How They Loved Their Spirits

I'll Drink To That! Source: Vintage Vectors
I'll Drink To That! Source: Vintage Vectors
I’ll Drink To That! Source: Vintage Vectors

Colonial Americans loved their rum – and their port, and their Madeira, and their beer. Many of them were confident that alcohol could cure the sick and make life ever more cheerful, being used as both a beverage and, in moderation, a medicine. Even the father of our country, George Washington, owned a distillery at Mount Vernon and was producing whiskey. In 1797 he wrote to his farm manager, James Anderson, “I consent to you commencing a distillery and approve of you purchasing the mill and I shall not object to your converting part of the coopers shop at the mill for this operation.”[1]

Alcohol led to camaraderie that was born in English taverns and early colonists brought along their custom of imbibing to the thirteen colonies, as water was not a drink to be trusted, was polluted and usually taken from sources used to dispose of sewage and garbage.

The Virginia Company colonists who sailed into the Chesapeake in 1606 took along more wine than water and looked for ways to experiment with wine growing. Englishmen drank per capita forty gallons of alcohol a year.[2]   The libation business was, in those days, lucrative and no small part of the trade with the wine crossing from the Continent bound for England’s tables and taverns.

The importance of alcohol was a part of the everyday lives of Colonists in the 18th century, whether it was at home, at work or in a tavern. Craftsmen drank on the job and laborers drank in the fields. But, ultimately, the central place to imbibe was the local tavern. Taverns were not restaurants but places where townspeople would gather and get the latest news from travelers, conduct business or involve oneself in the up-to-the minute political news and debates. Philadelphia averaged a tavern for every 25 drinkers in the city at any given time. [3] Socially, tavern owners experienced a greater status than did the clergy during the Colonial era. Taverns were the core of the community. Because of this they were often required to be located near a church or meeting house. Religious services and court sessions often convened in taverns.  Judges adjourned court to drink and clergy were obliged to drink at each and every house they called on .  Many political conversations were carried out in taverns and the Founding Fathers entirely enjoyed knocking back a swig or two.

In 1787, two days before they put their signatures on the Constitution, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention celebrated at a tavern. According to the bill preserved from the evening, they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of Porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcohol punch.[4] It is said that John Adams had a large tankard of hard cider first thing every morning.  Citizens were very accepting of drinking, as it was thought good for your health, but getting drunk was totally unacceptable and offensive.

As U.S. Minister to France in 1785, Thomas Jefferson’s wine education came into play spending an enormous amount of his time, and money, inspecting vineyards and making sure he brought back enough of the best French wines to stock his wine cellar at Monticello. His interests went beyond the Colonial Madeira and Port and Jefferson managed to take two significant wine country tours during his diplomatic stint in France, though admirably he traveled independently as an American tourist (not diplomat) and paid his own way. The first wine trip covered the iconic regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Languedoc and Provence and wrapped up with northern Italy’s Piedmont. His second wine country excursion went decidedly west of Paris focusing on Germany’s Rhine and Mosel regions and Champagne.[5]   Americans were now becoming acquainted with fine wines. Jefferson believed that wine inspired conversation and records from Monticello confirm that he and his guests consumed 1,203 bottles of wine in just over two years’ time. Jefferson, however, thought of himself as a man who drank in moderation.

During Jefferson’s Presidency, he spent a total of $10,000, a great deal to spend for wine.   To safeguard his supply, he ordered a sixteen-foot-deep wine cellar be constructed and connected to the White House. A wooden structure sheltered the wine against the weather, and bottles were shelved on a raised area above a bed of ice, refilled monthly and packed in sawdust.

Although rum was readily available in every tavern in the colonies, whiskey hardly ever appeared before the Revolution. But the Revolution meant the decline of rum and dominance of whiskey in America. It was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain, unlike rum, wine, gin, Madeira, brandy, coffee, chocolate or tea, which had to be imported and were taxed. [6]

Hold on, here comes the Whiskey Rebellion!

In 1789 the new Federal government decided to shoulder the Revolutionary War debts of the thirteen states. Early in 1791, and acting on the advice of Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, Congress agreed to a tax on distilled spirits. Unlike tariffs of imported products, this was a tax directly on Americans who produced whiskey and other alcohols and they weren’t very happy about it. Even though Congress modified the excise law, resistance continued to grow over the next two years and resulted in incidents of tax rebels tarring and feathering Federal tax officials and burning their homes.

