Poured on the Fourth of July

To celebrate Independence Day, a brief history of American boozing

While Donald Trump is a teetotaler, his abstinence presents something of an anomaly, since America is a nation built on alcohol. And if this sounds like hyperbole, it really isn’t that far from the truth.

Take the Mayflower, a ship transporting some of the nation’s earliest European settlers. Here was a merchant vessel originally designed to carry alcohol. Before providing refuge for the pilgrims, it could ferry 180 barrels of wine across the channel, and even on its adapted transatlantic mission with the new cargo of religious outcasts, it was still packed with brandy, cider and beer. More importantly, the main reason the crew tossed their toe-rope onto Plymouth Rock, several hundred miles north of its intended destination in Virginia, was because they’d run short of beer.

Of the 108 people who set foot on American soil, 63 perished during that first harsh winter from a range of ailments including tuberculosis, starvation, hypothermia, dysentery. The remaining 45 celebrated the first Thanksgiving with beer – but not as we know it. There was no barley available, so early settlers had to make do with a drink brewed by the natives using corn, black birch sap and even pumpkins.

Alcohol became part of the fabric of the Europeans’ earliest endeavours. True it performed an ignoble role in the displacement of native Americans, but as the settlers barged their way up and down the East coast, the new communities demanded a brewer or distiller to complete them. It became vital to the burgeoning identity of the nation.

By the 17th century, domestic brewing had undermined imports of English ale, which ruffled the feather quills of British bean-counters and the Empire struck back by flooding America with cheap beer. This annoyed the Americans. The British government had already sowed the seeds of colonial discontent by issuing crippling taxes on rum but by undermining American ale, they were the taking the mick. In fact, the Boston Tea Party could easily have been the Boston Beer Party – but they chose tea to chuck over board as, well, they weren’t idiots.

Besides, they needed the booze for battle. During the War of Independence, each soldier was issued with a daily bottle of rum and a quart of spruce beer and, to secure a steady supply of revolutionary spirit. With booze in their veins, the revolutionaries opened an almighty can of whuppass on their British oppressors and laid the foundations for the Declaration of Independence which, like all clever ideas, was drawn up in a pub – a tavern in Philadelphia.

What’s more, when the US Constitution was drawn up, the 55 men who signed it celebrated by getting absolutely battered – putting away 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, eight bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcoholic punch large enough that, according one observer, ‘ducks could swim in them’. The bill must have been massive.

As rum lost it way due to the trade complications, whiskey stepped up as the spirit of choice and became the spirit that built the American West. American’s eastern settlers had initially utilised the grain growing around them, rye being hardy and abundant in the north, and the spicy heat from this combined with rudimentary techniques delivered rudimentary spirit. Drinkers suffered fiery moonshine with names like Skull Bender, Panther Piss and Snakehead – which came with an actual snakehead in the barrel – but as they wandered west, trapping beavers and poking cows, they used this whiskey to fuel their courage. The likes of Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark bravely hauling barrels of whiskey with them into the unknown Frontier. And when Americans wagons stopped – because of ‘injun’ trouble – cowboys emerged to start shooting this whiskey with their Smith & Wessons.

An anti-Prohibition protest (Getty)

Whisky was a favourite in the first saloons appearing during the 19th century. These new bars finally an established home for the national habit. The first recorded saloon was opened in 1822 on the borders of Wyoming, Colorado and Utah and was called Brown’s Hole – as the name suggests, it was indeed hole. Many more followed more than 200,000 operating at the peak of trade and men stampeded to these joints, coining a host of unusual names, from jug houses to bughouses and whoop-ups to water holes.

The quality of drinking improved over time, and by the 1860s the likes of Jerry Thomas had established himself as a star bartender mixing cocktails with not only whiskey, but also gin and brandy. But the big mistake the men made was barring women and as everyone from beaver trappers to buffalo hunters, bungling prospectors and brothel keepers over indulged, the wives started to question their behaviour.

