This month, we asked our contributors:
With many different holidays and celebrations approaching, what is your favorite beverage known to have been consumed during the era of the American Revolution (for holidays or otherwise)?
Corn-based whiskey distilled in Western Pennsylvania, the booze at the center of the understudied Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. As tax revolts go, this one was fairly bloodless and pretty successful. First, it exposed the inequity of the enabling legislation, which unduly favored the Eastern distillers, who used imported rum, over the Western ones, who used locally-grown corn. Second, it exposed the more authoritarian of Alexander Hamilton’s urges, when as leader of the federalized army he advocated rounding up hundreds of ringleaders and having them tried and executed Lighthorse Harry Lee prevented the wholesale round-up, and Washington pardoned the only two men convicted of the revolt. Third, it showcased the impossibility of enforcing the law and the populace’s hatred of the law, which gave to Thomas Jefferson a good excuse for eliminating the tax entirely when he assumed the presidency.
Frederic C. Detwiller
Our favorite holiday beverage is Fish House Punch served at the Shirley-Eustis House, Boston, on holidays in memory of owner Capt. James Magee who entertained survivors of the wreck of his Brig General Arnold on Christmas, 1778 off Plymouth. Perfect Fish House Punch—best balance of authority, deliciousness: 1 1/2 cups sugar; 2 qts. Water; 1 qt. lemon juice; 2 qts. dark rum; 1 qt. cognac; 4 oz. peach brandy. In large bowl, dissolve sugar in 1/2 water, incorporate lemon juice. Add spirits, remaining water. Add block of ice. Let stand in cool place an hour before serving.
Joseph E. Wroblewski
For me it is eggnog—from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, supposedly George Washington’s recipe: “One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry. Mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.” I think George’s recipe is for a large punch bowl—I personally don’t use any sherry or brandy—but do combine rum and whiskey (bourbon instead of rye). Sounds like a good time was had at the Washingtons’ Christmas Parties!
Bettina A. Norton
Rum. Not to drink—I prefer wine—but to make Babas au Rhum or a Torta, probably unknown to the American colonists but necessities to Italians. Actually, the colonists may have used it in Figgy Pudding or Fruit Cake.
Stephen John Katzberg
My maternal ancestors came to this country and South Carolina in particular, in the middle 1700s from Northern Ireland. I am not aware of any family tradition with regard to what drink was drunk in County Antrim, but I feel certain it was distilled. However, with no real family guidance in the matter, I have through stories of the imbibing in the relevant period, developed a taste for Rainwater Madeira. This drink is best consumed in the cooler months so for the holidays it is Madeira.
John L. Smith Jr.
Even for Congregationalist John Adams, getting a “hard cider” breakfast buzz on was part of his daily regimen for his whole life in every season. He loved cider. Even as a young man, “I lived on Pudding Bread . . . and now and then a little Cider.” Except for his years in France and Holland where apple trees were sparse and he reluctantly had to resort to wine (ugh), he described his morning routine: “At present I rise at four oclock . . . Cider and Water, and Lemonade are my only beverage.” “Drink good bottled cider plentifully, and particularly in the morning. The agreeable acid with the fissed air which it contains, are considered by our physicians as antiseptic and good preventitives of bilious and putrid disorders.” Not very appetizing, but . . . cheers, John!
Mary V. Thompson
My favorite eighteenth-century beverage is called Cherry Bounce. Popular at the time in Virginia, it was, according to Abigail Adams, traditionally served in New York with “New Years Cooky” as “the old Dutch custom of treating their friends upon the return of every New Year.” George Washington packed Cherry Bounce, along with port and madeira wines, for a trip over the Allegheny Mountains in the fall of 1784. Among Martha Washington’s papers is an undated manuscript in an unknown hand, written on George Washington’s watermarked paper, entitled “To Make Excellent Cherry Bounce.” The original and adapted recipes for this drink can be found on pages 204-207 of Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon (2011).
