How America Learned to Love Whiskey

Attempts to control the fermentation and sale of alcohol are older than the republic itself.

Whiskey and Moonshine are on display at the Kings County Distillery, New York City's oldest operating whiskey distillery and the first since prohibition, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, September 22, 2012.
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Clay Risen
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

In Oc­to­ber 1794, Al­ex­an­der Hamilton took time out from his reg­u­lar du­ties as sec­ret­ary of the Treas­ury to lead 13,000 mi­li­tia­men in­to west­ern Pennsylvania. Res­ist­ance to a tax on whis­key pro­duc­tion, in­ten­ded to help pay down the gov­ern­ment’s $45 mil­lion Re­volu­tion­ary War debt, had been grow­ing since it went in­to ef­fect in 1791. Tax col­lect­ors had been at­tacked, and at least one was whipped, tarred, and feathered. By early 1794, some 7,000 men had joined the re­bel­lion, and talk swirled about de­clar­ing in­de­pend­ence from the United States. But in the face of fed­er­al bay­on­ets, the re­volt col­lapsed; many of its lead­ers were ar­res­ted, and the rest fled in­to neigh­bor­ing states.

The Whis­key Re­bel­lion was a crit­ic­al mo­ment in the life of the new re­pub­lic. Pres­id­ent Wash­ing­ton’s use of the mil­it­ary to force pay­ment of the tax demon­strated that the fledgling fed­er­al gov­ern­ment had real power — and was will­ing to use it.

But to Hamilton, who con­ceived it, the tax was about more than rais­ing cash or as­sert­ing the cent­ral gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­ity. It was also a way to re­duce al­co­hol pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. Hamilton wrote in Fed­er­al­ist 12 that a tax on whis­key “should tend to di­min­ish the con­sump­tion of it,” and that “such an ef­fect would be equally fa­vor­able to the ag­ri­cul­ture, to the eco­nomy, to the mor­als, and to the health of the so­ci­ety. There is, per­haps, noth­ing so much a sub­ject of na­tion­al ex­tra­vag­ance as these spir­its.” Wash­ing­ton agreed: Drink­ing, he said, was “the ru­in of half the work­men in this Coun­try” — even though, as the own­er of one of Amer­ica’s largest dis­til­ler­ies, he con­trib­uted his share to that ru­in.

Not every­one fell in line, though. Al­bert Gal­lat­in, a Pennsylvania politi­cian who would later be­come one of Hamilton’s suc­cessors as Treas­ury sec­ret­ary, called the levy a hy­po­crit­ic­al at­tempt by elites to “tax the com­mon drink of the na­tion,” even as they con­tin­ued to en­joy their im­por­ted fine wines and brandies. Geor­gi­ans launched a pe­ti­tion to ex­empt peach brandy as “ne­ces­sary of life “¦ in this warm cli­mate.” And Thomas Jef­fer­son, who was known to en­joy a drink, led a suc­cess­ful ef­fort to re­peal the tax shortly after he was sworn in as pres­id­ent.

It is hard, today, to com­pre­hend just how im­port­ant the ques­tion of al­co­hol — who could make it, and who could drink it — was to co­lo­ni­al and early re­pub­lic­an polit­ics. The young na­tion was, as his­tor­i­an W.J. Rora­baugh put it, an “al­co­hol­ic re­pub­lic”: Most grown men and wo­men drank at least four ounces of hard li­quor every day. At­tempts to lim­it al­co­hol pro­duc­tion af­fected nearly every­one. Ima­gine a na­tion­wide cam­paign against caf­feine.

The move­ment to re­strict al­co­hol con­sump­tion reached its apo­gee in 1919 with the rat­i­fic­a­tion of the 18th Amend­ment, which wrote na­tion­wide Pro­hib­i­tion in­to the Con­sti­tu­tion. But de­bates like that one — and even the drug-de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion move­ment today — had their ori­gins long be­fore the 20th cen­tury, in battles like the Whis­key Re­bel­lion. At the time, it was the largest-ever of­fi­cial front in the war on booze, but it was only just the be­gin­ning of Amer­ic­an am­bi­val­ence about liberty and tem­per­ance — about how much gov­ern­ment can reg­u­late what we do to our own bod­ies, es­pe­cially what we put in them.

Amer­ica was a drink­ing cul­ture from the start. The Ar­a­bella, which car­ried John Win­throp and his Pur­it­ans to the Mas­sachu­setts Bay Colony in 1630, also trans­por­ted 10,000 gal­lons of beer, 120 casks of malt, and 12 gal­lons of gin.

