In the musical 1776, Stephen "Old Grape and Guts" Hopkins bursts into the Continental Congress' meeting room each morning demanding rum before getting down to the day's business. Of course, there may have been some license taken with his character, for John Adams claimed in later writings that the aged Rhode Island delegate never drank until 8 p.m.
His drink of choice? Well, the musical got it right: rum. "It gave him wit, humour, anecdotes, science and learning," Adams recorded--and thus Hopkins would keep the Congress talking until the late hours.
Simply put, the Founding Fathers enjoyed a good buzz. Thomas Jefferson was a noted expert on wine. In fact, he referred to it as one of life's necessities...a point he took so seriously that well over 1,000 bottles were consumed at Monticello in one two year stretch. George Washington brewed beer and distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon. And Adams himself guzzled hard cider before breakfast.
These were hard drinking times, in part due to the general assumption (for the most part true) that water was often less than safe. For that reason the Pilgrims packed more beer on board the Mayflower than water. Rum became such a popular pastime that distilleries popped up all over New England, eventually becoming the region's most important industry and motivation for the "triangle trade" of slaves, molasses and the spirit with Africa and the Caribbean.
And in an era when Americans young and old downed an estimated eight ounces of alcohol each day, taverns became the focus of civic and social life.
Now, apart from Jefferson, few colonial Americans could get their hands on decent vintage wine. They had access, however, to plenty of Madeira, a wine fortified with grape spirits (grappa, for instance) that could withstand long voyages and remain drinkable for decades--if not centuries. They also traded for port and sherry, as well as making their own fruit wines.
Beers could be palatable. Or it could be flavored with birch or sassafras bark. Frontier farmers produced corn or grain whiskey. Orchards provided the fruit necessary for ciders and ratafias, or fruit-based liqueurs.
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There was no shortage of drink.
Some of their preferences would stretch today's palates, of course. The range of punches they created were staggering. Hot buttered rum--a rarity nowadays--warmed settlers over long winters. And flip, a popular cocktail of rum, beer and sugar heated until it steamed, seems like a waste of three good ingredients.
But rum, Madeira, some cloudy beer, cheap whiskey, hard cider, fruit brandy--or all of the above poured into one big punch bowl--make for a truly patriotic Independence Day celebration.
As even John Hancock wails during one particularly contentious debate in 1776, "get me a rum."