The Birth of America
Alcohol and the founding of the U.S.
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.
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