It should be well-known that the Founding Fathers, as well as most early Americans, were fond of a drink. It wasn’t uncommon for citizens to start their day with a quart of hard cider and Benjamin Franklin himself noted some of his employees would take a pint in between each meal. He would later record more than 200 synonyms for “drunk.” Judging from the bar tab for a 1787 farewell party held for George Washington, those synonyms were used frequently. Adjusted for inflation and converted to US dollars, the party cost roughly $15,400, which is a shit-ton of money to spend on alcohol.
With that, here’s how to drink just like the Founding Fathers this Fourth of July:
Currently, we’re in the middle of what feels like a craft beer renaissance, with breweries popping up on both coasts of the country and everywhere in between. But what seems like uncharted territory is really just us returning to the 18th century and, in some respects, even earlier. We think we like beer now, but consider this. It’s currently illegal to stop a road trip and pick up more beer because you drank it all on the drive. In 1620, that’s why the Pilgrims didn’t make it to Virginia. The Mayflower was packed with more beer than water and it still wasn’t enough. It may have been the single greatest booze cruise in the history of man and the Pilgrims, of all people, were so hardcore they founded a colony just to resupply for the trip back to England.
Not that long after, beer was produced locally almost down to the household. Families in rural America brewed their own beer in small amounts for home consumption while larger breweries supplied individual cities, rarely expanding. It was, along with cider, served to everyone eating breakfast, including children. And if you were traveling, tradition dictated you stop in for a drink at each tavern you passed, making every trip a bar crawl.
George Washington produced beer for the common people as well. In a notebook he kept during the French and Indian War, George Washington included a recipe for small beer, a lower-quality, low-alcohol brew. It’s not a complicated recipe and was meant for paid servants and possibly soldiers in the British Army. The notebook includes details about Washington’s daily life in the Virginia militia, suggesting brewing was as commonplace to the guy on the one-dollar bill as a one-dollar bill is to us.
There was a tasting of a limited run of Washington’s brew done in midtown Manhattan this time last year. Pete Taylor helped decipher the recipe and actually brewed the beer, which apparently turned out well and leaned toward the sweet side. If you’re looking to get some for your July 4th, your best bet might be brewing your own, but Yards Brewing does make General Washington’s Tavern Porter, which was inspired by the writings of the General.
Thomas Jefferson was even more active in the brewing life. Jefferson and his wife, as newly-weds, brewed fifteen-gallon batches of small beer every two weeks. Eventually, Jefferson expanded his brewing and by 1814 there was a brewhouse in Monticello and Jefferson was malting his own grain. Not long after, friends and neighbors were asking for Jefferson’s recipe and sending servants to train in his methods, so something right was happening at the Virginia estate. If you want to sample something similar, Yards makes Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, based on when they worked with City Tavern in Philadelphia to recreate Jefferson’s recipe. City Tavern’s been around in one form or another since before the Revolution and they’ve staked their reputation on being authentic to the time, so they’re a safe bet for drinking like a revolutionary.
If you’re indecisive or can’t pick a favorite president, Yards offers an Ales of the Revolution 12-pack. You get the porter, the ale, and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, based on Benjamin Franklin’s recipe. Each beer has been around for a little while, with Poor Richard’s being the most recent addition in 2005, but it’s always worth calling attention to a good bit of alcoholic historical preservation.
Jefferson may have dominated the Founding Father beer market at Monticello, but Mount Vernon was the whiskey juggernaut. In February of 1797, Washington’s first eighty gallons were produced and by June he was expanding. Though, surprisingly, the man behind the success of the whiskey wasn’t Washington. It was the Scotch-Irish John Anderson. His recipe first called for only wheat, but eventually he moved to a mixture of rye, corn, and a little barley.
In fact, Anderson was so successful Washington trusted him to run the distillery, saying “Distillery is a business I am entirely unacquainted with,” and that it was Anderson’s confidence that even convinced Washington to go into the business in the first place. Good thing he did too, because what started as a small batch distillation turned into the most successful commercial distillery in Virginia.
Mount Vernon is still distilling. While the spirits aren’t cheap, they’re not the most expensive whiskies we’ve ever seen either. If that’s not an option, American whiskey is a well-established practice by now, despite the interruption of the Temperance Movement. Everyone has their favorites and the best practice for celebrating an American spirit is finding a batch that fits your tastes. Luckily, we have a few articles to help you out there.
