Alcoholic Beverages and Production

views updated


Before the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), American colonists made large quantities of alcoholic beverages. The overwhelming bulk of this production consisted of commercially distilled rum. In 1770 the colonists imported four million gallons of rum and distilled another five million gallons from imported molasses. Although some rum was traded overseas, Americans drank eight million gallons per year, about seven gallons per adult. Most distillers operated in the seaboard port cities because the molasses from which rum was made came from sugarcane grown in the West Indies. Rum was cheaper to produce in large batches, and a few large-scale distillers dominated the industry.

In urban places, commercial brewers made limited quantities of English-style beer. At the time more than 95 percent of Americans lived on farms, where access to commercial beer was poor due to bad transportation and a lack of cash to purchase this relatively expensive beverage.

In addition, brewing beer in the English fashion required considerable technical ability, and many American brewers lacked a thorough knowledge of the skills taught through the apprenticeship system in England. English-style beer used light yeast that floated on the top of the vat, and the yeast could easily pick up wild yeasts that gave the beer a bad taste. Wild yeasts in England posed less of a problem than those found in the colonies.

On farms as well as in cities, many housewives brewed at home. Often doing so only once a week, they fermented mash naturally from barley, corn, or other grain. This so-called small beer contained little alcohol, about half the strength of beer in the late 1990s. Because of low alcohol content as well as lack of refrigeration, it went sour after a few days. The colonists tended no wine grape vineyards, but farmers in apple-growing areas pressed fruit into alcoholic hard cider for their own use.

whiskey challenges rum

During the Revolutionary War, the British blockaded the seacoast and cut off imports of both molasses and rum. Meanwhile, Irish and Scots-Irish immigrants, who had moved to the colonies in large numbers after 1750, had brought distilling technology from Ireland to turn corn and rye into what the Irish called usquebaugh, which soon was known as whiskey. While these immigrants had distilled small amounts of whiskey for personal use before the Revolution, the disappearance of rum during the war led large numbers of Americans increasingly to substitute whiskey for rum.

After 1783 the British continued to block trade between the British West Indies and the new United States. Molasses and rum from other sources was sporadic and unreliable, and by 1789 Americans drank only seven million gallons of rum, about three and a half gallons per adult. In addition, many states taxed imports, including molasses, and rum distillers found themselves at a disadvantage in competition with manufacturers who distilled untaxed whiskey from untaxed grain.

Around this time, small-scale whiskey distillers innovated better small stills, including one model called the perpetual still, which was claimed to be so efficient that it generated its own energy supply. This was nonsense, but whiskey stills were nevertheless inexpensive to construct and easy to operate. They were portable, required little firewood, and could be moved to wherever a corn glut occurred. However, these new stills were not suitable for molasses, which—unlike corn or rye—became scorched in a small still.

Whereas rum distillation had been concentrated in the seaports, whiskey distillation was more common in western frontier areas populated by Scots-Irish and where surplus grain lacked a local market. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress in the 1780s tried to impose national duties on imported molasses and rum, but such taxes required unanimous consent, and Rhode Island, dominated by the rum-distilling Brown family, refused approval because the taxes would have made rum more expensive than untaxed whiskey.

After the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the new federal government in 1790 raised revenue by taxing imported molasses and rum. Rum distillers complained, and in 1791 the federal government imposed a tax on whiskey and other domestic distilled liquors both to raise more revenue and to level the playing field between rum and whiskey.

In 1790 the United States produced about five gallons of hard liquor per adult. Two-thirds was rum; most of the remainder was whiskey. Many whiskey distillers, especially in remote areas, did not pay any tax. Some farmer-distillers lacked cash, and whiskey often circulated as an item of barter on the frontier, where it was traded at general stores. A barrel of whiskey was a convenient way to keep assets in easily saleable liquid form.

