Hard to imagine, but by the late 1700s, the average American over age 15 drank almost six gallons of absolute alcohol each year. That’s the equivalent of 34 gallons of beer and cider and almost a gallon of wine. Today, the average is less than 2.9 gallons per capita. 1 Below is an article I just had to research my way into.
It’s safe to say, America wasn’t “founded” as much as it floated on a sea of booze. The Mayflower dropped anchor at Plymouth in 1621 with its crew and passengers deathly ill from exposure, scurvy, pneumonia and other maladies. Worse, the Pilgrims’ own beer had run out and the crew’s supply was “perilously low.” The most popular drink was a dark, strong brew of barley malt flavored with hops – like today’s porter and stout and about 6 percent alcohol. In that age, alcohol was safer than polluted water, so finding safe water in Massachusetts was a surprise. Back on board, the sailors knew they might not have enough beer for their return trip if they shared it with the religious dissenters.
Governor William Bradford wrote that the settlers “were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have the more beer.” Bradford’s pleas from the shore for just a “can” of beer brought refusal. If he “were their own father,” one sailor said, “he should have none.”
Still, when the Arbella brought Puritans to Boston in 1630, the ship sailed with three times as much beer as water – in addition to 10,000 gallons of wine. 2
In 1639, Harvard’s President Nathaniel Eaton lost his job when he failed to provide enough beer to students. 3
Drunk, but Not Disorderly Drinking to excess didn’t bother the colonials as much as it represented a threat to community standards. In 1624, a Virginia General Court found against three defendants for “having kept company in drinking, and committing a riot.” The rioting and disorder bothered the court more than being inebriated. The trio paid heavy fines for disturbing the peace.
Colonial magistrates in the north and the south rarely let concerns over excessive drinking affect their disinterest in alcoholic consumption. At least, no one went on record that legal prohibition was needed for harmony in the communities. The fault wasn’t in liquor, but of deviants misusing this wholesome, healthful, and necessary product.
Both the Anglican and Puritan churches used wine for communion. Any idea that Christ had broken bread with grape juice was simply 19th century theological tinkering.
Distilled Spirits as American as… The colonials proved ingenious at making the brews and spirits they had left behind in Europe. A verse written in the 1630s went: “If barley be wanting to make into malt, / We must be content and think it no fault, / For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips, / Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.” Their beer was probably no better than their poetry.
Distilled spirits were portable and took less space than beer. Sprits were even used as wages in Massachusetts until it was felt a worker drinking his “wages” probably wasn’t a very effective employee.
Gradually, however, the colonials were wooed away from beer to “strong waters.” Some of it was gin, which had roots in English culture. Grain spirits infused with juniper berries came from the Low Countries to England in the 1530s, was cheap, and became popular among the poor. The British government became shocked at a “gin epidemic” until it was staunched by edict in 1751, but gin never caught on in America – except in the Dutch colonies and elsewhere when the martini was invented in the 20th century.
Technically, it was easier for Americans to distill palatable liquor than to brew good beer. Rum was the most popular distilled drink. It was made using the rinds and juice of imported limes, lemons – even oranges – and then mixed with rum and sugar. Most taverns served a lime punch, warm, in a bowl. Toddies were rum mixed with sugar and water. Sangre – wine or beer sweetened with sugar and flavored with nutmeg – was also served by the bowl. Brandy, usually imported, was also made from peaches, apples or cherries. In New England, pears were distilled into “perry,” while Vermonters distilled honey into mead. 4
Where was wine? It wasn’t generally available outside of cities since it was imported from Germany and Spain. (New Jersey’s Renault winery didn’t open until 1864.) Madeira was the most expensive and popular wine, and was served with meals.
But, back to local improvisation. If you were rural and poor, you turned to making apple cider or bought it by the jug. Thanks to the English, apple seeds grew very well in the hospitable American climate. Hard cider was fermented to about 7 percent alcohol, and then distilled. The best came from New Jersey, where it was known as “Jersey Lightning.”
In 1780, Robert Laird established America’s first commercial distillery in the little town of Scobeyville, N.J. Laird was a Revolutionary War soldier who served under General Washington. In fact, the good general wrote to Laird in 1760 asking for the recipe for producing applejack “cyder spirits.” Laird was happy to oblige. Laird’s applejack cost four shillings, six pence per gallon, or about a half-day’s wages. 5
1 Increase Mather wrote in 1673 in Wo to Drunkards, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” http://www.hoboes.com/Politics/Prohibition/Notes/Drinking
3 Colonial Williamburg notes that John Adams started the day with a draft of hard cider, Thomas Jefferson imported fine wines from France and tried without success to grow grapevines, Samuel Adams managed his father's brewery, John Hancock was accused of smuggling wine, and Patrick Henry once worked as a bartender. http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/holiday07/drink.cfm
4 The DUI Library offers cautionary news about drunk driving, but includes a lengthy history. http://www.dui.com/dui-library/studies/research/history-of-drinking.
5 Laird & Company provides a nice history of applejack. It notes that Abe Lincoln served applejack in his Springfield, Ill. tavern. His published list of rates in 1833 shows Apple Brandy at 12 cents a half-pint, while a night’s lodging cost 12-1/2 cents, and a meal was 25 cents.