Whiskey in Early America.

Author:Bellino, Grace

As a result of the economic and political rules accompanying British colonization, Europe heavily influenced the alcoholic drink of choice in early America. Rum was the most readily available alcoholic beverage, and the British imported other alcoholic drinks such as Madeira, wine, and port that were heavily consumed by American colonists. Following the Revolution (1775-1781), these drinks were much more difficult to attain. Americans turned to whiskey as their spirit of choice simply because it was readily available. Whiskey would shape the identity of the early republic after the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794) and set the precedent for frontier insurrection and the authority of the federal government. Whiskey became a crucial contributor to the budding economy of early America and the establishment of distilleries and the ease of distribution of the drink opened up the development of the West. Whiskey became so prolific in the first few decades of the United States that even today, it remains a significant piece of the American identity.

The Origin of Whiskey

Due to the specificity of whiskey's production methods, there is much disagreement about when the first whiskey emerged. Controlled fermentation processes date back to ancient times (nearly 10,000 BCE) and spread between various ancient civilizations over thousands of years, creating many variations of alcoholic beverages similar to beer, though it was not until the end of the Iron Age that and well-documented distillation equipment resembling modern equipment emerged in Egypt. (1) Though mention of fermented liquid distillation for consumption appears throughout history, the strongest evidence for spirit distillation begins in the twelfth century when German monk Albertus Magnus produced a recipe for distilling an alcoholic liquid for use in alchemy. (2) From there, alcoholic distillation continued in the name of alchemy, the results typically used in chemical experiments or for medicinal purposes thanks to its supposedly curative properties. This "aquavitae" was produced on a much larger scale in Scotland, where irrefutable evidence of whiskey making was documented in 1494 and within ten years, "whiskey was viewed with such reverence among the learned men of Scotland that the nation's King James IV began granting government charters to control who was allowed to make whiskey," effectively creating the first official distillery of whiskey and setting a precedent for whiskey production regulations. (3)

Whiskey remained a relatively local phenomenon; monks and alchemists distilled whiskey as did farmers and rural communities, but the whiskey industry did not fully develop for several more centuries. Beyond the scope of discovery, not much is recorded about early whiskey production, perhaps because it became a mundane chore of little note to the farmers or alchemists who used production as a means to and end and not a hallowed blend of art and science as modern producers tend to view their craft. Thus it is also unclear when whiskey made its way to Colonial America, though it is assumed that some immigrants brought distilling equipment with them and those who resided in rural areas continued to produce whiskey sporadically, though it was nowhere near the alcoholic drink of choice in America until after the American Revolution.

Drinking in Colonial America

The popular drinking culture of Colonial America mirrored the fashions in British society as the colonies were under Imperial British rule in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the time before the Revolution, the alcoholic drinks most commonly consumed by colonial citizens were beer and rum; beer for its social standard and ready availability and rum also for its availability considering its status as a major export from the British Caribbean colonies and later, because legal measures restricted the production and consumption of other, unregulated and untaxed spirits (including whiskey). (4)

Beer was the common drink of choice in Britain--not because drinking water was viewed to be unsafe as perpetuated by the common misconception--but because it distinguished the drinker socially as someone who could afford to buy beer. However, due to lack of a steady supply of alcohol from England, drinking water was a necessity for the early colonists; one Virginian settler reportedly said of water "it is thought there can be no better water in the world, yet dare I not prefer it before good beer but any man will choose it before bad beer... Those that drink it be as healthful, fresh, and lusty as they that drink beer." (5) Clean, fresh water was available to the early colonists, and as time progressed steady shipments of beer and other spirits were brought to the colonies, so that by the eighteenth century "Americans were able to do as they would have done in England and refuse to drink water on the grounds that it was fit only for those who could not afford to drink anything better." (6) The importance of class distinction in Britain was mirrored in the colonies in their formation of social and drinking customs and beer quickly became the choice beverage for colonists who were able to afford it. Beer was not their only alcoholic option; rum was also readily available and in high demand in the colonies throughout the eighteenth century until the Revolution.

Rum, "a byproduct of sugar production on the island of Barbados," was largely distilled in New England, where much of the molasses was exported by the British and then prepared for both domestic consumption and export. This process played a substantial part of the Colonial American economy. (7) Rum became popular in the American colonies out of convenience; workingmen believed that the rum would make them strong as beer supposedly did, but beer spoiled easily and it was much more difficult than rum to transport. (8) Rum was easily incorporated into the drinking culture of the colonies and may have maintained its status in American culture and identity if it was not for the tariffs and taxes imposed on the raw sugar cane sent to the distilleries in New England. These taxes would become a cornerstone of the tension between British lawmakers and American colonists leading up to the American Revolution. (9)

The Molasses Tax of 1733 was the first of many excise taxes that would eventually instigate colonist revolt against British rule, ultimately leading to the declaration of independence. This tax "imposed tax on every gallon of foreign molasses imported to America from Africa or the Caribbean," and was raised several times leading up to the Revolution, leading to a decline in colonists' demand for rum that was becoming increasingly expensive to consume domestically." (10) The strained political relationship between the British lawmakers and the colonists who felt they had no representation in the government imposing such stiff regulations began to build as more and more taxes were imposed on the most basic and necessary of goods. Those opposed to the increasingly harsh treatment of the colonies organized massive boycotts, organized smuggling rings, and produced goods illegally in attempts to harm the economic connection between Britain and her American colonies and to make a statement of subversion and independence. Though the most famous boycott was the refusal to drink imported British tea, those sympathetic to the Patriot cause also refused to drink rum as a British import and turned to local beverages, leaving a hole in the market for distilled liquors in the colonies that only whiskey could fill. The British Royal Navy blockade of "American ports barring both rum and molasses imports from the West Indies" (11) was the final factor shifting the demand of hard liquor from imported rum to domestically distilled whiskies; liquors which had emerged decades ago but were only produced and consumed at an isolated, local level, in rural America.

Effects of the Revolution on Drinking in America

Decades earlier, those living on the frontiers had already turned to grain-based alcohols. While rum was easier to transport than beer, it was still shipped at a high cost to the buyer, and thus frontiersmen (especially those of Scotch and Irish decent) turned to distilling hard liquor from local grains in the manner of their ancestors. (12) Living primarily in Pennsylvania and Kentucky on the outskirts of the colonies, they lived self-sustainable lives off the land and distilled whiskey for personal consumption, as opposed to as a product to market and sell. Whiskey flourished in these regions for three reasons: the two regions supported the growth of whiskey grains agriculturally, the distance from the rum distilleries on the East Coast encouraged the development of a more convenient and cheaper hard liquor, and the rural settlers in these areas were often ethnically Scotch and Irish and came to America with the knowledge of distilling whiskey. (13)

Whiskey began to spread from local consumption to a wider group of drinkers during the Revolutionary War. Soldiers began to consume whiskey, especially those closer to the frontier than to the coastal rum region. The Continental Army was given a specific alcohol ration of one gill (about four ounces) before battle, but over-drinking ran rampant in the camps. (14) Men and women alike began distilling more whiskey and setting up shops near camps aimed for soldiers. "At Valley Forge, from 1777 to February 1778, soldiers consumed nearly 16,000 gallons of military issued whiskey and rum" and continued to seek even more whiskey from the nearby sutlers after drinking through their rations. (15) The demand for whiskey prompted more distilleries to open to keep up with the new demand; so much so that the governing body of Virginia expressed "concern over the present alarming scarcity and great quantity of grain consumed in the distilleries," prompting a prohibition of the use of wheat, rye, oats, barley, and...

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