Coffee! Coffee! Coffee! Taverns where the alcohol flowed freely may have served as centers of social activity (and alternative meeting sites when British governors locked upstart legislators out of their chambers). The tax on tea may have been the symbolic straw that broke the camel’s back in Boston. Rum may have formed one leg of the triangle trade (rum, sugar, slaves) that defined so much of early America’s economic life and challenged the sincerity of its cause. Flip—a cocktail concoction of ale, rum, sugar, spice, and raw eggs—may have graced many drawing room tables and given us egg nog. Whiskey, and a tax on it, may have even sparked a rebellion against the first Constitutional government. But coffee always lurked in the background. George Washington regularly included it in his orders from his English agent, Robert Cary and Company. Benjamin Franklin frequented Philadelphia’s coffee houses. When John Adams grew frustrated with the stilted and “impenetrable” debates in the Continental Congress, he found that “conversations in the City, and the Chatt[er] of the Coffee house are free, and open.” Coffee was omnipresent long before Starbucks put a store on every street corner.
Mark R. Anderson
The Pumpkin Flip. It is a warm, frothy winter-time beverage that was quite popular across New England in colonial and Revolutionary eras, and was reportedly a favorite of Connecticut generals Israel Putnam and David Wooster. A flip is made by blending steaming-hot ale or cider with a mixture of eggs, rum, and dried pumpkin (or another sweetener like sugar or molasses). When ready to serve, the concoction is decanted, stirred with a red-hot fire poker known as a loggerhead, or flip dog, to froth, and topped with shaved nutmeg. The result is not exactly a pumpkin spice latte. Modern tongues have generously described it as a very earthy, acquired taste, or less politely as “vile”; but they might not have been sampling “Old Put’s” own famous cider-based flip that the Long Island Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution deemed “most delectable” at an 1896 tea.
Original Recipe for Fish House Punch: Completely dissolve 3/4 pound of sugar in a little water, in punch bowl. Add a bottle of lemon juice. Add 2 bottles Jamaican rum, 1 bottle cognac, 2 bottles of water, 1 wine glassful of peach cordial. Put a big cake of ice in the punch bowl. Let Punch stand about two hours, stirring occasionally. In winter, when ice melts more slowly, more water may be used; in summer, less. The melting of the ice dilutes the mixture sufficiently. Makes about 60 four-ounce glasses
While many of us drink beverages that our colonial forbearers enjoyed, such as tea, wine, cider, and ale, one stands out as the most exotic and interesting—wassail. Wassail is a mulled wine or cider that is flavored with spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. In a pinch some would substitute ale as a base. Wassail is an ancient phrase derived from the Old English words “waes hael,” which roughly translates to “to your health” or “be hale.” Wassail is served hot and has a unique flavorful taste of apple and cinnamon with a bit of a kick!
Daniel J. Tortora
Shrub, made with citrus and/or berries.
Don N. Hagist
Never consuming period beverages myself, but having a great interest in how wives of British soldiers earned their livings, I’ll mention Cider Royal. In 1774, Christian McLaughlin, wife of Michael McLaughlin, a private soldier in the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot, rented a house near the regiment’s barracks in Philadelphia where she “was endeavouring to get an honest livelihood by selling bread, beer, cheese, &c.” In a court martial deposition, another sergeant mentioned that he “had drunk Cider Royal” at Mrs. McLaughlin’s house, but that she gave it to him rather than him purchasing it. So what is Cider Royal? Definitions vary—it was certainly fortified cider (the alcoholic kind) but sources vary as to whether it was fortified with honey, brandy or other distillates, or was distilled cider.
Spruce beer! This old beer style is flavored with the essence of spruce trees. Benjamin Franklin had a recipe for it, and sailors of the Revolutionary era (including Captain Cook) liked it because its vitamin C content kept scurvy away. Today, Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing makes a version of Ben Franklin’s spruce beer, using barley, molasses, and blue spruce clippings from a local farm.