No account of the American experience with alcohol can be told without Benjamin Rush. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who was a physician, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Continental Congress, was the first person to develop a general feeling that excessive drinking was an uncontrollable disease. He was deeply dedicated to educating people about the hazards of alcoholic beverages. In Rush’s pamphlet, Enquiry Into The Effects of Spirituous Liquors Upon the Human Body, he states that his purpose was “to show, first, that spirituous liquors are unnecessary and secondly, that they are mischievous…” [7]

Even though Rush’s clinical observations on the effects of excessive drinking were sensible and of good judgment, he was still just beginning to open up communication on the hazards of liquor. The cures he promoted, although of the times, were still shocking, i.e., sticking a feather down the throat to induce vomiting, submerging the entire body into cold water, whipping the patient and inducing profuse sweating and bleeding were solutions he offered for acute drunkenness.

Drinking alcohol has and always will be part of the American experience.


[1]George, Philip Brandt, George Washington Patriot and Purveyor of Fine Spirits, American History Magazine February 2004

[2] Were the Founding Fathers Alcoholics, Stanton Peele, Huffington Post, June 15, 2010

[3] IBID

[4] Romancing the Vine in Virginia, Charles M. Holloway,

[5] Thomas Jefferson’s Wine Legacy, Stacy Slinkard,

[6] When Whiskey Was the King of Drink, Mary Miley Theobald, Colonial Williamsburg

[7] Benjamin Rush’s Educational Campaign Against Hard Drinking, Brian S. Kather, American Journal of Public Health, 1993

More from Pamela Murrow

The Pine Tree Riot

Who can call to mind the Pine Tree Riot?  Until recently, this...
Read More


  • Fascinating post! I know most during that period (and earlier) drank beverages with alcohol to avoid the dangers of drinking water. Were there any suitable substitutes used?

    Also, what is the difference between a tavern and a coffee house? Simply the beverages served? Do they serve similar social functions?

    The use of alcohol within 18th century armies is also a fascinating subject I run across every once in a while. It was an important element of just about every army.

  • Thank you for the compliment. As far as I know, the only alternative to alcohol was water, which was not very popular. There is a story that when General Henry Knox moved his family to Maine, he gave a very large open house for the entire town, somewhere around 500 people. Maine has always been known for great water and still is. Being from the city, the General served alcohol and the Mainers were used to good water. The story goes that pretty much all of the guests were “hammered” and when leaving, picked up the wrong babies, returning in a very short time for the correct child! As far as coffee house vs. tavern, what I have found out is that a coffee house was especially known as a place to conduct business without the distraction of alcohol. That said, an owner still had to serve some alcohol to stay in business. But there were special rooms that were solely designated “coffee only”. Socially, I would say the coffee house catered more to the decision makers and were also known to double as a courthouse. You are so right in stating how important alcohol was to the army, especially during the Revolution. Have you read Joseph Plumb Martin’s book of his account as a soldier during the Revolution? Fascinating and he refers numerous times to how important alcohol was to the troops.

  • Interesting article. I remember reading about colonial soldiers sprinkling gun power on rum to fortify them prior to battle. That seemed a odd combination to me and I always wonder why?

  • Hi Glenn –
    I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Great question. What I have run across is that rum was occasionally mixed with gunpowder, either to test the proof of an alcohol ration, if the alcohol was diluted, the gunpowder would not ignite after being soaked with alcohol. It was also consumed to either seal a pledge or prove your allegiance to a rebellion.
    Personally, my word would have been good enough – ugh!

  • A wonderful essay. It reminds me of some of the famous taverns of the Revolutionary era, puts their role into a rich context, and helps to explain why they were so important. The Buckman Tavern in Lexington is a good example. As history buffs know, the militiamen of Lexington assembled at the Buckman Tavern in the early hours of April 19, 1775, prior to their encounter with the British on Lexington Green. I believe Paul Revere dropped by too, in the very early morning hours, after he was released by the British scouts. And the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg is especially important, as the meeting place of the dissenting burgesses. Having read the article, I have a much greater appreciation of these famous historic sites, and of the positive view taken by the Founders with respect to alcohol beverages— In moderation of course, as Dr. Rush would emphasize! This is a fascinating article. Many thanks for doing the research and posting it.
    Richard Borkow

    • Richard – You list outstanding examples of Colonial taverns and how central they were to the communities. They were a gathering place of not only the political but the everyday people and were essential to all. I am very glad you enjoyed the article.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *