists to a dis­tilled sub­sti­tute: whiskey.


Whiskey re­ally came into its own dur­ing and af­ter the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Mo­lasses was al­most un­ob­tain­able, and Amer­i­cans de­manded al­co­hol—es­pe­cially the mil­i­tary. Ev­ery sol­dier and sailor’s ra­tions in­cluded ei­ther whiskey or rum. Ac­cord­ing to Fer­gu­son, the ar­rival of the Scotch-ir­ish re­ally pop­u­lar­ized whiskey. Grain such as corn and rye were plen­ti­ful in places like Ten­nessee and Ken­tucky, and Scotch-ir­ish set­tled in th­ese ter­ri­to­ries. It was only nat­u­ral to dis­till sur­plus grain into whiskey as it was done in the old coun­try. Whiskey fu­eled not only the east­ern colonies, but later, the west­ward ex­pan­sion.

Though rye whiskey was dis­tilled in New Eng­land be­fore the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, war with Bri­tain en­cour­aged farm­ers in Mary­land and Penn­syl­va­nia to turn sur­plus grain into whiskey. Whiskey be­came so pop­u­lar that even George Wash­ing­ton be­gan dis­till­ing at Mount Ver­non.

Tav­erns as Po­lit­i­cal and So­cial Hubs

What about the po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions? Pol­i­tics in colo­nial Amer­ica started in early inns and tav­erns. Most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions were made over a mug of beer, rum or whiskey, and be­cause of this, tav­ern own­ers en­joyed a very high so­cial sta­tus, of­ten even higher than the clergy.

Be­cause of their im­por­tance, tav­erns were lo­cated along busy high­ways and near churches and meet­ing houses. In fact, town

“Al­co­hol is wo­ven deeply into the Amer­i­can cul­ture …”

meet­ings and even church ser­vices were held at tav­erns. West­ward ex­pan­sion called for tav­erns, which were of­ten the first busi­ness es­tab­lish­ments along the fron­tier. Tav­erns were so­cial hubs wher­ever they were lo­cated. It was in tav­erns and inns where peo­ple could re­lax with their fa­vorite bev­er­age, read the news­pa­per, hold meet­ings and even plan the fu­ture of a new coun­try.

Even be­fore the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, tav­erns were pop­u­lar places for po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions, and of­ten they were rallying points for lo­cal mili­tia. The ear­li­est protest to English rule was or­ga­nized in a tav­ern. It was in the drink­ing es­tab­lish­ment known as The Green Dragon where pa­tri­ots such as Sa­muel Adams, fu­eled by liq­uid courage, launched the Bos­ton Tea Party, and the Bos­ton Mas­sacre oc­curred in front of a Bos­ton tav­ern. All of the sign­ers of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence were in­volved with al­co­hol in one form or an­other. Sa­muel Adams was the son of a tav­ern owner. Pa­trick Henry was a bar­tender. Thomas Jef­fer­son is be­lieved to have writ­ten the first draft of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence in a tav­ern in Philadel­phia, and John Han­cock, the first signer of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, was an al­co­hol dealer.

Then and Now

For var­i­ous rea­sons, al­co­hol was a very im­por­tant fac­tor in build­ing Amer­ica. It was in­stru­men­tal in the start of a rev­o­lu­tion, and it helped fuel the birth of a new na­tion. Al­co­hol is a com­mod­ity that was, and still is, im­por­tant to the Amer­i­can econ­omy.

Buf­falo Trace Dis­tillery is one of the old­est con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing dis­til­leries in the coun­try, and though it has changed names a few times through­out the years, a dis­tillery has op­er­ated on­site since 1773.

(be­low) Bar­rels need to be emp­tied and cleaned be­fore re­fill­ing. PHOTO BY DANA BENNER

(above) Many colo­nial homes had the abil­ity to make their own spir­its. Here, beer is be­ing made the tra­di­tional way. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF COLO­NIAL WILLIAMSBURG (be­low) Cop­per de­tail of brew­ing equip­ment PHOTO COUR­TESY OF THINK­STOCK

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