In 1794 the federal government sent a tax collector into western Pennsylvania, an area heavily settled by Scots-Irish and well known for its extensive whiskey production. Local farmer-distillers physically forced the agent to leave the region. This resistance to authority alarmed federal officials, especially Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who persuaded President George Washington to call out fifteen thousand militiamen to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

The insurrection was crushed, its leaders were arrested, and stills were seized, but significant defiance persisted. Even after the rebellion, western Pennsylvania yielded little whiskey tax revenue, and none was obtained from Kentucky, where no tax collector was ever appointed.

whiskey prevails

In 1802 Congress repealed the hated whiskey tax, and the federal government did not again tax alcohol production until the Civil War. Imported molasses and rum, however, still paid duties, and rum sales continued to decline. Molasses imports were a steady one gallon per person after 1802, while rum imports declined from more than a gallon per person during the 1790s to less than half that amount from 1808 to 1827 and less than one-fifth of a gallon from 1828 to 1850. Meanwhile, production of cheap whiskey gradually rose.

In 1810 the government calculated that the production of distilled spirits, nearly 90 percent of which was whiskey, amounted to about 8.7 gallons per adult. This prodigious amount made hard liquor the third most important industry in the United States when measured by the value of production. However, this official statistic is too low and the true amount of beverage distillation is impossible to determine. While official production excluded unreported stills, it also included an unknown but considerable amount of liquor that was used for mechanical purposes or as medicine, in the latter case applied both internally and externally.

The settlement of the Midwest corn belt in the early 1800s led to higher whiskey production; as a result, the price steadily declined, until by 1825 it was the cheapest beverage at 25 cents a gallon. The United States had fourteen thousand distilleries in 1810, twenty thousand in 1820, but only ten thousand in 1830, when production reached 9.5 gallons per adult. Whiskey distilling continued to be a small-scale business until the 1830s, when cheap grain concentrated in certain areas combined with more efficient large stills and low railroad shipping charges enabled large-scale distillers to gain a major portion of the market.

Whiskey varied in quality in these years, and the customer had to take a chance, because it was sold from an unmarked barrel without any brand or labeling until shortly before the Civil War. Most whiskey was 100 proof or 50 percent alcohol. (The technical process for proofing alcohol made it easier to make 100 proof liquor.) Clear in color, whiskey usually had a kick because then it was not aged in charcoal barrels, as it later would be to remove impurities. Whiskey was usually sold within thirty days of production. The modern equivalent is bootleg white lightning.

Although there are no reliable statistics, impressionistic evidence suggests that after 1800 production of both commercial and home-brewed beer declined, perhaps because whiskey was so cheap that it discouraged anyone, including housewives, from brewing. Only with the arrival of German immigrants after 1840 did beer production increase. Farmers in apple-growing areas made much hard cider throughout the period. This beverage was never popular in towns or cities, and since it lacked much of a market beyond the farm, it is impossible to know accurately the annual production, which mostly went unreported.

Wine could be made from native Concord or Catawba grapes, but such wine was limited to small amounts produced for home consumption. Around 1800 a number of gentlemen farmers, including Nicholas Longworth (1783–1863), experimented with European wine grapes, but the roots tended to rot in the American climate, and the vines yielded more leaves than grapes. Longworth, however, took pleasure in serving surprised Europeans wine from his Cincinnati farm. Although he produced a few bottles of excellent wine, his winery was never a commercial success.

Thomas Jefferson tried and failed to make wine at his Virginia plantation, Monticello, and his sponsorship of a colony of experienced wine-growing Swiss immigrants, who settled in Switzerland County, Indiana, in 1805 also came to nothing. These early experiments did not succeed because European vintners misunderstood the soil and climate in the United States. Americans also lacked expertise both in vine growing and in wine making. Only with the acquisition of California in 1848 would the nation gain an area where wine grapes thrived with little effort.

See alsoAlcoholic Consumption; Temperance and Temperance Movement; Whiskey Rebellion .


Baron, Stanley W. Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

Carson, Gerald. The Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of Our Star Spangled Drink. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963.

Crowgey, Henry G. Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971.

Downard, William L. Dictionary of the History of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980.

Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America from the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

W. J. Rorabaugh

About this article

Alcoholic Beverages and Production

Updated About content Print Article