In Andrew Jackson's day, 150 years ago, Americans preferred whiskey over all other drinks. They had whiskey with their lunch, whiskey with their dinner and a good many of them took whiskey for breakfast.
Or even before breakfast. They had whiskey during their midmorning break and they had whiskey again in the midafternoon. When they retired for the night, they took another whiskey.
They drank as much whiskey as they could get their hands on as often as possible.
When the weather was cold, Americans took hot toddies of whiskey, sugar and hot water. In hot weather, they downed juleps compounded of whiskey, sugar and ice. Sometimes crushed mint was added to make a mint julep. At other times, bitters, lemon or spices were added. Many drank their whiskey straight -- a daring idea considering that the whiskey was colorless, biting, raw and commonly fresh from the still. It was never aged more than 30 days.
When there was no whiskey, Americans made do with the strongest and most powerful alcoholic substitutes, ranging from peach brandy to hard cider.
Mostly, however, they drank whiskey. Too, too much
Anne Royall, recounting her travel experiences as she crisscrossed the country in stagecoaches, wrote, "When I was in Virginia, it was too much whiskey -- in Ohio, too much whiskey -- in Tennessee, it is too, too much whiskey."
And there was lots of it. In 1830, the average adult drank nearly 10 gallons of hard liquor. When abstainers, mostly women, are excluded, it turns out that the typical American drinking man was putting away about a half pint of hard liquor a day. Today, Americans drink only about a quarter as much hard liquor.
Why did Americans in those days drink so much whiskey? For one thing, there was a drinking tradition that dated back to colonial times. Americans considered whiskey, rum, gin and brandy to be foods that supplemented limited and often monotonous diets. They were also seen as medications that would cure colds, reduce fevers, heal snakebites and ease the ache of a broken leg. Tradition, then, gave powerful reasons for drinking whiskey.
Americans drank whiskey because it was cheap and plentiful. By the 1820s, with the corn belt of the Midwest settled, farmers produced a corn surplus which could only be sold after the corn was distilled into whiskey. In the 1820's, whiskey cost as little as 25 cents a gallon.
Still, we might suspect that there was more to its popularity than that. Whiskey became the national drink primarily because other beverages had severe disadvantages. Besides, whiskey was the best complement to the American diet. Wretched water
Americans seldom drank water, which was generally wretched. The citizens of St. Louis, for example, had to let water from the Mississippi River stand before they could drink it. The sediment from the river often one-quarter of the container. Further downstream, at Natchez, the river water was too muddy to be drunk even after it had settled. Instead, people drank rain water, which they collected in roof cisterns. During frequent droughts, however, the cisterns were empty. Rural areas often lacked good water because deep wells were expensive and difficult to build, while the water from shallow wells was usually cloudy.
Washingtonians long had to depend upon water from private wells because of opposition to higher taxes to pay the cost of digging public wells. During the 1820s, the city's only piped water was from a privately-owned spring that supplied two blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Cincinnati was no better off.There most people drank water drawn in barrels from the frequently low and muddy Ohio River. To escape beclouded river water, wealthy citizens dug their own wells. These provided an ill-tasting drink "slightly impregnated with iron and salts."
Manhattan's shallow, brackish wells made conditions so bad that New Yorkers adopted a plan to dam the Croton River and transport its water 40 miles to the city. As soon as the aqueduct opened in 1842, residents began to switch from hard liquor to water.
Many thought water to be lowly and common; it was after all the drink of pigs, cows and horses. There were also those who thought that water could be lethal, especially if drunk in hot weather. From Virginia, Elijah Fletcher assured his father in Vermont, "I shall not injure my health in drinking water. I have not drank a tumbler full since here. We always have a boll of toddy made for dinner." Expensive tea
Americans also rejected tea, which was relatively expensive. During the 1820s, a cup of tea cost more than a glass of whiskey. As much as half the price of tea represented import duties, high because tea was imported from the British colony of India, carried in British ships and drunk by the rich. Tea remained unpopular even after the duties were lowered.
In 1832, the average American drank fewer than 250 cups. Most Americans considered tea to be a foreign luxury, and unpatriotic. While imported tea was popular in New England, it was so disliked in other sections that New Yorkers substituted glasses of wine at "tea parties," and westerners brewed their own sassafras, spicewood, mint and wild root teas.
Tea, though expensive, cost less per cup than coffee. Before 1825, tea outsold coffee. The annual consumption of coffee then was less than 100 cups per person. Imported coffee was such a luxury that many Americans drank unappetizing homemade substitutes concocted from rye grain, peas, brown bread or burned toast.
