Moonshine Whiskey: Our Historic Drinking Habits

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You can use a glass, but an empty mason jar is more than suitable for drinking moonshine.
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"Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry. If I don't get rye whiskey I think I will die."
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The history of moonshine whiskey and other popular, unsanctioned alcoholic beverages.

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.”

The result of Lohman’s experiment, aside from a killer hangover, was an up-close-and-personal view of our hard-drinking ancestors. What would be considered heavy alcohol consumption today used to be common. It’s estimated that in 1770, Colonial Americans 15 years and older each drank 7 gallons of spirits, 0.2 gallons of wine, and 34 gallons of hard cider a year. That translates into 6.6 gallons of pure alcohol. Compare that to recent government figures, which show that in 2011, per capita consumption of pure alcohol for individuals 14 and older stood at 2.28 gallons.

In 1620, the Pilgrims carried alcohol with them on their voyage to the New World. Provisions on the Mayflower included salted meats, cured fish, butter, cheese, and barrels of beer. Alcohol was believed to give men energy, which they’d need for working the colony’s rough and untamed land. Not only that—beer was considered safer and more wholesome than the water in Plymouth, which often was muddied or polluted or tasted of iron.

Drinking was part of everyday life. Drunkenness, however, was frowned upon. Colonial leaders saw it as a threat to their settlements. Some passed laws against it. Others called for an outright ban on alcohol. Drunkards faced fines and punishments, including public whipping. Some were sentenced to confinement in stocks. John Winthrop, while on board the Arbella as it sailed from England to New England, in the spring of 1630, wrote in his journal about the problem of alcohol. “A maid servant in the ship, being stomach sick, drank so much strong water, that she was senseless, and had near killed herself,” he noted in an entry dated May 3. He continued, musing on his discussions with shipmates: “We observed it a common fault in our young people, that they gave themselves to drink hot waters very immoderately.” Three years later, as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop wrote about a settler who faced one of the most humiliating consequences of indulgence: “Robert Cole, having been oft punished for drunkenness, was now ordered to wear a red D about his neck for a year.”

But punishing drunks didn’t keep them from drinking. In 1654, the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to curtail alcohol use with a law aimed at tavern owners, innkeepers, and ordinary citizens:

“None licensed to sell strong waters, nor any private housekeeper, shall permit any person or persons to sit tippling strong waters, wine, or strong beer in their houses, under severe penalties—for the first offence twenty shillings, and in default of payment to be set in the stocks; for the second offence, twenty shillings and forfeiture of license; for the third, to be put under a twenty pound bond for good behavior, with two sufficient sureties, or be committed to prison.”

Where did the colonists get all this alcohol? Beer was imported from England, while wine, enjoyed by wealthier settlers, sailed on ships from Spain and France. It wasn’t long, however, before colonists, not content to await shipments from the motherland, took the do-it-yourself approach. By the 1630s, they’d already begun to brew their own beer, and to ferment and distill native fruits and other ingredients. “We can make liquor to sweeten our lips, / Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips,” went a catchy rhyme. Hard cider was a particular favorite. It was part of the social fabric, the quaff of weddings, funerals, meetings, and other events of daily life.

Moonshine, written by Jaime Joyce, was published by Zenith Press in 2014. It’s available at our store: Moonshine

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