Colonial Imbibers

A New Nation Under the Table

Consumption of alcoholic beverages was very popular during Colonial times. painting  done by John Greenwood in 1755
Consumption of alcoholic beverages was very popular during Colonial times. painting done by John Greenwood in 1755

Bad Habits of the Colonials

By the time the Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, the fledgling colonies had become a land of heavy drinkers. Taverns abounded in all parts of the 13 colonies, while it is estimated that the average citizen consumed the equivalent of five to six gallons of alcohol per year. That compares with an average consumption rate today of roughly half of that.

Another popular habit of the day was to begin the new day with an alcoholic beverage. Spurred on by the popular notion that drinking was good for the health, many Colonists began the day with a stiff drink. John Adams was quite fond of hard cider and often began the day with consumption of the locally-produced product.


The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving | Source

Not So Naïve Indians

The pilgrims at Plymouth persevered the first winter with out any help from the local Indians. During that tumultuous winter half the colony died. In the spring, the first Native visited the settlement wearing nothing but a loincloth, even though the weather was still quite cold. His name was Samoset and using very basic English, he introduced himself and asked for some beer.

Since Samoset hailed from Monhegan Island, the story is quite plausible. Located just off the coast of Maine, this rather large piece of land had been a stopping point for early adventurers, who were in need of fresh water and food supplies. Trading beer for these items, is not out of the question and even quite likely, especially since most sailing ships of that era carried barrels of beer instead of water. Beer was preferred because it stored better than water.

West Indies Harbor

Title page from The West Indian Atlas. A scene in the West Indies showing Natives on the beach with a British sailor and three large casks, and two ships in the harbor.
Title page from The West Indian Atlas. A scene in the West Indies showing Natives on the beach with a British sailor and three large casks, and two ships in the harbor. | Source

The Rum Trade

New England played a vital role in a trade route that in modern times is known as the triangular trade. Coastal cities, especially those in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, produced a very desirable liquor from the sugar and molasses that was imported from the West Indies. In turn, barrels of rum were shipped to the coast of West Africa, where the valuable commodity was traded for gold and slaves. Then the slaves were taken back to the West Indies, where they were forced into laboring on sugar plantations. Please note that not all the rum produced in the American colonies, was exported. Much of it was consumes all along the Atlantic seaboard.

Alcoholic Beverages That Live Up To Their Name

Many people living in the American colonies believed that strong drink could cure the sick, strengthen the weak, enliven the aged, and generally make the world a better place. As a result alcohol consumption may have been greater than at any other period of our history. Rum was king, but locally-produced hard cider and beer was also prevalent among the Colonialist. These basic items were mixed to produce such colorful elixirs, as Crambambull, Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip.

Not surprisingly, just as colorful vernacular was used to describe someone, who had imbibed too much of the spirits. A patriot staggering home from a nearby tavern might be described as buzzey, cherubimical, disguised or halfway to Concord. Then there is a wibble, a bad drink, or sluice your gob, juicy lingo once used to describe the simple act of taking a drink.

Syllabub, A Colonial Drink

Syllabubs were served cold in specially made glasses.
Syllabubs were served cold in specially made glasses.

Colonial Recipes

At first glance many of the Colonial recipes for cocktails feature a strange conglomeration of ingredients. For instance, combining rum and beer mixed with dried pumpkin (Flip) might sound strange by modern standards, but keep in mind that the Colonialists were just using what was available and abundant, when creating a popular drink. On the other hand, liquid refreshment that combined rum, hot cider and spices, might be something that is still consumed today, as is the case with a Hot Toddy.

Following are a brief description for several of the more popular drinks of the era.

Flip - Flip first appeared in American taverns around 1690. This popular mix varied in name and ingredients, but basically consisted of a rum, beaten egg and molasses (or dried pumpkin) mix to which warm beer and nutmeg was added.

Stonefence - A Stonefence was a simple mixture of rum and hard cider with perhaps a bit of spice added to the surface of the mixed drink.

Rattleskull - Rattleskull, as its name implies, was a very strong drink made from rum, beer and brandy. Take an even mixture of brandy and rum and then add this to an equivalent amount of stout beer and now you have your basis for Rattleskull. Mix in a little lime juice and top it off with a garnish of spice and this powerful drink is complete.

Syllabub - Syllabub was a popular colonial drink made from cream, wine and spices. It was served cold and special sets of ornate bowls and glasses were used to serve the mixture.

Whiskey Replaces Rum

Before the American Revolution rum was the hard liquor of major importance. However, once the war started, British blockcaders prevented the shipment of raw materials (molasses and sugar) that were needed to make rum. As a result whiskey got a big boost. Grain to make this liquor could be grown locally and a homemade still could be easily put together to make a passable homemade whiskey.

Once the war ended, the production and consumption of whiskey grew rapidly. So much that when George Washington left the presidency, he returned to his home in Mt. Vernon, Virginia and promptly went into distilling business. Soon, the distillery was the largest such operation in Virginia. At its peak, the operation was producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year.

George Washington at Mount Vernon

George Washington receiving French generals at Mount Vernon. U.S. Archives image
George Washington receiving French generals at Mount Vernon. U.S. Archives image

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