Alcohol has shaped American history since before the Pilgrims even disembarked from the Mayflower. In the early days of the United States, beer was considered much safer than water for drinking—so virtually everyone was at least a little buzzed. Later, the U.S. would ban alcohol altogether—then ratify the first and only repeal of a Constitutional amendment to end the ban. Author Susan Cheever’s latest book, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, traces the arc of America’s relationship with booze. Here are 11 facts we learned about hooch’s history in America from it.
1. THE PILGRIMS HAD TO LAND ON CAPE COD BECAUSE THEY WERE RUNNING OUT OF BEER.
The Mayflower went askew in its 1620 voyage to Virginia, landing instead on the cold shores of what would become Massachusetts. Dwindling beer supplies were part of the reason they didn’t keep sailing toward their destination. The ship was due to return to England after dropping them off, and the captain needed enough beer to supply his crew for the voyage, and the Pilgrims need to get on shore and start setting up their own brewing operations as soon as possible. “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer,” settler William Bradford wrote of the voyage in 1622.
2. THE PURITANS BROUGHT 10,000 GALLONS OF BEER WITH THEM.
Ten years after the Pilgrims landed in America and founded Plymouth, the Puritans followed, with 10,000 gallons of beer, 120 casks of malt for brewing, and 12 gallons of Dutch gin. Each one of the 700 men and women also brought three casks of seeds—wheat, rye, and barley.
3. ONE OF THE FIRST STRUCTURES BUILT IN PLYMOUTH WAS A BREW HOUSE.
Because beer was generally considered healthier than drinking water in the Pilgrims’ English homeland, they drank a lot of it. In scarcer times, they figured out how to make beer out of almost anything, including oats, carrots, and corn. However, they didn’t necessarily condone drunken behavior. In 1635, the Plymouth Colony outlawed public drunkenness. Punishments included time in the stocks or public whippings. “The Pilgrims—men, women, and children—were all impaired a great deal of the time,” as Cheever writes.
4. TAVERNS WERE THE EARLY AMERICAN COURTHOUSES.
Boston got its first government building in 1658. Before that, colonists held court in pubs like John Turner’s Tavern. By 1689, the city had one pub for every 20 adult men.
5. INITIALLY, HARVARD HAD A BREWERY.
The nation’s oldest university, founded in 1636, placed great importance on beer. In the 1600s, it had one brewery. By 1703, it had three. Unfortunately for beer lovers, Harvard began placing more emphasis on academics than its fermented beverages as the century progressed. The only remaining Harvard brewery burned down in 1814.
6. THE BOSTON TEA PARTY WAS A DRUNKEN AFFAIR.
Originally, 19 men who crept onto the three tea ships in Boston Harbor and wrested control from their captains were just supposed to keep the tea from being unloaded, forcing the ships to return their cargo to England. But, fueled by a planning session at the Green Dragon Tavern, the Sons of Liberty got a little carried away. Instead of simply making sure the tea couldn't be offloaded, they dumped it overboard. The political protest and its aftermath would become a major catalyst leading to the revolution.
7. PAUL REVERE’S RIDE INCLUDED A STOP FOR A DRINK.
In 1775, British soldiers set out from Boston to destroy military supplies in Concord, Massachusetts, and capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington. As the soldiers prepared to march, Paul Revere set out from Boston on horseback to warn Hancock and Adams. He had quite a lead on the slow-marching army, though, and midway through his ride, Revere stopped for a drink at a friend’s tavern in Medford. He had two tall glasses of rum before continuing on to Lexington.
8. WHISKEY HAS DECIDED AMERICAN BATTLES.
In 1862, Confederate soldiers stopped a Union supply train in Virginia. Instead of fighting the Union troops, the soldiers plundered the whiskey on board the train, and allowed the Union forces to slink away.
9. WHISKEY BUILT THE ERIE CANAL.
The workers digging the vital canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, mostly Irish immigrants, were paid 50 cents and 32 ounces of whiskey a day, including a 2-ounce shot when they woke up at 6 a.m.
10. PROHIBITION DIDN’T STOP WHITE HOUSE PARTIES.
Warren G. Harding loved whiskey, and he didn’t let a little thing called the 18th Amendment stop him from enjoying it. His parties were occasionally even supplied by confiscated liquor from the IRS’s Prohibition Unit, which was tasked with enforcing the alcohol ban.
11. SEVERAL PRESIDENTS HAVE BEEN BREWERS, DISTILLERS, AND WINE MAKERS.
Liquor was Mount Vernon’s most profitable output—in 1798, the distillery produced 10,000 gallons of whiskey. Washington later branched out into brandy, wine, and beer. After becoming obsessed with wine during his time as Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson built two vineyards at Monticello. Warren G. Harding was a part owner of Old Overholt, the rye whiskey distillery.
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