During the late 1820s, when the price of coffee dropped sharply, imports rose and consumption increased. This development delighted a number of people who saw coffee as a substitute for hard liquor. When Congress removed the duty on coffee in 1830, the price dropped again, and the cost of a cup of coffee was soon equal to the cost of a mixed drink. Surprising wine
Wine was expensive, costing four times as much per gallon as whiskey, and the average American drank little if any. Before 1820, many wealthy people who opposed hard liquor favored wine because they thought that it did not contain alcohol. It was an unpleasant surprise when chemist William Brande measured the alcohol in wine, showing that the favorite American wine, Madeira was more than 20 percent alcohol. During the 1820s, when temperance organizations publicized Brande's findings, the number of wine enthusiasts declined.
Nearly all the wine Americans drank was imported. To continue to purchase dutied, foreign beverages both worsened the American balance of payments and cast doubts upon the patriotism of the purchasers. Then, too, continuing to drink a form of refreshment that was priced beyond the means of the average citizen was considered elitist and undemocratic.
To resolve these conflicts, wine drinkers began to promote the planting of vineyards in the United States in order to produce a cheap, native wine. Men such as Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay experimented with grapes on their own land, encouraged others to do so and invited European vintners to immigrate to America to establish vineyards.
After 1830, those who had promoted American wine making began to recognize that the climate and soil in most of the United States were not suited to wine grapes. Instead, wine drinkers began to press for lower duties on imported wine. When Congress sharply reduced duties, lower prices did combine with prosperity to stimulate wine consumption. This increase appalled those who had advocated wine in lieu of whiskey when they discovered that former whiskey drinkers were getting drunk on fortified wine.
Adulteration of the wine sold in America led the leaders of the temperance movement to sacrifice the beverage on the altar of teetotalism. In addition, temperance men who had preached that the poor should give up whiskey while the rich might continue to drink wine came to recognize the political impossibility of that position. Reformers concluded that the wine-drinking upper classes had to set an example by renouncing their own drink. By the 1840's, teetotalism had caused the consumption of wine to fall by half. Unprofitable beer
Beer, like wine, was advocated as a substitute for hard liquor. As early as 1788, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a founder of the temperance movement, urged that Americans substitute beer for rum, brandy or whiskey. Farmers' guide books soon took up this theme; one called beer "the most wholesome beverage" and advised farm owners that if they replaced hard liquor with beer their workers would be able to perform "double the labor, with half the fatigue." The campaign for beer received official support from the federal government in the 1790s when the government taxed wine and whiskey but not beer.
Despite all this promotion, little beer was brewed.During 1810, each American drank less than one gallon; today, annual consumption is more than 18 gallons. Furthermore, the little beer that was drunk was not distributed evenly around the country. Lack of customers hampered the development of the industry because a low sales volume kept the price high. Beer sometimes cost more than whiskey. In Cincinnati, the center of the distilling industry, 18 cents would buy either a bottle of beer or more than a half gallon of whiskey.
Although beer was expensive, the brewing industry was not particularly profitable. Capitalists could make more money investing in other businesses - including taverns and distilleries. Furthermore, breweries required skilled labor, and getting and keeping skilled labor was difficult because of high wages.
Another problem was the American climate, which forced brewers who needed a cool brewhouse to close down during the long, hot summers. One reason that Milwaukee emerged as a brewing center was that it had relatively short summers. Finally, beer was so bulky, so expensive to transport and so difficult to store that it needed a concentrated market. Cheap and easy cider
During the early 19th century, whiskey's only rival as the national beverage came from apple orchards. Trees planted on farms in Virginia, Pennsylvania, parts of Ohio and New York and throughout New England produced a glut of apples. Plentiful supplies inhibited local sales, while high shipping costs and spoilage, before railroads, prohibited sales in a distant market. The farmer found the annual crop to be an embarrassment of riches. He could dry his fruit, but that process was not popular, and so he usually sent his apples to the cider press.
Cider making was so easy, cheap and low skilled that a farmer could afford to press apples strictly for family use. Cider was not usually widely sold because its bulk made its shipment unprofitable; hence little was drunk in the South or in cities.
