Alcohol and the American Experience

Alcohol: the American Experience

The history of alcohol consumption in the United States could even
predate the arrival of the Puritans if we are to believe that the
Vikings, on their adventurous voyage of exploration, resulted in the
discovery of Vineland. The Vikings always carried with them a supply of
their favorite beverage: mead. an alcoholic beverage made of fermented
honey. Which probably explains why they ended up on the northeast coast
of the American continent rather than their intended destination.
Historical records aside, I really doubt if they had intended to sail
more than 3,000 miles in open sea in a craft designed for fjords and calm
inland waters.

Moving on (about 700 years on), the first settlers who set foot on
Plymouth rock were Puritans who we had painted in the bleakest colors.
The popular imagination holds an odd ambivalence toward the Puritans.
While insisting on seeing them as the origin of America, it is equally
insistent on describing them as dour, irascible, self-righteous,
hypocritical people who hated sex, joy, and life. They dressed in black,
they hated nature, they burned witches, and they repressed all natural
desires. Imagine if you will, the pilgrims as present-d ay hard-core
Muslim extremists. It doesn’t take much imagination or reading to discern
as much. American literature of the time is littered with novels such as
the Scarlet Letter. Had there been a logic to history, we would be living
in a country no different from Saudi Arabia or Iran. But that did not
happen. History’s progress knows no such logic.

Actually, the Pilgrims’ history offers ample evidence that they
carried with them a supply of good old English ale, the brewing of which
they had continued in Holland, according to their own method and formula.
At this point, however, legendary fiction appears to have invaded the
historical investigation. It is said that this supply of beer was
exhausted somewhat earlier than the organizers of the migration scheme
had anticipated, and that, therefore, a landing was effected at the
rather uninviting spot since then immortalized in song and story as
Plymouth Rock. Whether conceived in a facetious spirit, prompted by a
knowledge of the Puritans’ well-known appreciation of liquid cheer, or
based, as it is claimed, upon the semi-historical authority of a private
diary, the story is characteristic enough in all its bearings to be true;
and if it were so, what a splendid illustration it would be of the old
axiom, that in history very insignificant causes sometimes produce most
marvelous effects!

Moving on, (about 150 years on), a true sense of American history is
beginning to take shape. Americans are, by their very nature skeptical of
the status quo and authority. And rather than sit back meekly to allow
things to happen, they take action: by emigrating out of or taking arms
against the occupation of a suppressing country. The first case is
evident from the waves of immigrants that arrived during the early years,
the second case was evident in the local uprising that was later called
the American Revolution.

In 1773, Britain’s East India Company was sitting on large stocks of
tea that it could not sell in England. It was on the verge of bankruptcy.
In an effort to save it, the government passed the Tea Act of 1773, which
gave the company the right to export its merchandise directly to the
colonies without paying any of the regular taxes that were imposed on the
colonial merchants, who had traditionally served as the middlemen in such
transactions. With these privileges, the company could undersell American
merchants and monopolize the colonial tea trade. The act proved
inflammatory for several reasons. First, it angered influential colonial
merchants, who feared being replaced and bankrupted by a powerful
monopoly. The East India Company’s decision to grant franchises to
certain American merchants for the sale of their tea created further
resentments among those excluded from this lucrative trade. More
importantly, the Tea Act revived American passions about the issue of
taxation without representation.

So on the evening of December 16, 1773, patriots led by a the local
innkeeper Samuel Adams (yes, that Sam Adams) boarded the three ships
carrying the tea and broke open the tea chests and heaved them into
Boston Harbor. I just wonder if it were an Ale Tax.

More of oOur Founding Fathers also had the taste for the grape and the
hop. When Thomas Jefferson was summoned to Annapolis in 1783 to arrange
lodging for Gen. George Washington, his first order of business was
probably to check the wine list at Mann’s Tavern. Gen. Washington was to
resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental armies.
Jefferson’s job was to find a party site for more than 200 dignitaries.
Mann’s Tavern was a well-known watering hole, and Jefferson was careful
to select good wine for the 13 toasts the general would eventually

The wine must have been pretty good. The bar tab was $644. No American
president has taken as much interest in wine as Thomas Jefferson. Though
many presidents, such as Richard Nixon, developed a discriminating taste
for wine, only Jefferson made it an educational endeavor. Traveling
extensively through Europe, he discovered wines whose labels are still
known to collectors today.

So did Benjamin Franklin. To paraphrase “On Wine,” by Benjamin
Franklin. In vino veritas, says the wise man, — There is truth in wine.
Before the days of Noah, men had nothing but water to drink and therefore
could not discover the truth. Thus they went astray, became abominably
wicked, and were justly exterminated by water, which they loved to

The good man Noah, seeing that through this pernicious beverage all
his contemporaries had perished, took it in aversion; and to quench his
thirst, God created the vine, and revealed to him the means of converting
its fruit into wine. By means of this liquor he discovered numberless
important truths; so that ever since his time the word to divine has been
in common use, signifying originally to discover by means of wine Thus
the patriarch Joseph took upon himself to divine by means of a cup or
glass of wine; a liquor which obtained its name to show that it was not
of human but of divine invention. Since that time, all things of peculiar
excellence, even the deities themselves, have been called divine or

He continues to say that God made wine to gladden the heart of man. Do
not, therefore when at table you see your neighbor pour wine into his
glass be eager to mingle water with it. Why would you drown truth? I give
you this hint as a man of the world; and I will finish as I began, like a
good Christian, by making a religious observation of high importance,
taken from the Holy Scriptures; I mean, that the apostle Paul counselled
Timothy very wisely to put wine in his water for the sake of his health,
but that not one of the apostles or holy fathers ever recommended putting
water into wine. Let us, then, with glass in hand, adore this benevolent
wisdom — let us adore and drink!

