America Was Built On Booze

by Tommy Grant

With the recent uproar over a certain major beer brand, it’s no secret that Americans are a fan of alcoholic beverages. But why are we so hard-wired for tasty beverages and a great night out on the town? Perhaps it’s engrained in our genetic code or just simply the fact that America was built on booze.

Was America Built On Booze?

The waves crashed, and boards creaked as men went about their daily duties aboard their ship during the age of sail. Men swabbed the decks while others stood watch. The boatswain called for the sails to be adjusted as they prepared to come about. Just then, the call rang out, “Up spirits!” The men immediately gathered on deck, knowing they would soon receive their daily tot of rum. The rum had replaced beer, carried in place of water as both would spoil at sea.

 The purser distributed the rum, and the men quickly scattered to enjoy their ration. The less-trusting sailors, fearful of being shorted, mixed small amounts of their rum with gunpowder and set it to flame. If the rum ignited, then it would be considered “proof” of alcohol, and if not, a mutiny could ensue.

 Little did these sailors know that soon their rum would be replaced with grog. A Watered-down version of rum mixed with sugar and lime juice. It did wonders for scurvy and reduced the overall drunkenness of the crew. However,it would not be nearly as appreciated as the current tots of rum. The men would have to save the grog until they had enough for a proper drunk, leaving them groggy in the morning.

A Very Brief Brew History

Alcohol has been around for millennia. It may even have been the catalyst for civilization as we know it. Some evidence suggests that ancient farmers began to grow barley more than 10,000 years ago, not to create bread but actually to brew beer. This shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer marked the beginning of the agricultural revolution, and I believe we have beer to thank for it. 

The world’s oldest brewery was discovered in a prehistoric cave near Haifa in Israel. It contains the residue of 13,000-year-old beer that may have been intentionally brewed to go along with ritual feasts for the dead. Talk about a love affair with beer and thousands of years of brewing experience. Armed with that knowledge, I feel like someone owes me an explanation for Natty Light.

Alcohol has always had its place in American history from the earliest days of the colonies in North America. It is said that the Mayflower contained more beer than water when it left for the new world. This is hardly surprising, given the lack of modern water sanitation, making beer and wine safer than drinking water. This was partly because many common water sources were also used to dispose of sewage and garbage.

America Was Built On Booze: Skillset Day Drinking

Politicians have always understood the value of alcohol to their constituents, and it was common for politicians to buy votes with booze. Early in his career, George Washington used all of his campaign funds to buy enough liquor to ensure his voters elected him to the House of Burgesses in 1758. This helped propel Washington toward the presidency. He may have lost that election without the booze and faded into obscurity. Taverns were of great importance during this time. 

The Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg hosted members of the House of Burgesses, like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as they attempted to organize boycotts of British imports. Another event of great importance was the raising of a fighting force at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. This force consisted of just two battalions but would eventually become known as the United States Marine Corps. Given the Marines’ love of strong drink, it only makes sense that they would have been founded in a tavern.

Our American revolutionaries loved to drink, and one libation reigned supreme—rum. This appears to have come from the Caribbean sugar trade and entered the colonies. One observer stated that rum was “much adored by the American English as the comforter of their souls, preserver of their bodies, remover of their cares and promoter of mirth.”

 Legend has it that rum played a role in Paul Revere’s ride in 1775. He is said to have stopped in Medford, Massachusetts, to toss back a slug or two of rum before proceeding, and who can blame him because the British were coming? Medford was in the midst of the rum boom and was the home of a distillery that produced a rum strong enough to make a “rabbit bite a bulldog.”

Prohibition also fueled the growth of organized crime. Figures like Al “Scarface” Capone in Chicago and Lucky Luciano in New York supplied and ran most of the speakeasies in their respective cities.

Alcohol In Modern Times

Fast forward to the Temperance movement, which blamed alcohol for all of America’s ills. This led to the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, which started everything both good and bad about the Roaring 20s. As alcohol went underground, America saw the rise of the speakeasies and gin joints that popped up nationwide. Women were welcomed into these illegal establishments, and the “flapper” was born with their newfound freedoms. 

They tossed their corsets and moved to short skirts and bobbed hair. They began to dance to jazz played by greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Liquor was in great supply as it was easier for the bootleggers to transport. It took up less space than beer and offered more bang for the buck. This is where the cocktail was born. Lliquor was mixed with soft drinks and fruit juices to make it more palatable. Prohibition also fueled the growth of organized crime. Figures like Al “Scarface” Capone in Chicago and Lucky Luciano in New York supplied and ran most of the speakeasies in their respective cities. They paid off the cops and politicians to avoid raids or to receive advance notice before a raid occurred. Organized crime groups got into turf wars, which led to gang murders like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 in Chicago.

Figures like Elliot Ness and his Untouchables became icons in their fight against Capone and their enforcement of prohibition. Violence and political corruption screamed across the headlines, and prohibition took the blame. By 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt backed the repeal of prohibition. The 21st Amendment to the Constitution officially repealed the 18th Amendment, and Americans rejoiced. Roosevelt, known for his love of martinis and manhattans, could finally enjoy them legally again.

Bottoms Up!

Alcohol has been a part of America since the beginning. Having a beer out with friends is as American as apple pie. In our culture, alcohol is used for celebration and commiseration alike. Having a brew at a sporting event, a kegger at college, cocktail parties with friends, or just a nice straight bourbon after a hard day’s work allows us to blow off steam and grow our social bonds.

 There’s nothing like a shot of courage to help you talk to the pretty girl at the bar and who hasn’t received a dare to do something stupid and replied with, “Hold my beer and watch this!” We’re Americans, and we enjoy a good stiff drink on occasion, so let’s raise our glasses and toast to this great country and to all that have celebrated with drinks before us. Cheers!

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