Beverages in the Georgian Era – Part 3

Welcome back to our “survey” of the Beverages of the Georgian Era in the English-speaking world.  In Part 1 of this series we looked at non-alcoholic beverages.  Then, in Part 2, we looked at brewed and fermented drinks.  Today, we are going to look at the distilled spirits common to England and her colonies, their origins, and when during the era they are proper.

Distilled Spirits


Before Europeans planted sugar cane in the Caribbean, before the “Gin craze” hit London, people drank Arrack.  Yet today, in a world dominated by Vodka, Gin, Rum, Brandy, and Whisky – one might ask; where is the Arrack?  Outside of Europe and the Americas, Arrack (in its various forms) remains one of the most widely imbibed strong spirits.  In central and Southern China, Arrack is a distillate of fermented rice, and in Egypt, it is largely from dates.  In Mongolia, it refers to a distillate from fermented milk, and in Sri Lanka, it is a distillate of the fermented sap of the coconut flower.  In other small tropical countries, it is a product of the sap of the Palmetto or Palmyra trees.  Do not confuse this alcohol with Arak, a Middle Eastern drink made from raisins; Arak has a flavor like anise, similar to the Greek ouzo.

The Arrack most familiar to English-speaking people of the Georgian era, however, came from the islands of what is today Indonesia and was often known as “Batavia Arrack” in reference to the former name of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  Batavia Arrack was the “Rum” of Indonesia, because, like Rum, it was distilled from sugarcane using pot stills.  To start the fermentation, local fermented red rice, combined with local yeast to give a unique flavor and smell of the distillate.  Then, the brewers added sugarcane syrup to the mash.  This mixture, after further fermentation in Teak tubs, distilled to about 70% ABV.

Batavia, the Center of Dutch Trade in Indonesia

Batavia, the Center of Dutch Trade in Indonesia

The Dutch East India Company, in 1619, laid claim to the island of Java (one of the islands of modern Indonesia) and renamed the capital city Batavia.  The trade of Batavia Arrack dates as far back as the early 17th century.  The Dutch East India Company (VOC) found Arrack a lucrative complement to the spice trade that had brought them east, and soon Arrack found passage with these merchants to Amsterdam.  The Dutch found very willing consumers throughout Europe, especially in Britain and Sweden.

Arrack was immensely popular, during the early 1700s in London and then later in the American colonies, initially in New York and Virginia and then spreading throughout.  More than Rums, Gins or other spirits, the Batavia Arrack had the effect of elevating the aromatics of the spices and citrus notes, making it, although higher priced, the preferred spirit of tavern-goers whose preferred drink at the time was punch.

A testament to its popularity is a 1737 illustration of a satirically proposed monument to notorious Covent Garden coffee-house owner Tom King featured casks of Arrack and Brandy, but no Gin.  Arrack was the drink of those who could afford better than the basics.

Illustration of a Fictional Monument to Tom King c 1739 by William Hogarth

Fictional Monument to Tom King c 1739 by William Hogarth

Even in America, the “land that Rum built,” even from the early days there was real Arrack Punch.  In 1728, when Colonel William Byrd struck out deep into the wilderness to survey the Virginia-Carolina border, he found that Colonel Harvey Harrison did “spoil us for Woodsmen” by serving “Rack-Punch” to Col Byrd’s party. (Wondrich, 2010)

Considering mercantilist trade policies dictated that Arrack be shipped from the East Indies to England before it could be trans-shipped to America, where it then had to be carried, often by wagon teams, into the backcountry, you can imagine what it cost.  Even in the more settled parts of the country, it was expensive.  In 1736, when Virginian William Randolph bought a twenty-four hundred acre tract of Crown land that included a parcel his friend Peter Jefferson had his eye on, he agreed to sell Jefferson two hundred acres of it for fifty pounds, and another two hundred in return for, “Weatherborne’s biggest bowl of arrack punch to him delivered.” (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc, 2016)

By the opening decades of the nineteenth century, though, Arrack had begun to lose its popularity, both in America and in England, as the public taste moved from the communal punch bowl to individualized drinks.  It continued to hang on in some quarters as George Augustus Frederick, the Prince of Wales and future Prince Regent, was quite fond of Arrack-based punch.  London’s United Services Club, founded in 1816 after England eliminated the threats of the French Revolution and then Napoleon, brought together senior officers of the army and navy.  The extreme conservativeness of the club’s Punch mirrored its general outlook on life.