As an example of Party Time During the Colonial Period. The year was
1787. The banquet was in honor of General George Washington. The place
was Philadelphia’s City Tavern. It was a wild party — political types
and men dressed in wigs. In total, 55 revelers were there, down on Second
Street. And this is what they drank: Fifty-four bottles of Madeira; 60
bottles of claret; 8 bottles of old stock; 22 bottles of porter; 8
bottles of hard cider; 12 bottles of beer; and 7 large bowls of

How else did you think America’s founding fathers kept warm during the
terrible winters of the 18th century? In the early days of America,
alcoholic beverages were seen as more healthful than water. They warmed a
person on cold nights and kept off chills and fevers. Indeed, the
colonists consumed more alcohol than modern Americans.

Most alcohol was consumed in the form of beer, rum and cider. Wine had
to be imported and was a rare commodity. During the period of colonial
rule, European wines were so heavily taxed that the price was
prohibitive. Only the wines of Madeira, from the Portuguese island off
the African coast, were exempt from the British tax, making them a
favorite among the revolutionaries.

Despite the price, many of the founding fathers had a special fondness
for wine. Benjamin Franklin wrote that wine was “constant proof that God
loves us, and loves to see us happy.” George Washington adored
Champagne. One colonist for whom wine was a particularly serious passion
— indeed he called it “a necessity of life” — was , again, Thomas
Jefferson, statesman, diplomat and third president of the United States.
He was also one of the most experienced and knowledgeable wine
connoisseurs of his age. Within two weeks of arriving in Paris as the
ambassador to France in 1784, he had purchased 276 bottles of wine,
primarily Bordeaux vintages.

For nearly half a century, Jefferson attempted to grow wine grapes at
Monticello with little success. He even invested (along with George
Washington) in a winery outside Charlottesville that was run by an
Italian physician. Interestingly, the land has recently been restored as
a vineyard, planted with French and Italian grape varieties, and named
Jefferson Vineyards.

Later, while serving as America’s first secretary of state, Jefferson
doubled as President Washington’s wine consultant; as president, he
stocked the White House wine cellar with excellent vintages. He
considered wine “the only antidote to the bane of whisky.” By keeping
taxes on wine low, Jefferson hoped to make America a wine-drinking
nation. He regarded heavy levies on wine not as a tax on luxury, but as
“a tax on the health of our citizens.”

He also loved Burgundies, Rhone wines, Spanish sherry, and a whole
host of Portuguese wines. Of course, among them were the sweet, silken
fortified wines of Madeira, specifically “of the nut quality and of the
very best.”

Madeira wines are among the world’s longest-lived, and often take on a
nutty character with age. Bottles from Jefferson’s time are quite
exquisitely lush and complex — and rare. Fortunately for the colonists
(and contrary to most wines), Madeiras actually improved from long sea

They are available in a range of styles that vary in sweetness from
the driest to the richest: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malmsey (or
Malvasia). Jefferson preferred the highest-quality Malmseys (cheap
Madeiras can taste coarse and cooked), but when he could no longer afford
them, he took to mixing a 10th part of “superfine” Malmsey with the
ordinary Madeira.

The Whiskey Rebellion
…To Execute the Laws of the Union…” The Whiskey Rebellion
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania October 3, 1794.” In September 1791 the western
counties of Pennsylvania brokeout in rebellion against a federal excise
tax on the distillation of whiskey. After local and federal officials
were attacked, President Washington and his advisors decided to send
troops to pacify the region. It was further decided that militia troops,
rather than regulars, would be sent. On August 14, 1792, under the
provisions of the newly-enacted militia law, Secretary of War Henry Knox
called upon the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and
Pennsylvania for 12, 950 troops as a test of the President’s power to
enforce the law. Numerous problems both political and logistical, had to
be overcome and by October, 1794 the militiamen were on the march. The
New Jersey units marched from Trenton to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There
they were reviewed by their Commander-in-Chief, President George
Washington, accompanied by Secretary of the Treasury and Revolutionary
war veteran Alexander Hamilton. By the time the troops reached
Pittsburgh, the rebellion had subsided, and western Pennsylvania was
quickly pacified. This first use of the Militia Law of 1792 set a
precedence for the use of the militia to “execute the laws of the union,
(and) suppress insurrections”. New Jersey was the only state to
immediately fulfill their levy of troops to the exact number required by
the President. This proud tradition of service to state and nation is
carried on today by the New Jersey Army and Air National Guard.

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