How America Learned to Love Whiskey

Attempts to control the fermentation and sale of alcohol are older than the republic itself.
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General Washington leads troops in the Whiskey Rebellion. (Library of Congress)

In October 1794, Alexander Hamilton took time out from his regular duties as secretary of the Treasury to lead 13,000 militiamen into western Pennsylvania. Resistance to a tax on whiskey production, intended to help pay down the government's $45 million Revolutionary War debt, had been growing since it went into effect in 1791. Tax collectors had been attacked, and at least one was whipped, tarred, and feathered. By early 1794, some 7,000 men had joined the rebellion, and talk swirled about declaring independence from the United States. But in the face of federal bayonets, the revolt collapsed; many of its leaders were arrested, and the rest fled into neighboring states.

The Whiskey Rebellion was a critical moment in the life of the new republic. President Washington's use of the military to force payment of the tax demonstrated that the fledgling federal government had real power—and was willing to use it.

But to Hamilton, who conceived it, the tax was about more than raising cash or asserting the central government's authority. It was also a way to reduce alcohol production and consumption. Hamilton wrote in Federalist 12 that a tax on whiskey "should tend to diminish the consumption of it," and that "such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society. There is, perhaps, nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits." Washington agreed: Drinking, he said, was "the ruin of half the workmen in this Country"—even though, as the owner of one of America's largest distilleries, he contributed his share to that ruin.

Not everyone fell in line, though. Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvania politician who would later become one of Hamilton's successors as Treasury secretary, called the levy a hypocritical attempt by elites to "tax the common drink of the nation," even as they continued to enjoy their imported fine wines and brandies. Georgians launched a petition to exempt peach brandy as "necessary of life … in this warm climate." And Thomas Jefferson, who was known to enjoy a drink, led a successful effort to repeal the tax shortly after he was sworn in as president.

It is hard, today, to comprehend just how important the question of alcohol—who could make it, and who could drink it—was to colonial and early republican politics. The young nation was, as historian W.J. Rorabaugh put it, an "alcoholic republic": Most grown men and women drank at least four ounces of hard liquor every day. Attempts to limit alcohol production affected nearly everyone. Imagine a nationwide campaign against caffeine.

The movement to restrict alcohol consumption reached its apogee in 1919 with the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which wrote nationwide Prohibition into the Constitution. But debates like that one—and even the drug-decriminalization movement today—had their origins long before the 20th century, in battles like the Whiskey Rebellion. At the time, it was the largest-ever official front in the war on booze, but it was only just the beginning of American ambivalence about liberty and temperance—about how much government can regulate what we do to our own bodies, especially what we put in them.

Reena Flores/National Journal video

FIRST FERMENTATIONS

America was a drinking culture from the start. The Arabella, which carried John Winthrop and his Puritans to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, also transported 10,000 gallons of beer, 120 casks of malt, and 12 gallons of gin.

Alcohol was a necessity to the first settlers, not just for pleasure but also for health: Water was notoriously unhygienic, particularly in settled areas, where waste and drinking water intermingled, and even children drank mildly alcoholic "small" beer instead.

Some of the earliest dispatches back home from English colonists include reports on successful distillations; in 1620, Capt. James Thorpe wrote from Virginia that he had managed to distill alcohol from corn, a native crop. These early accounts record a wide variety of ingredients—not surprising, given the poor performance of European grapes in American soil and the rich bounty of local plants. Everything from wild berries to pumpkins went into the still. Applejack was particularly popular, as was pear brandy and metheglin, a type of mead flavored with cinnamon, chamomile, and other herbs and spices.

For the first decades of the 17th century, colonists either brewed or distilled their own spirits for personal use, or imported it. It wasn't until 1640 that Willem Kieft, the director-general of the Dutch New Netherland colony, opened the continent's first commercial distillery on what is now Staten Island. Still, most harder alcohol was imported—rum from the Caribbean or madeira and port from Europe—and most of it was too expensive for the average colonist. Those who couldn't afford it made do with beer, fermented fruit and vegetable juice, and other, weaker forms of homemade liquor. Drinking among the upper classes wasn't just tolerated, it was practically required. A Maryland doctor traveling in New York in 1744 found that a "reputation for hearty drinking was essential for admission to the best society."

As the supply of molasses—the base ingredient in rum—expanded in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, domestic distilling picked up. The earliest record of rum distilling in the future United States shows an operation in New London, Conn., in 1654. By the end of the century, the region was flush with rum producers, turning out thousands of gallons of cheap, high-proof booze.

The industry was centered in the Massachusetts cities of Boston, Medford, and Salem; by 1750 the Bay State had 63 distilleries alone. Molasses was easier to transport than raw sugar cane, and it became a staple in the "triangle trade," in which slaves, cash crops, agricultural products, and manufactured goods circulated among the Western Hemisphere, Britain, and West Africa.

Distilled alcohol, which had been a luxury good, was now cheap enough for all to consume. During the 1720s and 1730s, the price of a gallon of rum in Boston fell from 3 shillings 6 pence to a mere 2 shillings—affordable for even the lowest unskilled workers. By the end of the century, American distilleries poured forth almost 5 million gallons of rum a year, more than the 3.8 million gallons the country imported.

The expanding availability of cheap liquor also brought attempts to control it. In cities, clergy and other self-appointed moral guardians often had de facto veto power over tavern licensing, giving them a say as to who got to sell liquor and who got to buy it. But the growing business led elites to believe that, if they wanted to control the supply, they'd need the power of government. In place of economic and religious barriers rose legal ones; in the 1730s, James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, tried to ban rum entirely from his new colony, while in 1760, John Adams began a campaign for laws to limit the number of tavern licenses in Massachusetts. Others pushed to ban Sunday liquor sales.

Other efforts focused on excluding certain classes from drinking. As historian Sharon V. Salinger notes in her book Taverns and Drinking in Early America, authorities in Boston decreed that selling liquor to an Indian, a slave, or a servant "promised the perpetrator a stiff fine or three months in jail."

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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