A Mostly-True History of Whiskey in America, Part I

When you think about our country’s founders, many of you may think about the Pilgrims and assume that alcohol use is more prominent now than it was in the early days of the country. You would be wrong. Our forefathers could easily drink us under the table.

“In colonial times, Americans probably drank more alcohol than in any other era. Spirits were an integral part of daily life throughout the colonies no matter the geographic or economic differences. It was reported that the average American drank eight ounces of alcohol a day. And it didn’t matter what. Americans drank beer, and cider with breakfast; rum and wine with dinner; claret, ratafias, creams, punches, and other concoctions in the evening. (Robinson, 2001)”  (emphasis added)

The reason for this is, in part (but only part), water. We take potable water for granted, but this was not true in the early days of our country. Water was simply not as safe or healthy to drink as alcohol. While you could boil it, this releases dissolved oxygen and makes it taste bad. The alternative was to add some grain and allow for fermentation and you have something safe, good tasting and fun to consume: booze.

Even among the pilgrims, vast amounts of alcohol were consumed. When the Puritans railed against alcohol, it did not include beer or cider, which they considered “food.” They only meant distilled spirits.

Indeed, the “Pilgrims loaded more beer than water on the Mayflower. And, there is some evidence that they were put off at Plymouth, rather than Virginia, because the ship’s crew wished to make sure they had enough beer to consume on the return voyage. (Royce, 1981)”

“The ingredients for beer did not grow well in New England. As a substitute, the Puritans made do with hard cider. The many apple orchards of the area were planted for its production. Men usually began the day with a quart or more at breakfast.” Id.

The Puritans even brewed a lower-alcohol version beer, called Small Beer, for children. You don’t want them drinking water, after all.

Drunkenness amongst the Puritans became so bad that by 1660 several legal measures were taken to reign it in, including a ban on the sale of strong beers at taverns, bans on paying for labor with liquor, and outlawing drunkenness, defined to mean when a person “lisps or falters in his speech by reason of overmuch drink or that staggers in his going or that vomits by reason of excessive drinking or cannot follow his calling.”  It certainly sounds like they were familiar with alcohol.

By comparison to our “Founding Fathers,” however, these Puritans were teetotalers. ““Revolutionary War era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman’s average consumption: ‘Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.’” (As cited in Washington and Kitman, 1970)”

It should come as no great surprise to anyone that Revolutionary rabble-rouser, Sam Adams, was fueled by beer. After all, there is still a beer company named after him. He was known as “Sam the Publican” a reference to his fondness for taverns.

Paul Revere’s famous “Midnight ride” to warn his fellow patriots that “the British were coming” was actually America’s first pub crawl. Word spread quickly because the people he was warning were at the many taverns at which he stopped along the way. He admits in his journals that he had had a few pints before the pub crawl – I mean “ride” —  was over.

Ben Franklin, America’s first reality star, said that “beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.” He also wrote The Drinker’s Dictionary, which included over 200 euphemisms for getting drunk. The complete list appears below.

The first person to “put his John Hancock” to something, John Hancock, was a renowned booze smuggler. He probably smuggled more liquor into the colonies while it was under British rule than anyone else. He ended up being sued by the British government for unpaid taxes to the tune of about $7 million in today’s money. No wonder he signed the Declaration of Independence with such flourish – also, he was probably drunk.

One of the early conventions to discuss the contents of our Constitution was held at George Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland.

Our first President, George Washington, was well known as a drinker. His Revolutionary War personal expense account indicates that he spent over six thousand dollars on alcohol from September 1775 to March 1776. (Washington & Kitman, 1970). He also was known to have given his soldiers an allocation of rye whiskey to get them through the rough winter at Valley Forge. After his retirement from the Presidency, he opened a commercial distilling operation at Mount Vernon, becoming America’s largest rye whiskey producer by the time of his death.

Our second President, John Adams, started each day with a swig of hard cider before he would eat breakfast. He drank three glasses of Madeira, a wine fortified with rum – think Mad Dog 20/20 — every night before bed. During the bad old days of British taxation, Adams didn’t hink he could possibly survive, writing to his wife, Abagail, that “I am getting nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this cause alone.”  He once attempted to use his status as a diplomat (i.e., “diplomatic immunity”) to bring in 500 bottles of French wine without paying taxes.  Upon failing, he had Thomas Jefferson do it for him.

The aforementioned Jefferson, our third President, was quite fond of wine.  As President, he imported more than 20,000 bottles for his personal collection. Between 1822 and 1824, records indicate he and his guests consumed around 1,200 bottles of French wine at Monticello. He considered himself quite sober, however, commenting that he only drank 3 to 4 glasses of wine at dinner every night.

Jefferson’s disciple, and the primary architect of our Constitution, James Madison, was a light-weight by colonial standards. He was known as a “one-pint man,” meaning he merely consumed one pint of whiskey per day, as opposed to being a more common “two-pint” and “three-pint” man. The next time you hear a legal scholar discuss the “original intent” of the Constitution, just shake your head because even its author, James Madison, probably didn’t know what he meant the morning after, having written much of it while two pints into a one pint day.