Drunk history: Washington leads troops in the Whiskey Rebellion. (Library of Congress) Library of Congress

Al­co­hol was a ne­ces­sity to the first set­tlers, not just for pleas­ure but also for health: Wa­ter was no­tori­ously un­hygien­ic, par­tic­u­larly in settled areas, where waste and drink­ing wa­ter in­ter­mingled, and even chil­dren drank mildly al­co­hol­ic “small” beer in­stead. Drunk his­tory: Wash­ing­ton leads troops in the Whis­key Re­bel­lion. (Lib­rary of Con­gress)

Some of the earli­est dis­patches back home from Eng­lish col­on­ists in­clude re­ports on suc­cess­ful dis­til­la­tions; in 1620, Capt. James Thorpe wrote from Vir­gin­ia that he had man­aged to dis­till al­co­hol from corn, a nat­ive crop. These early ac­counts re­cord a wide vari­ety of in­gredi­ents — not sur­pris­ing, giv­en the poor per­form­ance of European grapes in Amer­ic­an soil and the rich bounty of loc­al plants. Everything from wild ber­ries to pump­kins went in­to the still. Ap­ple­jack was par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar, as was pear brandy and meth­eglin, a type of mead flavored with cin­na­mon, chamo­mile, and oth­er herbs and spices.

For the first dec­ades of the 17th cen­tury, col­on­ists either brewed or dis­tilled their own spir­its for per­son­al use, or im­por­ted it. It wasn’t un­til 1640 that Willem Kieft, the dir­ect­or-gen­er­al of the Dutch New Neth­er­land colony, opened the con­tin­ent’s first com­mer­cial dis­til­lery on what is now Staten Is­land. Still, most harder al­co­hol was im­por­ted — rum from the Carib­bean or madeira and port from Europe — and most of it was too ex­pens­ive for the av­er­age col­on­ist. Those who couldn’t af­ford it made do with beer, fer­men­ted fruit and ve­get­able juice, and oth­er, weak­er forms of homemade li­quor. Drink­ing among the up­per classes wasn’t just tol­er­ated, it was prac­tic­ally re­quired. A Mary­land doc­tor trav­el­ing in New York in 1744 found that a “repu­ta­tion for hearty drink­ing was es­sen­tial for ad­mis­sion to the best so­ci­ety.”

As the sup­ply of molasses — the base in­gredi­ent in rum — ex­pan­ded in the late 17th and early 18th cen­tur­ies, do­mest­ic dis­tilling picked up. The earli­est re­cord of rum dis­tilling in the fu­ture United States shows an op­er­a­tion in New Lon­don, Conn., in 1654. By the end of the cen­tury, the re­gion was flush with rum pro­du­cers, turn­ing out thou­sands of gal­lons of cheap, high-proof booze.

The in­dustry was centered in the Mas­sachu­setts cit­ies of Bo­ston, Med­ford, and Salem; by 1750 the Bay State had 63 dis­til­ler­ies alone. Molasses was easi­er to trans­port than raw sug­ar cane, and it be­came a staple in the “tri­angle trade,” in which slaves, cash crops, ag­ri­cul­tur­al products, and man­u­fac­tured goods cir­cu­lated among the West­ern Hemi­sphere, Bri­tain, and West Africa.

Dis­tilled al­co­hol, which had been a lux­ury good, was now cheap enough for all to con­sume. Dur­ing the 1720s and 1730s, the price of a gal­lon of rum in Bo­ston fell from 3 shil­lings 6 pence to a mere 2 shil­lings — af­ford­able for even the low­est un­skilled work­ers. By the end of the cen­tury, Amer­ic­an dis­til­ler­ies poured forth al­most 5 mil­lion gal­lons of rum a year, more than the 3.8 mil­lion gal­lons the coun­try im­por­ted.

The ex­pand­ing avail­ab­il­ity of cheap li­quor also brought at­tempts to con­trol it. In cit­ies, clergy and oth­er self-ap­poin­ted mor­al guard­i­ans of­ten had de facto veto power over tav­ern li­cens­ing, giv­ing them a say as to who got to sell li­quor and who got to buy it. But the grow­ing busi­ness led elites to be­lieve that, if they wanted to con­trol the sup­ply, they’d need the power of gov­ern­ment. In place of eco­nom­ic and re­li­gious bar­ri­ers rose leg­al ones; in the 1730s, James Og­leth­orpe, the founder of Geor­gia, tried to ban rum en­tirely from his new colony, while in 1760, John Adams began a cam­paign for laws to lim­it the num­ber of tav­ern li­censes in Mas­sachu­setts. Oth­ers pushed to ban Sunday li­quor sales.

Oth­er ef­forts fo­cused on ex­clud­ing cer­tain classes from drink­ing. As his­tor­i­an Shar­on V. Sa­linger notes in her book Tav­erns and Drink­ing in Early Amer­ica, au­thor­it­ies in Bo­ston de­creed that selling li­quor to an In­di­an, a slave, or a ser­vant “prom­ised the per­pet­rat­or a stiff fine or three months in jail.”

