Corin Hirsch’s fascination with the drinks of colonial New England began as an off-shoot of her interest in the artisanal food and beverage scene of Vermont and its environs. When an offer came her way to investigate the drinks scene from an historical perspective, she jumped at the chance to delve into the stories of the drinkways underlying the quotidian lives of New England’s colonials, resulting in her charming and well-illustrated book, replete with recipes, Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England.
Modern imbibers who live by the ‘five o’clock’ rule are often stunned to learn that colonials often began their day with a healthy nip or two–or even more. Beers, ales, and hard ciders (made widely available in New England by the eighteenth century as apple orchards proliferated) were common and thought to be safer than water, especially in urban centers with sometimes iffy sanitation. Locally grown fruits and grains that could be fermented in lightly alcoholic brews were certainly more widespread than the relatively pricey coffee or tea that had to be imported and subject to British taxation. Mornings typically started with a tankard of beer or cider, followed by another tankard-full at elevenses (a late morning break tradition brought over from England to sustain workers until the mid-afternoon dinner hour), just to keep hydrated during all the physical labors that were common to much of colonial life. An unresolved question is tipsy all this imbibing made the colonists; while some writers like to portray the colonists as drunkards (and some undoubtedly were), the relatively low alcohol content perhaps yielded nothing more than a pleasant glow that was welcome, whether laboring in the fields or in poorly-heated colonial buildings. By evening, depending on social class, the tipples might have shifted to wine, madeira, or brandy in upper-class homes. Students at Harvard were served beer from Harvard’s own brewery, as well as wine. Less sympathetic to the pleasure of alcohol were the founders of Dartmouth: its founding charter attempted to prohibit taverns within three miles of the college, although within a decade of its founding, the college president wrote with dismay to the governor of New Hampshire, ruing a particularly raucous tavern across from the college that had students dancing on the table at their elevenses.
But much consumption took place in the tavern, the locus of social and political life in colonial New England. Taverns performed multiple functions in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries, acting not only as a place for travelers to sojourn, but as clearing houses for news (in addition to the coffeehouses that attracted the merchant class intent on conducting serious business) and political debate. While some taverns had broad liquid offerings, many specialized in a particular drink–anachronistically ‘cocktails’ as that term only came into usage in the early nineteenth century–often guided by local availabilities of ingredients. And it is some of these tavern specialties that were a gustatory highlight of Hirsch’s talk, where she included a tutored tasting of three colonial-era drinks: Flip, Rattle Skull, and Stone Fence (pictured here in a modern-looking interpretation), as well as some colonial treats pre-talk, including pickled vegetables, Boston Brown Bread, and a luscious syllabub.
The Stone Fence brought together two of the key alcohols central to Hirsch’s talk: rum and cider, in a ratio of 2 parts rum to five parts hard apple cider, nowadays enlivened with a dash of bitters. Hirsch relayed (with a scholarly degree of skepticism) the folklore that Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys fortified themselves with generous slugs of Stone Fence before attacking and successfully overcoming the English forces at Fort Ticonderoga in the early stages of the Revolutionary War. The importance of rum in the colonists’ daily lives should not be underestimated, nor can the spectre of slavery be ignored: by the mid-seventeenth century, rum had become a welcome and widely-consumed secondary byproduct of the infamous Triangle Trade, as rum could be distilled from molasses, the byproduct of sugar refining. While the earliest rums were distilled in the Caribbean, mellowing along the journey from the islands to New England and then on to England, the colonists soon began buying the molasses to distill their own product. By the early eighteenth century, rum exports were a significant part of the colonial economy and British taxation and tariffs on sugar and molasses were one of the economic provocations (along with print and tea taxes) that fed revolutionary fervor.
After the Revolutionary War, rum’s importance declined as whisky, produced from local grains, rose in economic importance. But The Whisky Rebellion, and the changing role of booze in the lives of New Nation Americans, is a story for another time.