So, if you’re reading this blog because you are interested in bourbon and other whiskies, consider yourself in very good company – at least as to your boozy interest, not the “reading this blog” part, since our Founding Fathers were not really not that into blogs.

The next “Mostly-True History” lesson will discuss the rise of whiskey in America.

Ben Franklin’s 200 terms for being wasted (surprisingly, “wasted” is not one of them):



casting up his Accounts,


in his Airs.


Biggy [not to be confused with rapper Biggie Smalls/Notorious B.I.G.],


Block and Block,



Been at Barbadoes,

Piss’d in the Brook,

Drunk as a Wheel-Barrow,




Has Stole a Manchet out of the Brewer’s Basket [a manchet is a small yeast roll],

His Head is full of Bees,

Has been in the Bibbing Plot,

Has drank more than he has bled,

He’s Bungey,

As Drunk as a Beggar,

He sees the Bears,

He’s kiss’d black Betty [a “black Betty” is a whiskey jug],

He’s had a Thump over the Head with Sampson’s Jawbone,

He’s Bridgey.


He’s Cat [sounds like something out of the beatnik era, daddy-o],





Cherry Merry [should have been popular in the 1970s: “dude, he’s cherry merry from the mellow yellow”],

Wamble Crop’d,



Half Way to Concord,

Has taken a Chirriping-Glass,

Got Corns in his Head,

A Cup too much,



He’s heat his Copper,

He’s Crocus,


He cuts his Capers,

He’s been in the Cellar,

He’s in his Cups,

Non Compos,






Loaded his Cart,

He’s been too free with the Creature,

Sir Richard has taken off his Considering Cap,

He’s Chap-fallen,


He’s Disguiz’d,

He’s got a Dish,

Kill’d his Dog,

Took his Drops,

It is a Dark Day with him,

He’s a Dead Man [now a threat made by an internet tough guy],

Has Dipp’d his Bill [sounds like this should refer to something else …],

He’s Dagg’d,

He’s seen the Devil,


He’s Prince Eugene [that just sounds mean to poor Eugene.  Isn’t living with the name Eugene bad enough?],


Wet both Eyes,

Cock Ey’d,

Got the Pole Evil,

Got a brass Eye,

Made an Example,

He’s Eat a Toad & half for Breakfast [what?].

In his Element,


He’s Fishey,



Sore Footed,

Frozen [I don’t remember drinking in that Movie]

Well in for’t,

Owes no Man a Farthing,

Fears no Man,

Crump Footed,

Been to France,


Froze his Mouth,


Been to a Funeral,

His Flag is out,


Spoke with his Friend,

Been at an Indian Feast [that’s not politically correct, Ben].


He’s Glad,





Booz’d the Gage,

As Dizzy as a Goose,

Been before George,

Got the Gout,

Had a Kick in the Guts,

Been with Sir John Goa,

Been at Geneva,


Got the Glanders.


Half and Half,


Top Heavy,

Got by the Head,


Got on his little Hat {also sounds like it refers to something else …],


Loose in the Hilts,

Knows not the way Home,

Got the Hornson,

Haunted with Evil Spirits,

Has Taken Hippocrates grand Elixir,


He’s Intoxicated [pretty on the nose, Ben],




Going to Jerusalem,


Been to Jerico,



He’s a King [don’t we all feel like that],

Clips the King’s English,

Seen the French King,

The King is his Cousin,

Got Kib’d Heels,


Het his Kettle.


He’s in Liquor,


He makes Indentures with his Leggs,

Well to Live,





He sees two Moons,





Seen a Flock of Moons,




Rais’d his Monuments,



He’s eat the Cocoa Nut,


Got the Night Mare,


He’s Oil’d,

Eat Opium [that’s not drunk, that’s stoned],

Smelt of an Onion [yuck, what were you drinking?],




He drank till he gave up his Half-Penny,

Pidgeon Ey’d,



As good conditioned as a Puppy,

Has scalt his Head Pan,

Been among the Philistines,

In his Prosperity,

He’s been among the Philippians,

He’s contending with Pharaoh,

Wasted his Paunch,

He’s Polite,

Eat a Pudding Bagg,


He’s Quarrelsome,


He’s Rocky,




Lost his Rudder,



Been too free with Sir Richard,

Like a Rat in Trouble.


He’s Stitch’d,


In the Sudds,


Been in the Sun,

As Drunk as David’s Sow,


His Skin is full,

He’s Steady,

He’s Stiff,

He’s burnt his Shoulder,

He’s got his Top Gallant Sails out,

Seen the yellow Star,

As Stiff as a Ring-bolt,

Half Seas over,

His Shoe pinches him,


It is Star-light with him,

He carries too much Sail,





Been too free with Sir John Strawberry,

He’s right before the Wind with all his Studding Sails out,

Has Sold his Senses.


He’s Top’d,



Tipium Grove,

Double Tongu’d,

Topsy Turvey,


Has Swallow’d a Tavern Token,

He’s Thaw’d,

He’s in a Trance,

He’s Trammel’d,


He makes Virginia Fence,


Got the Indian Vapours [again, that’s not politically correct, Ben],


The Malt is above the Water,

He’s Wise,

He’s Wet,

He’s been to the Salt Water,

He’s Water-soaken,

He’s very Weary,

Out of the Way.

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