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Alcohol and Its Role In Our Nation’s Founding

Posted By: George Washington 1 February 2009 119 views No Comment
Gentlemen enjoying game and spirits
Colonial gentlemen enjoying game and spirits


Presidents gathering to drink at a tavern?  Candidates “advertising” through free liquor and booze?  What would McCain and Feingold do!  Many of our modern readers might be surprised at the relaxed attitude our nation’s Founders took towards alcohol.  While drinking too much or being an alcoholic was considered a sign of weakness in early America, as it is today, its citizens were not only more free with their choice of where to drink, but they were supplied, maybe even plied, with booze in the hopes they would cast their vote a particular way.

According to “How’s Your Drink” by Eric Felten, the word cocktail appeared in an 1806 Federalist newspaper, Balance and Columbian Repository.  The paper’s headline declared “Rum! Rum! Rum!” and suggested that the price of the then precious liquor would be on the rise because a certain candidate for the state legislature would be using the town’s stock “in a frenzy of boozy vote-buying.”  The paper further outlines the bar tab for such an event: “720 rum-grogs, 17 dozen brandies, 32 gin slings, 411 glasses of bitters, and 25 cocktails.”

Many Americans recognize the great patriot Samuel Adams not only for his numerous contributions to the forming of our nation, but also his brewing knowledge.  Mr. Adams was not alone amongst his contemporaries in his love of good hops and barley.  I, George Washington, also enjoyed a mug of porter, particularly Baron which was brewed in the colonies.  In 1774, Mr. Adams and I put forth a bill which called for colonists to abstain from English imported tea, madeira, port wine, and English ale.  The measure also encouraged the brewing of local, American beer.   Sadly, the practice would disappear due to Prohibition and a, dare I say, un-American Congress in 1919 - even Woodrow Wilson was against it!  The practice of locally crafted American beer would not return until the 1980s.

So, alcohol played its part in starting the war, but numerous other factors played a part.  True, but alcohol also helped keep our boys fighting the war.  As any well taught Army General can tell you, an army marches on its belly.  Documents show the Continental Army’s belly was filled with “1 quart of spruce beer or cyder per man per day.”  And Soldiers were not alone in early America.  In 1790, US government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for citizens over fifteen years of age totaled thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine.  While you can choose to suggest these early Americans had a problem, keep in mind the daily work, hardship, and sense of duty they employed.

In the elections following the Revolutionary War, I treated a constituent or two to a cordial drink.  Imagine the travel an ordinary citizen made from their farm or town to the single polling place in their county.  What kind of patriot would not treat a voter to a rum shrub after a 10 mile walk?  Imagine how much more enjoyable your voting experience would have been this past year of 2008 if you were imbibing a mai tai courtesy of Mr. Obama or a margarita from Mr. McCain?

More quick facts

Thomas Jefferson relaxing with a glass of wine
Thomas Jefferson relaxing with a glass of wine




  • James Madison liked to start his day with a tumbler of whiskey
  • John Adams breakfasted on what his son described as “a large tankard of hard cider”
  • Thomas Jefferson was an avid wine connoisseur and had plans for a brewhouse at Monticello
  • John Hancock was accused of smuggling wine
  • Patrick Henry worked as a bartender and, as Virginia’s wartime governor, served home brew to guests
  • Even I, George Washington, admittedly had one of the more successful whiskey distilleries in early America





While I’m not sure a tumbler of whiskey suits me, Mr. Adams’ large tankard of cider would go well with Johnny cakes or a fruit pastry.  I applaud my fellow Founding Fathers interest in their pursuit of crafting beer, wine, and cocktail outside of their political careers.  Maybe what our modern politicians lack is something to do outside their own political careers?

In closing, I’d like to inspire future patriots, brewers, imbibers, distillers, and so forth by offering the recipe I used for my favorite porter:


At Mount Vernon's distillery, Ken Johnston as Washington's distiller Peter Bingle takes the temperature of the copper kettle

At Mount Vernon's distillery, Ken Johnston as Washington's distiller Peter Bingle takes the temperature of the copper kettle

Take a large siffer full of bran hops - to your taste - boil these 3 hours. Then strain into a 30 gallon cooler.  Put in 3 gallon molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather draw the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot, let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of yeast.  If the weather is very cold, cover it over with a blanket.  Let it work in the cask.  Leave the bung open till it is almost done working.  Bottle it that day or week it was brewed.



Thanks to Peter Carlson at HistoryNet.comChris O’Brien at Beer Activist Blog, and Ed Crews and Dave Doody at Colonial Williamsburg.

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