© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ever Wonder What Cocktails The Founding Fathers Enjoyed? We Have The Answers


I got a head start on celebrating July Fourth a couple weeks ago when I headed to the Washington, D.C., bar the Columbia Room. I was going for a drink but not just any drink - one that, as the story goes, the revolutionaries threw back after capturing Fort Ticonderoga from the British back in 1775.

DEREK BROWN: We're going to make it with rye whiskey, but it would have been made with rum, originally. So you can make it with rum or rye whiskey. And we're going to put in two ounces, and then we're going to put in a dash of bitters. Then we're going to add some apple cider.

CORNISH: Finish it off with some ice and mint, and my bartender Derek Brown says you have a Stone Fence.

BROWN: We don't know where the name comes from, but I think I have a guess because if you drink enough of these, you go right up against the stone fence.

CORNISH: Brown owns the Columbia Room and several other bars. He's written a book about the history of cocktails. It's called "Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters." And he's the chief spirits advisor for the National Archives. So he knows what the Founding Fathers and mothers liked to drink. I first asked him to set the scene because back in revolutionary days, people weren't drinking a lot of water.

BROWN: No, they weren't. The British were notoriously unfond of water. They believed that it was bad for you. And in some cases, it really was. I mean, there was different parasites and so forth. So essentially, what they did was they drank beer or wine or spirits instead. And so in the beginning of our republic, the average person drank 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol a year.

CORNISH: Gallons.

BROWN: I think for context, we're around two-point-something now.

CORNISH: What did you learn about the Founding Fathers as we know them? Like what did they like to drink? I don't know if we know what they drank at key historical moments. What have you been able to learn?

BROWN: Well, I call them the founding drinkers. So first and foremost, I think that they drank a lot. And they respected alcohol, and they thought it was an important part of the colonies. And it was an important part of early America. George Washington, for instance, had the largest rye distillery in America at the time. They are also funny. I don't think people think about them being funny. I probably don't think of Ben Franklin, for instance, as being funny, but he wrote an entire drinkers dictionary, which just had all of these synonyms for drunkenness, right? So he used some that we kind of know, like boozy and tipsy, and then some that got weird, like wamble-cropped or nimptopsical. So...

CORNISH: We need to bring back nimptopsical, like, immediately.

BROWN: I'm so nimptopsical right now - and been to Barbados, which is obviously a reference to rum. But in terms of drinks in the Americas and in the colonies, they were huge. And they had all kinds of weird drinks, like mimbos, bombos, rattle-skulls, whistle-bellies. So they made - they had a lot of creativity. We think the bartenders today had creativity, but they were just as creative back then, and they were just as funny.

CORNISH: All right. So now we're going to go to the other side of the bar. First thing - can you talk to me about what the modern tools of the trade are for mixing a drink? What do you guys have at your disposal?

BROWN: Well, we have everything old and everything new, actually. So a lot of people are using some of the things that they used back then, but today, you would use shakers. You would use a mixing glass. Back in the colonial times, they would have just mixed things by using mugs, in some cases. So there's a drink called the Blue Blazer where you take two mugs and you pour it back and forth and you light it on fire.

CORNISH: Just, like, with a match.

BROWN: Yeah.

CORNISH: Oh (laughter).

BROWN: And then you pour it back and forth, so kind of like a cool trick, I guess.

CORNISH: When we think back to the Revolutionary War period, Declaration of Independence period, what kind of cocktails are being made at that time? And are any of them tied to, like, battle - right? - and military life?

BROWN: Yeah. There were plenty of drinks that were connected to even the war of independence. So George Washington was famous for issuing a ration of rum and whiskey to the troops. And he believed that this was good for them, that this would help them to be brave in battle. But I would say that if I was to zero in on one drink that became sort of, like, the most famous revolutionary one, it's the punch, right? And punches back then are really not the, you know, punches we think of today necessarily. They were with, you know, cognac. They were with rum. They were with whiskey. And they would be mixed with fresh juice, sugar. So they'd be fairly simple, fresh drinks.

CORNISH: But I can imagine getting fresh fruit was probably a kind of luxury commodity depending on what it was.

BROWN: Yeah. In some cases, it was. And this is sort of what gave - I think it's argued and it's even written in history - that this is what gave some of the revolutionaries their courage. They would go to taverns, and they would end up drinking a whole punch bowl because once you sit down to a punch bowl, it's rude to get up until it's finished.

CORNISH: What did they drink at the signing of the Declaration of Independence? I feel like there must have been a toast of some kind after this.

BROWN: There was, indeed, and they - I don't know if they were drinking beforehand, but definitely after, they drank Madeira.

CORNISH: How do you know that?

BROWN: It's record. It's part of history.

CORNISH: That's so intriguing.

BROWN: Yeah. So if you want to toast independence, you can get some Madeira or you can just drink beer or cocktails. That's fine, too.

CORNISH: No, that's pretty neat (ph).

BROWN: (Laughter).

CORNISH: All right. Well, Derek Brown, this is awesome. The drink is delicious - much appreciated. Thank you for talking us through it.

BROWN: It's my pleasure, and thank you for having me on the show.


CORNISH: That's bar owner and national spirits adviser to the National Archives, Derek Brown. However you celebrate the holiday, I hope you're having a great Fourth of July. And cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOOP DOGG SONG, "GIN AND JUICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.