The cam­paign to re­strict drink­ing to the elite cres­ted with the Re­volu­tion. The re­volt against Eng­lish rule was more than just a polit­ic­al event; for many Amer­ic­ans, it also signaled a so­cial up­heav­al. Liberty was more than a ques­tion of polit­ics: Co­lo­ni­al so­ci­ety was strictly re­gi­men­ted and strat­i­fied, but for a brief peri­od, the Re­volu­tion threw all of that in­to the air. The poor were not about to be­come rich, but the so­cial stric­tures that bound them were sud­denly loosened. The nar­row-minded mor­al­ism of Eng­lish class so­ci­ety was over­thrown. And at the fore­front of that new, postrevolu­tion liberty was the free­dom to drink.

An egal­it­ari­an eth­os took hold as demo­cracy ad­vanced from the bal­lot box to the bar. The pub­lic house — where the Re­volu­tion had been fo­mented, de­bated, and plot­ted — be­came in­tim­ately tied to the emer­ging Amer­ic­an iden­tity. Far from be­ing reg­u­lated, it was a place to be cel­eb­rated, at least by the newly en­fran­chised masses.

As his­tor­i­an Dav­id. W. Con­roy has doc­u­mented, pubs con­tin­ued to be the cen­ters of dis­sent against the new re­pub­lic. Wil­li­am Shep­ard, a Re­volu­tion­ary gen­er­al and later rep­res­ent­at­ive from Mas­sachu­setts who put down Shays’s Re­bel­lion in 1786, singled out tav­erns as “the com­mon ren­dez­vous for the coun­cils and com­fort of the people,” and said that any tav­ern keep­er who fa­cil­it­ated sedi­tious talk at his tables should face “total dis­qual­i­fic­a­tion for a lim­ited time or forever of en­joy­ing those priv­ileges.”

But pro­pos­als like Shep­ard’s were rarely put in­to ac­tion: Polit­ic­al lead­ers re­cog­nized that pub­lic sen­ti­ment favored loosened con­trols over so­cial life, and that they would suf­fer at the polls should they try to en­force them. “The gentry risked be­ing branded with the new epi­thet ‘ar­is­to­crat’ if they did not ad­opt demo­crat­ic man­ners,” Con­roy wrote in his book In Pub­lic Houses: Drink and the Re­volu­tion of Au­thor­ity in Co­lo­ni­al Mas­sachu­setts. “In­tem­per­ance and demo­cracy seemed to pro­ceed and deep­en hand in hand after 1790.”

The Re­volu­tion changed not only how Amer­ic­ans drank but also what they drank. War with Bri­tain, and the con­tin­ued bad blood even after the fight­ing stopped, meant that the flow of molasses in­to New Eng­land es­sen­tially dried up by the start of the 19th cen­tury. This was aided by con­gres­sion­ally im­posed im­port du­ties, the ex­pan­sion of dis­tilling in­dus­tries in the Carib­bean, Brit­ish bans on Amer­ic­an rum, and the pro­hib­i­tion against slave trad­ing. In 1770, the 2.1 mil­lion Amer­ic­an col­on­ists con­sumed some 8 mil­lion gal­lons of rum; 20 years later, a pop­u­la­tion that had nearly doubled, to 3.9 mil­lion, drank only 7 mil­lion gal­lons.

But as rum con­sump­tion sank, whis­key con­sump­tion ex­ploded. By 1810, whis­key far out­paced rum as the na­tion­al drink. Between 1800 and 1830, an­nu­al per cap­ita con­sump­tion of li­quor, primar­ily whis­key, hovered around 5 gal­lons, the highest in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

And yet the few at­tempts to re­strict drink­ing, like the sup­pres­sion of the Whis­key Re­bel­lion, demon­strated not the gov­ern­ment’s power but its lim­its. It was simply un­able to keep up with the flow of set­tlers — and their stills — in­to the in­teri­or. By the time Hamilton’s men ar­rived in west­ern Pennsylvania, dis­til­lers had set up shop even farther in­land, across the up­per Ohio Val­ley. Eco­nom­ics and geo­graphy made dis­tilling a core part of a farm­er’s busi­ness op­er­a­tion. Without good roads, it was hard to move bulky grain to mar­kets; dis­tilled in­to whis­key, though, that grain was easi­er to store and move, and more valu­able to sell. Pubs and tav­erns were re­l­at­ively rare on the sparsely pop­u­lated fron­ti­er, while per­son­al stills were ubi­quit­ous. By 1810, some 10,000 were in op­er­a­tion na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to  his­tor­i­an Gor­don S. Wood.

