Moonshine Whiskey: Our Historic Drinking Habits

A certain amount of romantic roguishness attaches to moonshine whiskey nowadays. But how many of us could sustain the drinking habits of Colonial-era Americans?

| November 2014

Long before the first clay jug of moonshine whiskey dripped out of a homemade still, Colonial Americans consumed alcohol of questionable quality in generous quantities. Here, Moonshine author Jaime Joyce recounts an experiment that illustrates the difference between that era's drinking habits and our own. Excerpted from pages 16-20 of Moonshine (Zenith Press, 2014).

To understand the rise of moonshine whiskey and its place in American history, it helps to understand the country’s relationship with liquor and to know something about how the nation’s drinking habits and attitudes toward booze have changed over time. A fun starting point is an experiment conducted by writer Sarah Lohman, of Brooklyn, New York. Here’s what she did.

As a way to usher in 2012, Lohman bucked the health resolutions that so often mark the New Year and instead gave herself a bibulous challenge. For one day, Lohman drank like a Colonial American, which is to say that she drank a lot and at hours that might seem strange even to an alcoholic or a college student. She wrote about the experience on her blog, Four Pounds Flour, which focuses on 18th- and 19th-century American food and drink. Lohman’s January 5 blog post is titled, well, “Drink Like a Colonial American Day.”

At 8:30 a.m., Lohman began with a beverage of sugar, whiskey, water, and bitters. (In Colonial times, bitters, a blend of herbs and spices infused in high-proof alcohol, were thought to have healthgiving properties. Today, bitters are a key ingredient in cocktails.) After that, she and her boyfriend accompanied bacon, eggs, and toast with a tall mug of hard cider. Made from fermented apples, cider was a crowd pleaser in the 1700s. Diluted, it was given to children.

“Yes, I’m a little drunk,” Lohman posted at 9:38 a.m. (Of note, the cider Lohman drank was only 5% alcohol by volume; in Colonial times, the alcohol content of cider would have been twice that.)

At 11:00 a.m.: “It is now the ‘elevens’!!! The Colonial American equivalent of a coffee break!” Lohman wrote. She fixed herself a hot toddy with apple brandy. At 1:19 p.m.: “I’m hungover and it’s painful.” For lunch around 2:00, Lohman heated up a DiGiorno frozen pizza and consumed it with 12 ounces of hard cider. During the meal, she considered the schedule she’d need to keep up for the rest of the day to complete her booze-soaked exercise. With an early dinner, there would be more cider, followed by another small meal with drinks and a spirited nightcap. It was a dizzying agenda. After lunch, Lohman kicked back on the couch, turned on her TV, and quickly fell asleep. She woke up with a migraine. Her post at 5:48 p.m.: “That’s it. I’m calling it. I can’t continue.”

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