History of Drinking in America: Part One

old-beer-barrelThis is part one in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it!

The creation and consumption of alcohol has played an important and notable role in American life and politics.  In colonial America, the consumption and production of alcohol was a large part of daily life – dominating politics, economics, and social life.  The framers celebrated the completion of the Constitution with drink, and saloons served as political meeting places during the Jacksonian Era.  The production, sale, and consumption of alcohol in America was not without controversy.  While alcohol was celebrated by many, others believed it negatively impacted society.

The American passion and desire for drink is as old as the colonies themselves.  On the Mayflower, pilgrims drank barrel after barrel of beer, for a multitude of reasons.  Unlike water, beer could be barreled and kept at sea without spoiling.  In addition, prevailing ideas about alcohol in the Seventeenth Century lead many Europeans to drink for health reasons.  “A stiff drink warmed a person on cold nights and kept off chills and fevers; a few glasses made hard work easier to bear, aided digestion, and in general helped sustain constitution.  Abstinence invited trouble.”[1] 

Enterprising colonists (including founders Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington) used spruce, molasses, and Indian corn to brew alcoholic beverages.  Alcoholic beverages were embraced and used in all walks of life. Community events, military events, and agricultural work were accompanied by alcoholic consumption.  Imbibing was not just for adults in the colonial era – children engaged in drinking as well.  Cider and beer were usually drank at dinner and “even children shared the family beer.”[2]  While public drunkenness was discouraged by law (which could be punished by being put in the stocks or being thrown in jail) enjoying the ‘good creature of god’[3] in moderation – as it was referred to by Puritan Minister Cotton Mather – was encouraged.

While most colonists drank beer in their home countries, their new continent presented different crops to distill and ferment.  The apple in the North colonies and the peach in the Southern colonies opened up the ability to make cider, peach brandy, and apple jack.  Hard liquor soon replaced beer and cider as the colonial drink of choice.  Not only was it cheaper and less burdensome to ship liquor, but molasses and sugar cane was available in abundance from the West Indies.  Liquor was also more versatile than traditional ciders and beers.  Rum, for example, could be added to other drinks, drank straight, and enjoyed hot or cold.  The first rum distilleries opened in Boston in the early 1700s.   Rum distilling thrived, and soon New England was exporting 600,000 gallons annually, becoming an economic staple of many other colonies.[4]  At home, colonists replaced beer with rum, consuming it at the saloon, during meals, and to provide warmth on summer nights.

As colonists moved to the western frontiers, they soon favored whiskey over rum for both personal consumption and economic livelihood.  Whereas the whiskey ingredients of grain and corn grew easily in the frontier, rum ingredients were difficult to obtain through inefficient Eighteenth Century shipping.  Moreover, immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought a history and knowledge of distilling whiskey with them to the western frontier.   As whiskey grew in popularity, micro distilleries soon popped up in many frontier homes.  During the Revolutionary War, the supply of molasses was cut off to the colonies due to British blockades.  This only furthered the production of Whiskey as distillers rushed to fill the void.  In order to fulfill daily liquor rations to the Continental Army, command switched its liquor of choice from rum to whiskey, only furthering demand and consumption for the frontier product.[5]

After the American victory in the Revolutionary War, consumption of whiskey continued to grow.  “High tariffs and strained trade relations with Great Britain cut off supplies of West Indian molasses, crippling rum production…drinkers were enjoying a whiskey glut; whiskey and cider stood supreme as the national beverages.”[6]  By the turn of the Nineteenth Century, America had built a reputation as a hard drinking society.  The average adult (over fifteen years of age) drank 6 gallons of alcohol a year in the 1790s, more than double current American consumption rates.[7]  Alcohol was consumed in nearly every situation – enjoyed when hot or cold, working or at leisure.

Continue to part two…


[1] Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin,  Drinking in America: A History (New York: Free Press, 1987), 2.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Harry G. Levine, “The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 15 (1978): 494.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Raymond Goldberg, Drugs Across the Spectrum 6th Ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010), 215.

[6] Thomas R. Pegram, Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998), 9-10.

[7] Lender and Martin, 14.

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5 thoughts on “History of Drinking in America: Part One

  1. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Two

  2. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Three

  3. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Four

  4. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Five

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