Cider’s going to be a hard one to nail down, especially if we’re adhering to what was available to the Founding Fathers. This means toss out that Woodchuck and Angry Orchard, because the ciders available to, and often made by, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were dry, fruity ciders rather than the fizzing sugar-fests mass-produced today.
There are a few reasons for the difficulty in finding an authentic cider. Even though its popularity has exploded lately, cider’s still not as popular as beer and, like we said before, a lot of the most popular ciders are super-sweet and don’t hold true to those early, dry ciders. A lot of availability depends on region. So if you’re reading this in California, it’s probably going to be harder for you to find a faithful bottle than, say, a guy in New England.
Plus, a lot of the apple varieties and methods used by colonists and early patriots were lost, killed by German immigration and Prohibition. It’s only just starting to re-emerge, although not always in pure strains and verbatim recipes. Cross-breeding and reinterpretation are common, as well as the experimentation craft brewers are so fond of, so cider’s recovery is less like a recovery and more like a rebirth.
It also seems like a good rule of thumb, and this is just us making an educated guess, but more traditional ciders are packaged like wine, in big 750 mL bottles, instead of six packs.
All that being said, it’s not impossible to find an authentic American cider, or at least an homage to it. Ablemarle Cider Works have a cider called the Royal Pippin, made from Jefferson’s favorite apple, the Ablemarle Pippin. They also have the 1817, based on a recipe found in A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees and the Management of Orchards and Cider by William Coxe, published in 1817. It looks like it’s sold out for this year, but it’s worth mentioning, as it’s the most authentic variety we’ve been able to find.
It says something about the United States when, at a party thrown only days before the framers signed off on the Constitution, everyone drank two bottles of wine and that wasn’t the end of the night. John Adams was so enthusiastic about wine he once attempted to smuggle 500 bottles of French Bordeaux into the country so he didn’t have to pay import taxes. When he failed, he made Thomas Jefferson do it for him. By God, John Adams was going to do two things. He was going to break off from the tyranny of England and then was going to get blitzed out of his mind.
The Adamses once shocked a French dignitary by hosting a dinner where everyone drank so much they, by the sounds of it, puked in night tables and vases for the sole purpose of being able to “hold a greater amount of liquor.” There’s a puke-and-rally joke to be made here, but we’re too preoccupied by the image of patriot-vomit-filled end tables to think of a good one.
Luckily, wine similar to what they drank in the 18th century might be the easiest thing on this list to find. Madeira and claret wines are still being made in the same regions they were back then, so finding a good bottle is going to be as simple as heading to your local liquor store. Although, for added authenticity, you could always pull a John Adams.
This one is hard to make more specific. The tab doesn’t go deeper into detail, so all we can do is guess at what they drank. We have a few punch recipes and from the looks of them when the Founding Fathers asked for punch, really what they meant was “all that stuff you’ve got on the middle shelf, plus a couples lemons or whatever.”
Our first punch is Philadelphia Fish House Punch, first made by rebellious colonists in the Schuylkill Fishing Company of Pennsylvania. They may have taken the spirit of the Revolution a little far and declared the organization itself a sovereign state, which may or may not be treason, we have to check. Although, the reason they haven’t been tried for treason may be that the punch decimates anyone’s desire to do anything other than lay down face first on 18th century floorboards.
Stone Fence is another that sounds promising and summery. We haven’t talked too much about rum, but rest assured, the colonists, especially Ethan Allen, leader of The Green Mountain Boys, loved it. Stories about Allen being carted away after nights of hard drinking are common. It’s a simple drink, taking two ounces of rum and topping it off with hard cider. It also heavily suggests The Green Mountain Boys were thoroughly stitched for their climb up to Fort Ticonderoga.
Our last one has been destroying livers presumably since people have had access to rum, porter, and the idea of mixing. The ominously but strangely encouragingly named Rattle-Skull hits a lot of the autumnal tastes the mid-September party would have wanted, but we don’t like to think of skull-rattling as a seasonal activity. More of a patriotic one. In this drink in particular, measurements vary, so feel free to play with the amount of rum and brandy you want to include.
Obviously, we have a lot to live up to when it comes to the signers of the Declaration but we can take some direction from this John Adams quote: “If the ancients drank as our people drink rum and cider, it is no wonder we hear of so many possessed with devils.” In other words, “Greeks and Romans were either satanic or drunk, and I’m going with drunk.” So, this Fourth of July, get out there and make your forefathers proud.