Moonshine Whiskey and Alcohol Consumption in American History

In order to better understand alcohol’s role in historical American life, one person attempted to drink like a Colonial American for one day.

| February 2015

  • Whiskey Barrels
    In 1770, it’s estimated that Colonial Americans each drank approximately 6.6 gallons of pure alcohol per year. As of 2011, consumption per capita is now 2.28 gallons of pure alcohol per year.
    Photo by Fotolia/Akio Koizumi
  • Moonshine
    Author Jaime Joyce takes a complete and thorough look at moonshine whiskey and alcohol’s effects on the United States of America and its citizens' ancestors in “Moonshine.”
    Cover courtesy Zenith Press

  • Whiskey Barrels
  • Moonshine

Moonshine goes by many names, but what is it, really? In Moonshine (Zenith Press, 2014), author Jaime Joyce examines the relationship that historical America had with moonshine whiskey and other liquor. This excerpt, which describes how the United States’ attitudes towards liquor have changed and how overall consumption has decreased over time, is from Chapter 1, “‘The Pernicious Practice of Distilling’ in Early America.”

Moonshine Whiskey in American History

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 percent 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 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.

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