Where the beverage was available, however, it was cheap, often half the price of beer, and highly alcoholic. To avoid spoilage, it was fortified with hard liquor until it contained at least 10 percent alcohol, twice as much as beer. Cider also was converted into stronger beverages. Cider royal was hard cider mixed with distilled apple brandy or whiskey.Apple jack was the 20 percent alcoholic liquor that could be poured off after hard cider had been set outside to freeze on a autumn night.
Cider and whiskey were America's most popular drinks. Both were cheap and plentiful where available, and because they were processed in the United States from home-grown products, both benefited from nationalistic sentiment. Of these two beverages, Americans preferred whiskey because it was the strongest. Monotonous food
This taste for strong drink was enhanced by the monotony of the American diet, which was dominated by corn. In the winter Americans ate dried, parched corn kernals; in the summer, roasted green ears; in the autumn, freshly boiled golden ripe ears dripping with melted butter. But it was corn pummeled into hominy or ground into meal that was ever present at all seasons. It appeared on the table three times a day as fried johnny cakes or corn bread, Indian pudding with milk and sugar or the unbiquitous corn mush. Ordinary bread was baked with flour compounded of corn and rye; bread made with white flour was a luxury for the rich or for special occasions.
Corn was also fed to the hogs, and the hog meat was eaten in the form of salt pork, smoked ham and lard. Each day, it was calculated, the typical adult American ate a pound of bread, most often made with corn meal, and a pound of meat, usually salt pork.
During the 1820s, an astonished traveler found that in Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, he could obtain no provisions except salt pork, biscuits and whiskey. A lack of milk meant that corn mush might be served with molasses, maple syrup or even the oil obtained from the blubbery fat of a bear.
Erratic food supplies led to odd combinations. Near Philadelpia, men building a railroad were observed dinning on watermelons, cucumbers and whiskey. And a Swede who visited the Alabama frontier was served a three-course dinner that began with pickled pigs feet, advanced to bacon and molasses and concluded with a main course of milk and black bread soaked in whiskey.
Even where food was abundant, its preservation was difficult or impossible. Before 1850 home canning was unknown, but even if the process had been developed, its widespread use would have been precluded by the high prices of glass jars and sugar. Nor was there cold storage except for primitive burial. Without refrigeration, food spoiled very rapidly in the scorching American summers. Climatic conditions favored dry, salty foods that did not spoil readily, foods such as parched corn, smoked hams or salt pork.
Cooking techniques were primitive. Before 1850, for example, corn bread was usually fried in a skillet over a fire rather than baked because most households had no stoves and no ovens except cumbersome, portable Dutch ovens placed over the open hearth.
Without ovens, American cooks had to either boil or fry. Boiling, however, was never popular with American cooks, who tended to be in a hurry. Fried foods became the American gastronomic speciality, and the country's breakfasts, dinners and suppers were soon floating in "extraordinary rivers of butter and oceans of grease."
Fried fish, chicken, ham, salt pork, beefsteak, eggs, johnny cakes and mush poured forth from the nation's kitchens. To one traveler who faced bread that arrived at the breakfast table already afloat "in a menstrum of oleaginous matter," it seemed that grease entered "largely into the composition of every dish.
Heavy, oily foods, especially fried corn cakes and salt pork, left Americans in need of a complimentary beverage. The commonest beverage turned out to be whiskey. The strength of its flavor overcame the blandness of corn mush and johnny cakes, while its sweetness neutralized the unpleasant puckering effects of salt pork. Its high proportion of alcohol warmed the throat and cleansed the mouth of layers of clammy grease. Tradition taught that hard liquor aided digestion, and Americans who indulged in starchy fried foods needed an aid to digestion.
Furthermore, in a country where food supplies were sometimes erratic, whiskey could, at 83 calories an ounce, provide a substantial part of an American's daily food requirements.
Americans in Andrew Jackson's day believed that God had made corn for America and Americans for corn. Thus, they naturally thought of whiskey as their national drink. Wrote distiller Harrison Hall in defense of this sentiment, "The French sip brandy; the Hollanders swallow gin; the Irish glory in their whiskey; surely John Bull finds 'meat and drink' in his porter -- and why should not our countrymen have a national beverage?"
And so whiskey did become the national beverage. It even managed to achieve a status that transcended that of the lowly pork and corn meal it so often accompanied. Americans sang such verses as:
Mid plenty of bacon
and bread tho' we jog,
Be it ever so strong,
there's nothing like grog.
Somehow, it was not possible to write such lines about beer. Or wine. Or water. From "The Alcoholic Republic," by W. J. Rorabaugh. (c) 1979, Oxford University Press, Inc., all rights reserved.