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Alcohol on the Frontier

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This page shares research concerning alcohol consumption of yesteryear. For those in need of guidance, some instruction … a “Moral and Physical Thermometer of Temperance” is included on this page.  The Historic Daniel Boone Home in Missouri was a major source for this information and the Temperance Guide.


Colonial Americans drank roughly three times as much alcohol as modern-day Americans. Whiskey was a typical lunchtime tipple, ale accompanied supper and the day ended with a nightcap. Continuous indulgence helped Colonials built up a tolerance for alcohol. Most Americans in 1790 consumed an average 5.8 gallons of pure alcohol a year.


Alcohol was served at mealtimes. Workers and farmers took breaks in the workday for their dram to relieve tedium and ease physical pain. Social events, such as weddings and funerals, generally had alcohol on hand.


Reasons to justify early drinking habits included: poor or polluted water supplies, a belief in alcohol's nourishing and medicinal properties, and generally, an English mindset that declared that water was bad for a person's health. Given the sanitary conditions of the day, this was likely accurate. Beer consumption was seen as a healthy substitute for water.


In the early 1800’s, many people believed it was healthier to drink lukewarm alcohol during hot weather rather than drink cold water. Signs were sometimes displayed at public wells warning individuals of the dangers of cold water during the summer. Settlers believed that when a person sweated, heat was conducted from the inside of the body, and so the stomach needed warmth. Warmth could be provided by alcohol.


Small beer, a low alcohol content (typically 1%) beer, was brewed for children, servants, and general family consumption. Small beer was also available at taverns because its low alcohol content allowed people to drink several glasses without becoming intoxicated. Small beer, by the barrel, cost half the price of a barrel of strong beer. 


The settlement of the “corn belt” in the Midwest (that's us) created large new supplies of corn, which was cheaper and more profitable to convert into whiskey than it was to transport great distances without spoiling. Western farmers could make no profit shipping corn overland to eastern markets, so they distilled corn into ‘liquid assets. By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty-five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk.


The first businesses established on the frontier were often simple taverns located along trails and roads to take care of the needs of travelers. A tradition of the time dictated that a drink be had at every halt in a journey. 


The Newcom Tavern in Carillon Park and the Overfield Tavern in Troy are great examples of early taverns. Taverns were the center of civic life.

The following five drinks were popular during the Colonial period…..


FLIP
Once flip appeared in taverns in the 1690s, it would capture the colonial hearts for a century to come. A blend of beer, rum, molasses (or dried pumpkin), and eggs or cream, flip was usually mixed in a pitcher and then whipped into a froth by plunging a hot fire poker (called a flip-dog) into its midst. The tavern keeper would then decant the singed creation into ceramic mugs or featherlight flip glasses.

The composition of flip varied from tavern to tavern, and sometimes so did its name—from Bellow-Stop and Hotch-Pot to Yard of Flannel and Crambambull. The most vaunted flips were rendered velvety by pouring the drink several times between two pitchers until well-blended.
To make a basic colonial-style flip, fill a pitcher with two beaten eggs, two ounces of rum and a tablespoon of superfine sugar (or molasses) and beat to combine. In a saucepan, heat eight to 10 ounces of brown ale over a low flame until it begins to steam. Slowly pour the warm beer into the rum-egg mixture, then pour the drink back and forth between vessels until blended. Decant into a pint glass, shave some nutmeg over the top, and serve.


STONE FENCE
This drink was a popular, bracing blend of hard cider and rum. Drop two ounces of dark rum in a glass, then top with hard cider—preferably one with a touch of residual sweetness. 


SYLLABUB
When combined with eggs or cream, alcohol's supposed nutritive powers were thought to multiply—which might explain the overwhelming popularity of posset, a blend of ale, cream and spices that was often swilled at weddings.

A syllabub is a sibling to posset, but uses wine or cider as its base and gains visual drama from the cloudlike egg whites that are spooned on top. Want to try it? In a measuring cup, combine five ounces white wine with two or three ounces of cream, a spoonful of sugar, and the juice of half a lemon. (In lieu of sugar, a nontraditional tablespoon of maple syrup can add sweetness). Stir to combine. In a separate bowl, beat two egg whites with a dash of sugar until somewhere between frothy and peaked. Decant wine mixture into a favorite glass, spoon over thickened egg whites, and shave over some nutmeg. 


RATTLE-SKULL
Though the term was English slang for a chatty person, the name of the drink was probably more descriptive of what one could do to your brain.

On its surface, this blend of dark beer, rum, lime juice, and nutmeg doesn't seem to differ much from the other rum-based drinks of the day. Yet it packed a wallop from its proportions: three to four ounces of hard liquor (usually an equal split between rum and brandy) are dropped into a pint of strong porter, tarted up with the juice of half a lime and then showered with shaved nutmeg. 


SANGAREE
Sangaree was the colonial-era precursor of sangria, the Spanish wine-based drink. This drink supposedly originated in London in the mid-1700s, long before the term "cocktail" was in use. Sangaree became popular in the West Indies and later, the colonies. 


Instead of Rioja or some other Spanish red, this wine-based punch drew on fortified wine such as Madeira or port. Combined with lemon juice, sugar, and nutmeg, it was served singly in its own glass, rather than from a communal bowl. Using fortified wine lends the drink a slightly more brooding quality than sangria.


Source information: Serious Eats.com and Winterthur Museum
Photo of chart: From the collection of the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies Library


We encourage you to visit and support the local gems of the Miami Valley…. and learn more about life on the frontier....


The  Johnston Farm & Indian Agency

The Overfield Tavern

The Newcom Tavern