Before pilsners and whiskeys were the tried and true choice of Americans, those in the New England colonies put their lips around a wide collection of concoctions to keep things loose through the day. In Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, Corin Hirsch explores not just what we used to drink but how we drank it. And drink we did. Bitters before work was a morning ritual, cider at each meal was thought to keep one hydrated while avoiding polluted water, and if there wasn’t rum in your cup each night then good luck keeping pace with the national average. Hirsch writes that when the Revolutionary War began, “colonists older than fifteen each drank 3.7 gallons of spirits per year . . . [and that by 1790] that figure had swelled to 5 gallons, in addition to 34 gallons of beer and 1 gallon of wine.” That is roughly 3 shots a day, a beer, and then wine on fun days. Not to mention the cider, which was consumed as water.
The assortment of drinks at the town ordinary (tavern) was driven by availability. Apple trees provided cider when the European hops wasn’t an option, and rum became a staple when people discovered that the molasses from Caribbean sugar cane production could be used for libation. Everything from twigs, berries, pumpkins, and roots were used to make bitters and ales, and then mixed in with drinks.
Hirsch’s book includes dozens of recipes to ensure readers are experiencing history and not just learning about it. Head over to the package store and stock your cupboard with dark rum, ale, cider, bitters, and brandy, for these are the foundational ingredients in many of the drinks. With winter approaching, those preferring a warm beverage should grab some apple brandy and honey and fix yourself a Hot Toddy, raise a tankard of flip made of hot frothy ale, egg, rum, and nutmeg, or just mull some wine on the stove. Just about everyone will be enlightened and thirsty after opening Hirsch’s book.
So, next time you are tippling with friends, go ahead and try something new that is old.