Drinking for Freedom

This holiday weekend, as people across the United States celebrate the anniversary of the American colonies’ declaration of independence, many will do so by firing up backyard grills and enjoying cold, crisp bottles of beer. Beer is particularly popular in the United States at the moment, thanks to the rapid spread of innovative breweries across the country. Drinking also seems to go hand-in-hand with holiday celebrations, but there is a certain appeal to enjoying a cold beer on a hot July day.

Though many likely stocked up on beer in anticipation of the holiday, what would the American colonists who supported the fight for independence drink? Probably not beer.

Eight men around table, drinking and smoking, 1797
“Eight men around table, drinking and smoking” (1797), via Library of Congress

I say probably, because beer was certainly available in the mainland thirteen colonies. The colonists, though, tended to have a taste for the stronger stuff, and they had plenty to choose from. Readily available ‘potent potables’ included (but were not limited to): rum, a variety of wine, cider, rum, brandy, whiskey, and more rum. Beer did flow through the colonies, but often tavern-goers opted for bowls of rum punch. They also mixed their own cocktails out of beer, adding rum and sugar to make a popular drink known as Flip.

More popular, though, was rum punch. A mixture that traditionally included five ingredients, aided by a handy rhyme (to keep the recipe easy to remember after the second or third round). The handy little rhyme called for:

One of sour,
Two of sweet,
Three of strong,
Four of weak.

One part sour – which usually comprise of either limes or lemons. Two parts sugar to take the edge off the sour lime flavor. Three parts strong included whatever rum one had handy, though aged rum was preferred. Four of weak included a mixture of water and ice, so tavern-goers could have more than one round before falling on the floor (though that did tend to happen).

1_Sea Captains_Surinam
Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, c. 1750s, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rum punch was immensely popular, as shown in the number of illustrations that feature the rum punch bowl as the focal point (for both the viewer of the illustration and those depicted drinking in the tavern). The colonists would mix, and consume, this popular punch in great quantity. One recipe called for one quart of lemon juice, one quart of brandy, two quarts of rum, five pounds of sugar, and four to five quarts of water and ice.

This drink was enjoyed by all, from the humble tavern patron to members of the social elite. Recipes of rum punch could become quite extravagant, as shown in Harriott Pinckney Horry’s recipe book from 1770. Here is her recipe for The Duke of Norfolk Punch:

“Boil twelve Gallons of Water, as soon as it Boils put in twelve pound of loaf Sugar and the Whites of thirty Eggs… [strain with a cloth] into a rum Cask; then put in five quarts and a half of Orange juice, and three quarts and a half of Lemon juice [strained]. Peel thirty Oranges and thirty Lemons very thin, steep the Peel in a Gallon of rum four days, strain the rum off into the Cask adding four gallons more of rum. It will be fit to bottle in two Months.”

Harriott Pinckney Horry’s recipe provides an example of ‘elite’ rum punch, likely the kind enjoyed by the Founders themselves (not a far leap, as her brother was a Revolutionary War veteran and signer of the Constitution).

1801 - Anacreontick's in full song
Gillray, Anacreontick’s in full song, 1801, via Library of Congress. The tune of ‘The Anacreontic Song’ would become better known in the United States as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’

Historians have made much about the abundance of alcohol in the North American colonies, as well as the role drinking played in fueling the movement toward independence. Americans continue to celebrate this momentous day, and though the beverage of choice may have changed, the practice of pouring and enjoying a refreshing glass continues.

Happy Independence Day! As always, enjoy that rum punch responsibly.

 

Further Reading:

Peter Thompson, Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

Ian Williams, Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 (Nation Books, 2006).

Ed Crews, “Drinking in Colonial America” 

D-Lab and really expensive liquor

This past week I attended a three-day program that focuses on regular dissertation writing from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. This program is called Dissertation Lab (or D-Lab), and it is held every summer at UTA for PhD students who are at the writing stage of the dissertation process. It was an intense three days, but the overall experience was remarkably productive, and I accomplished more than I anticipated.

Image
A picture taken by my colleague, Mylynka Kilgore Cardona, of the D-Lab group diligently working (with me peeking in on the far left).

While working on the chapter, I had a chance to work with some fun sources I gathered while working at The Wellcome Library in London last summer. The Library holds a wealth of cookery and physick (medical) books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which include countless recipes involving alcohol. There was one recipe in particular that I wanted to share, given its wonderful extravagance.

A mid-to-late seventeenth century recipe to make “Orange Watter” – distilled spirits were often known as ‘waters’ – appears common enough at first. Many of the recipes for such spirits were costly, and the addition of two quarts of brandy, as well as thirty ‘civil oranges’ (both imported goods to England), put this recipe out of financial reach for most. However, added on, almost as an afterthought, to the end of the recipe there is an intriguing note. It suggests the addition of saffron to the mixture “for colour.” Saffron has long been one of the most desired, and most expensive, spices. A trip to the grocery store today proves that saffron is still quite expensive (an extravagance for graduate students like myself).

Iran_saffron_threads
Saffron threads.

Saffron was certainly a luxury item in the seventeenth century, but that was not the final addition to this special liquor. The recipe continues: “[add] a small quantity of leafe Gold, Musk and Amber greace [ambergris].” Reading that last line – jotted down with apparent ease, centuries ago, by an unclear contributor to a family cookery book – brought my progress to a halt. First, the gold leaf; the addition of actual gold to the recipe may not be as impressive today, given the inclusion of gold leaf in not-so-expensive liqueurs like Goldschläger, but it was a clear sign of opulence at the time.

The final two ingredients, musk and ambergris, would bring strong aromatic, perfume-like qualities to the recipe. Both ingredients, though, originate from animal sources. Musk was obtained from the musk deer – a species nearly hunted to extinction. Ambergris was (and still is) obtained from sperm whales. In the seventeenth century, both musk and ambergris were extraordinarily expensive. The ingredients were also believed to be aphrodisiacs, placing this recipe for a orange-flavored liquor in a very interesting category.

Unfortunately, this recipe did not offer any description of the use for this ‘Orange Watter.’ Was it medicinal? Many of the recipes for spirits in these sources were intended to be used as a cure for all sorts of ailments. The inclusion of musk could hint at medicinal properties, as it was used as a restorative at that time. Was it simply an enjoyable, luxurious beverage – one that I am sure (or hope) was consumed in very small quantities? It isn’t clear what the purpose of this beverage was, or if the person who documented this intriguing recipe had any particular interest in that aspect. Such is the frustration historians encounter time and time again. We read through these preserved sources, such as these recipe books, to find enticing insight into the behaviors of those who lived in the past, without the contextual framework to give it meaning. I suppose, though, that is my job.

While I continue to mull over what to make of this particular recipe, it was a surprising and amusing find in the midst of the three-day writing grind. At the very least, I know that every liquor I buy from now on will likely appear rather dull in comparison.

Sidecar Cocktail
What, no saffron?