What’s more, fam­il­ies moved fre­quently, and men of­ten traveled alone for long peri­ods in search of work. By 1810, some 15 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans lived west of the Ap­palachi­ans, “apart from the in­flu­ences of tra­di­tion­al so­ci­ety,” Rora­baugh writes. “It should not be sur­pris­ing that these isol­ated and lonely West­ern pi­on­eers had a repu­ta­tion for drink­ing.” Men who couldn’t pair off with wo­men to form fam­il­ies were left to wander. “This anom­ic ex­ist­ence, law­less and ali­en­ated from so­ci­ety, gave rise to acute drink­ing.” Solo drink­ing was a wide­spread so­cial mal­ady, notes Wood in his book Em­pire of Liberty, whose con­sequences in­cluded “ab­sent­ee­ism, ac­ci­dent­al deaths, wife-beat­ing, fam­ily deser­tion, ri­ot­ing, and fight­ing.” An 1815 news­let­ter from the Greene and Delaware Mor­al So­ci­ety gave a sense of the pan­ic among tem­per­ance ad­voc­ates: “The thing has ar­rived to such a height,” it re­por­ted, “that we are ac­tu­ally threatened with be­com­ing a na­tion of drunk­ards.”

And then, sud­denly, the na­tion­al binge was over, brought to an end not by gov­ern­ment con­trol but simple eco­nom­ics. By 1830, the Ohio and Mis­sis­sippi val­leys were dom­in­ated by boom­ing urb­an cen­ters like Cin­cin­nati and Louis­ville, where factor­ies soaked up ex­cess labor and the forces of so­cial con­straint — fam­ily, church, and re­form­ist move­ments — could put a damper on ex­cess drink­ing. Re­li­gious re­viv­al­ism found fer­tile soil in which to root.

And so the Amer­ic­an ideo­logy changed once again; free­dom no longer meant the right to ex­cess but the right to con­trol one’s body for profit and per­son­al sal­va­tion. And that meant con­trolling what one put in­to it. An­nu­al per cap­ita al­co­hol con­sump­tion dropped to about 2 gal­lons, and has more or less stayed there — today it hov­ers around 2.3 gal­lons.

The ag­ri­cul­tur­al sec­tor changed, too. Bet­ter roads and the ad­vent of rail and the steam­boat meant that ex­cess grain in its ori­gin­al form could get to mar­ket — and didn’t need to be con­ver­ted to al­co­hol. And where­as thou­sands of per­son­al stills pro­duced drink in the first dec­ades of the cen­tury, after 1830 a power­ful com­mer­cial in­dustry was in place, which con­cen­trated pro­duc­tion and once again put a price, and thus a nat­ur­al point of con­trol, on li­quor.

Nev­er­the­less, two pat­terns had emerged. First, the urge to drink was clearly en­dem­ic to the Amer­ic­an char­ac­ter, hindered only by peri­ods of eco­nom­ic and so­cial calm. When that calm was broken — by eco­nom­ic de­pres­sions, the Civil War, tu­mul­tu­ous ex­pan­sion west­ward — Amer­ic­ans re­turned to the bottle. Dur­ing the Civil War, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute on Al­co­hol Ab­use and Al­co­hol­ism, con­sump­tion was above 2.5 gal­lons per cap­ita, about a 20 per­cent jump from the pre­vi­ous dec­ade; it then dropped to be­low pre­war levels, only to rise again dur­ing the eco­nom­ic tu­mult of the early 1890s. Drink­ing also rose sig­ni­fic­antly dur­ing World War II, go­ing from 1.5 gal­lons per cap­ita in 1939 to 2.25 in 1945.

The second pat­tern in­volved at­tempts to con­trol that drink­ing. Strategies that used gov­ern­ment power to tamp down on al­co­hol had peaked with the Whis­key Re­bel­lion; for much of the 19th cen­tury, the con­trolling forces would be the church, the com­munity, and the eco­nomy.

For the first dec­ades of the tem­per­ance move­ment, act­iv­ists es­chewed the gov­ern­ment and made their case for sobri­ety dir­ectly to the people. It was only after the Civil War, and with the found­ing of groups such as the Wo­men’s Chris­ti­an Tem­per­ance Uni­on, that act­iv­ists began to push for a new wave of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of al­co­hol — and, even­tu­ally, pro­hib­i­tion, cul­min­at­ing in the rat­i­fic­a­tion of the 18th Amend­ment on Jan. 16, 1919.

But while Pro­hib­i­tion seems like a sin­gu­lar folly in ret­ro­spect, it was hardly un­ex­pec­ted. Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety had been grap­pling with the is­sue of how to con­trol al­co­hol — if at all — from the be­gin­ning.

Clay Ris­en is a staff ed­it­or of The New York Times op-ed page and the au­thor of Amer­ic­an Whis­key, Bour­bon & Rye: A Guide to the Na­tion’s Fa­vor­ite Spir­it.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.