One fun way to chart American history is through alcohol. When Europeans first settled here, drinking water could make you sick (and die!). They considered booze a safer bet and upon arrival, made it with whatever was on hand: apples for cider, corn and oats for beer, fruit for brandy.
Caribbean trade brought sugar cane and molasses into the picture and with them, rum, the drink of choice for much of the the 18th century. After the Revolutionary War, surplus grains spurred whiskey production — even George Washington had a distillery. If you had Scottish or Irish ancestors in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky in the 18th and 19th centuries, there’s a good chance they made whiskey. (You might even find evidence of the family still on Ancestry.)
Here’s a look at how your own founding fathers would have gotten tipsy.
1. Ale Flip
The components of this Colonial-era drink would have varied from tavern to tavern, including some mixture of beer, rum or sugar, spices, and eggs. Like many early libations, this one is warm, a necessity for getting through a chilly New England winter. Sanborn Conner Brown includes this and many other cocktail recipes in Wines & Beers of Old New England:
Beat 4 eggs and 1/2 cup of sugar in a bowl until light. In a saucepan, boil one quart of brown ale. Skim the foam off the ale and add the foam to the beaten eggs and sugar. Add to this mixture: 1/2 cup of rum, 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon of powdered ginger. Add the hot ale and mix by pouring back and forth from the bowl to the saucepan. Serve in a pitcher.
2. Mississipi Punch
Punch has been around since the 17th century, when British sailors mixed the rum, citrus, and spices they found in exotic ports. The drink made its way to English parties and American taverns, becoming the most popular cocktail of the 18th century. The Founding Fathers were big fans; Ben Franklin published a recipe for a version in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1737. Ingredients comprised pretty much any alcohol and fruit. Jerry Thomas’ 1862 cocktail guide, How to Mix Drinks, has dozens of punch recipes, including this one:
Shake together 2 oz brandy, 1 oz Jamaica rum, 1 oz bourbon, 1 oz water, 1 tablespoon powdered sugar, and the juice of half a lemon. Pour over a tumbler glass filled with shaved ice and garnish with berries and a slice of orange.
3. Mint Julep
Bourbon is an essentially American liquor, named for Bourbon County, Kentucky, and made with corn. The industry developed in the late 18th century, especially after the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania drove distillers to Kentucky.
The mint julep has long been the signature bourbon cocktail and dates to at least 1803, when it was described as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken of Virginians of a morning.” Early on it was likely made with peach brandy or rum, but bourbon quickly became the standard for the refreshing concoction. The University of Kentucky shares Henry Clay’s version, straight from his diary, on its website:
The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice.
In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with the choicest sprigs of mint.
4. Sherry Cobbler
In the second half of the 19th century, when the United States was awash with cocktails, the sherry cobbler stood out. Not too strong, it could be enjoyed by ladies and in hot weather, kept cold with ice. It was a respectable drink of moderation that appears in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James. Harry Johnson’s 1888 Bartenders’ Manual says that “This drink is without doubt the most popular beverage in the country, with ladies as well as with gentlemen. It is a very refreshing drink for old and young.” Your ancestors would likely have sipped some variation of his recipe:
Use a large bar glass to mix 1/2 tablespoon of sugar with 1 oz of water, and dissolve with a spoon. Fill the glass up with fine crystal ice, then fill the glass up with sherry wine. Stir well with a spoon and ornament with grapes, oranges, pineapples, berries, etc. Serve with a straw.
According to legend, the martini’s origins lie in Martinez, California, during the gold rush. The local Martinez cocktail was a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and bitters; the name was later shortened to “martini,” possibly through the marketing of Martini & Rossi vermouth. Whatever the origin, by Prohibition, the martini, strong and smooth, had cemented its place as a classic American drink. Your grandparents would likely have had bitters in their martini, though the ingredient was phased out in the 1950s. Here’s a 1952 version from the New York Times:
Mix one part gin, one part Italian vermouth, and two dashes orange bitters. Add pickled onion, twist lemon peel over, and serve.
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