My favorite eighteenth-century beverage—water. And, just like the eighteenth century, we today have to be suspicious of all the water around us—it might contain some form of nastiness that will make us sick. Which leads directly and historically to my second-favorite period beverage, produced and imbibed to avoid the pollution in the water—a dark New England blackstrap rum.
Too strong for me but George Washington’s favorite drink was Madeira wine. Frequently mentioned in his papers, the first reference is found in an “Invoice of Sundry Goods to be shipd by Robt Cary Esq” sent in May of 1759; Washington asked Cary to “Order from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old Wine,” and realizing it might be someone else’s favorite beverage he further asked, “and let it be Secured from Pilferers.” During holidays gallons of the stuff was consumed by Washington and guests.
David O. Stewart
The following colonial punch, the recipe for which I acquired from Mount Vernon, where it is served regularly (all ingredients, you will note, were available in the eighteenth century): Juice from 5 limes; water (if absolutely necessary); 1.5 cups of brown sugar. Mix all of these until sugar is dissolved, then stir in 4 cups rum, 2 cups French brandy. Refrigerate until time to serve. After drinking, do NOT drive or make major life decisions.
William M. Welsch
Bourbon—although there is some dispute as to when it first appeared on the American scene.
Michael J. F. Sheehan
For the past few Christmases, I have picked up a bottle of Madeira—Washington’s favorite!
Robert S. Davis
Tea. It divided classes in America and then there was the Boston Tea Party. Frenchman LeClerc Milfort wrote of visiting a frontier family near Augusta, Georgia and the wife wanted to show her sophistication by cooking some tea for Milfort. When the tea was ruined, she blamed her husband for buying an inferior tea!
Susan Brynne Long
Madeira wine. George Washington was a particularly big fan of the stuff. On July 15, 1773, Washington wrote to Lamar, Hill, Bisset, & Company to ask, “please to send me four Pipes of your particular, or best Wines, as it is for my own drinking I want it, and understand that the last years Vintage was remarkably fine.” Mount Vernon was renowned for its hospitality, and the holidays served as opportunities to gift and consume expensive beverages like madeira.
I can only imagine savoring a nice glass of Washington’s whiskey, distilled by the former President himself on the grounds of his beloved Mount Vernon. I’m sure it must have been quite tasty and very popular, as Washington’s distillery was the premier seller of whiskey in the United States in 1799.
I would go with hot chocolate. Hot chocolate became a favorite amongst many during the American Revolution era and different chocolatiers would experiment with many types of chocolates, spices, and flavors to create a great tasting cup. Chocolate itself goes far back in my city of Norwich, Connecticut where Christopher Leffingwell became Connecticut’s first chocolatier in 1770; in 2017, the City of Norwich declared hot chocolate to be the official drink of the city.
Nancy K. Loane
An amusing eighteenth century recipe for Peach Brandy: “The fruit is cut asunder, and the stones taken out. The pieces of fruit are put into a vessel for three weeks or a month, until they are quite putrid. Put them into a distilling vessel, and the brandy is made and afterwards distilled again. This brandy is not good for people who have a more refined taste, but is only for the common kind of people, such as workmen and the like.” Food historian Clarissa F. Dillon, however, notes this double-distilled brandy is verypotent . . . and so probably acceptable to Washington’s officers.
For the holidays I have to shun the quotidian and select something more special: Madeira wine. The beverage originated on the Portuguese island of Madeira and throughout the 1700s its popularity grew in relation with the Atlantic World’s expanding trade and economy. Inhabitants of the New World agreed on little but most would concur on the pleasures of this full-bodied elixir. Still, Madeira was more expensive than most wines or distilled spirits and thus something most persons enjoyed only occasionally. Prominent families like the Jeffersons, Hancocks, Pinckneys, Aspinwalls, and Washingtons were always well-stocked and thus able to share at their tables regularly.
Seattle, where I live, has wonderful glacier-fed water that’s almost sweet to the taste. That’s why I agree with Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in his August. 6, 1733, almanac entry: “Take counsel in wine, but resolve afterwards in water.”