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Colonial Imbibers

Updated on April 10, 2017

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. This compares unfavorably with an average consumption rate today of roughly half of that.

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


The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving | Source

Not So Naïve Indians

The pilgrims at Plymouth persevered the first winter without any help from the local Indians. During the tumultuous winter of 1620, 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 by the sailors because it stored better than water and was less prone to carry infectious diseases.

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

As the Colonies prospered, New England played a vital role in trans-Atlantic commerce that today is known as the triangular trade route. Coastal cities, especially those in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, produced a very desirable rum liquor that was refined from the sugar and molasses of the West Indies. In turn, barrels of this rum were shipped to the coast of West Africa, where the valuable commodity was traded for gold and slaves. To complete the cycle, slaves were taken back to the West Indies, where they were forced into laboring on sugar plantations.

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 American colonists. 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 was to wibble, or to sluice your gob, two examples of 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 along 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. 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 rum, beaten eggs and molasses (or dried pumpkin) 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 basic ingredients for Rattleskull. Mix in a little lime juice and top it off with a garnish of spice and now 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 harbor the popular concoction.

Colonial Drinking

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 create 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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