This would ultimately lead to the rise in temperance and by the turn of the 20th century, abstinence was top of the political manifestos. By 1919 the unthinkable had happened and America, so fond of its fun times, had banned alcohol. Prohibition lasted for more than a decade and was disastrous, proving detrimental for the economy and public health – indeed it only benefited crime, which got very organised with bootlegging.

Franklyn D Roosevelt, a man who had a special set of silver shakers and mixed a martini at 5pmn every day in the White House, finally put a bullet in the back of Prohibition’s head in 1933. But by then the damage was done. Desperate to make money, distillers looked to unaged spirits like vodka, while a hot of factors including the popularity of Germanic beer styles, refrigeration and a palate that was out of practice when it came to big flavours combined to aid the evolution of mass produced and bland beers.

The 1950s was a bright spell for the martini as business men struck the kind of deals many of today’s fumbling business men would benefit from after enjoying a three martini lunch. But even America’s cocktails were suffering into the second half of the 20th century, so that by the 1980s, Tom Cruise’s bartender poet in Cocktail was rhyming drinks so ‘sweet and snazzy’ with the kamikaze, or the Orgasm and Death Spasm.

But then, a return to form. The 80s saw frustrated student beer drinkers turn their hand to brewing in sheds, giving rise the craft brewing revolution, while cocktails rediscovered their mojo. In 20 years the country went from bland to brilliant, so that today the country offers once of the most eclectic and dynamic drinks scenes in the world. New York is arguably the best drinking city in the world thanks to the range of beer styles and domestic spirits, combining with incredible bartender talent and an unquenchable thirst for imbibing knowledge. America might have a brief history, but they’ve done a lot with drink in that time, and despite a teetotal leader, they deserve a raised glass on July 4.

If you’re looking to celebrate America’s love affair with alcohol this Independence Day we suggest…

American Beer of choice: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale 5.6%

While American beer fans were cursing the endless supply of tasteless lager styles, one man in Chico, California was doing something about it. Ken Grossman was brewing a brave new beer called Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The fresh citrus flavours from the Cascade hop blew the minds of beer fans and this beer, along with the likes of Anchor Steam and Samuel Adams, kickstarted the American craft brewing revolution. £1.80 for 35.5cl Waitrose

Whiskey of Choice: High West Double Rye Whiskey

Firstly, there’s a cowboy on the front, which is reason enough to buy this. But perhaps more importantly this is a fantastically aggressive whiskey, but balanced, with the poise of a bareback rider, so to speak. Rye is spicy so the barrel is loaded, don’t expect this to mosey over the tongue, but it’s surprisingly sweet and soft up front, then comes the cinnamon heat and with a tobacco into leather chaps finish.£51.92, Univ 

Martini of choice: Fords Gin from the 86 Co

The martini remains the quintessential American cocktail, and this gin follows the journey of those first pilgrims, made at the excellent Thames Distillery through a collaboration between Simon Ford and 8th generation distiller Charles Maxwell, then shipped to Mendocino County California for the water. Jasmine and grapefruit peel help balance the juniper forward profile with subtle sweet floral and bitter citrus notes. Bars continue to make excellent house vermouths in the States, particularly in New York, if you’re drinking there, seek them out. Otherwise go with the bianco vermouth Regal Rogue Lively White (£16.15, Whisky Exchange) and a ratio of 50:50, or as the chaps there say – a Fords Fitty-Fitty Martini – so equal parts Fords Gin and vermouth and two dashes of orange bitters garnished with a lemon twist (Fords London Dry, £30.55, Whisky Exchange).

The Thinking Drinkers will be performing their brand-new show, The History of Alcohol, at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 2 – 27 at the Underbelly’s Ermintrude. Tickets can be bought here.

They also have a residency at London’s Museum of Comedy and will be celebrating America’s drinking history on July 6, and will be on tour across the UK this autumn. For dates and ticket details go here.


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