History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 October 2011

George Washington's Riotous Spirits

Riotous spirits – and George Washington? Relax, I’m talking about how George Washington used his era’s relaxed attitudes toward alcohol to advance his career.

Back in the eighteenth century, fresh water wasn’t always clean. In fact, it was often muddy, slimy – or worse. Drinking alcoholic beverages was healthier. Alcohol cured the sick and strengthened the weak. Women in labor received a shot or two to relieve their discomfort. Social occasions – such as christenings, weddings, funerals, trials, even craftsmen’s work – were lubricated by the delicious spirits.

People drank their way through the day. John Adams started his day with hard cider, Patrick Henry smuggled wine and served home brew to guests while governor of Virginia, and Samuel Adams managed his father’s brewery. Frankly, most didn’t care what anyone else thought of how much they consumed. Social drinking was simply a necessity of life – especially when it came to elections.

In Colonial America, elections were held where the voters could be found. Thus, the polling places were next to the neighborhood tavern and every ambitious politician courted votes in the taproom. Young George Washington was no different. Legend says he handed out free beers to win his first election to Virginia’s House of Burgesses.

Virginia chose different libations as it grew from a colony to a state. Madeira wine, imported in English ships, was popular for the great wine punches. Colonists distilled their own rum from molasses but ruefully understood good Caribbean rum’s higher quality. Cider and beer were easily brewed locally and became the principal drinks during the Revolution, when imports dried up.

After the Revolution, Virginians needed to reconsider their drinks, since they couldn’t obtain cheap booze from other English colonies any more. George Washington needed to find new sources of income, to make up for what he’d lost during the Revolution. With a new plantation manager’s help, he established a distillery and produced rye whiskey, America’s original signature whiskey.

Rye whiskey was so important to the United States’ citizens that Northerners rose up in arms over it, in the Whiskey Rebellion. American rye whiskey, as distinct from its Canadian brethren, must include at least 51 percent rye. It’s a different whiskey than bourbon and often described as edgier. George Washington and his friends drank it neat. Humphrey Bogart’s generation enjoyed manhattans made with rye, a more dynamic drink than the same cocktail made with bourbon.

Washington’s rye whiskey was so fine, that he soon had the largest distillery in the nation, turning out 10,000 gallons a year. It also produced peach and apple brandy, to provide the General more income than any other part of his plantation.

Today, Mount Vernon is once again distilling rye whiskey to provide riotous spirits for Virginia’s citizens. It’s based on George Washington’s original recipe – or mash bill – and created using traditional ingredients and techniques. The first year’s production sold out in one day.

I think the General would be proud – and would want to join the parties where it’s featured.

What historical drink would you like to taste? Have you ever read a historical scene where the drinks surprised you?

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Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Fascinating post, Diane. I always thought rye was one of those pre-Prohibition-era spirits, but never knew it went back so early! Come to think of it, I should have, because of that folk song "Coming Through the Rye". I've never tasted rye, though I've always wanted to try it. I remember it being an absolute staple in my parents' and grandparents' liquor cabinets, alongside the other spirits, although throughout my childhood I can't remember a single person ever asking for a cocktail mixed with rye.

As for historical drinks, I'd like to taste ratafia. I've written enough about it, I suppose it's high time to imbibe some.

3:38 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'd like to taste the kind of gin they drank during the Georgian era. From all descriptions, it was VERY different from the juniper-infused gin of today. It almost sounds like a fruity vodka.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Leslie - Congrats on having family members who actually drank rye whiskey! My family went for more northern alcohols, like vodka and aqua vit.

Have you ever been to Williamsburg in December, during the Grand Illumination? They offer all kinds of period drinks to enjoy the fireworks by, including ratafia. It's very evocative.

Isobel - I didn't know Georgian gin was that different from today's. Thanks!

I've heard that 19th century cocktails were very centered on fresh fruits and vegetables, but I've never found a recipe. I'd love to work some of them into a scene, though.

10:18 AM  

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