United Service Punch

Dissolve, in two pints of hot tea, three-quarters of a pound of loaf-sugar, having previously rubbed off, with a portion of the sugar, the peel of four lemons; then add the juice of eight lemons and a pint of arrack.
(Wondrich, 2010)

So, why did such a popular spirit vanish?  The first blow was taxation.  By the early 1800s, protectionist import taxes, levied in Europe against spirits imported from the east, gave an enormous advantage to Caribbean and American Rum producers.  The British East India Company even went so far as to ban the transport of Arrack on its ships, except for consumption on board.  As a result, Rum production grew exponentially, while Arrack production gradually faded.


In ancient Greece and Rome, people used Brandy as both an antiseptic and an anesthetic, and there are accounts of Arab alchemists in the 7th and 8th centuries experimenting with distilling grapes and other fruits to create medicinal spirits.  Their knowledge and techniques quickly spread beyond Islam’s borders, as shown by the production of  grape Brandy appearing in Spain and Ireland (via missionary monks) by the end of the 8th century.

It was in the 17th century, however, that Brandy became recognized throughout the world.  The word itself derives from the Dutch “brandewijn” (burnt wine), which is how the Dutch traders who introduced the drink to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain described wine that had been burnt or boiled to distill it.  The process seems to have evolved somewhat by accident to save space in the ship’s hold.  The traders boiled the wines to reduce their volume by evaporation and then, upon arrival at their destination, reconstituted them with water.  Eventually, someone observed that some wines benefited from this process.

Depending upon the region and the fruit, Brandy falls into four main categories: Fruit Brandies, American Brandies, Armagnac, and Cognac.  All Brandies made by fermenting fruit other than grapes are known as Fruit Brandy.  Fruit Brandies are clear, generally 80 to 90 proof, and distilled directly from the fruit itself.  Fruit Brandies, except those made from berries, are distilled from fruit wines and one should not confuse these with fruit-flavored Brandy, which is grape Brandy flavored with the extract of another fruit.  Since berries tend to lack enough sugar to make a wine with enough alcohol for proper distillation, they are soaked in high-proof spirit to extract their flavor and aroma.  This extract is then distilled once at a low proof.  Brandy made from apples is well known in Spain and France and is traditionally not placed in casks.  It is therefore traditionally clear.  Calvados, the Apple Brandy from the Normandy region of Northwestern France, is probably the best known of this type.  Eau-de-vie (water of life) is a term that refers to spirits in general and specifically to colorless fruit Brandy from the Alsace region of France.  Fruit Brandies are made from many fruits, including pears, apples, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries and they are generally served chilled or over ice.

Engraving of an 18th Century Distillery

Engraving of an 18th Century Distillery

Cognac is the best-known Brandy in the world, a benchmark with which to judge most other Brandies.  The Cognac region is located on the west-central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux.  This region is further subdivided into six growing zones: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bois Ordinaires, Borderies, Fins Bois, and Bons Bois.  The first of these regions produces the best Cognac and this designation often appears on bottle labels.  Cognac labeled Fine Champagne is a blend of Petite and Grand Champagnes.  The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Columbard.  These grapes produce wines that are thin, tart, and low in alcohol; poor qualities for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making Brandy.  The producers then double distill this wine in pot stills before aging it in oaken casks to become Cognac.  All Cognac begins in new oak to mellow its taste and impart their golden color.  Those batches chosen for long-term aging are, after a few years, transferred to “seasoned” casks.  Armagnac is like Cognac with the greatest difference being the method of distillation – the use of column stills and not pot stills.  Armagnac is generally aged longer than Cognac with its best years between the teens to mid-twenties.  Anything over thirty years is considered overly aged.

American Brandies

So, where was American Brandy first made?  Remember, Brandy can be made from grapes as well from other fruits and each of these has its own starting point.  By most accounts, Brandy made from grapes originated in the west in what is today the wine country of California.  Many historians believe that Spanish missionaries and Mexican colonists expanding up the California coast brought the spirit distillation process to North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Most American Brandy is distilled in California by individual firms.  This Brandy tends to be lighter and smoother than European Brandy.

The origins of American favorites like Peach Brandy from the South and Apple Brandy from the North, and eventually the Midwestern US; favorites for drinking, cooking, medicine, and trade, have different origins.  Expanding upon the European traditions of fruit spirits such as Eau de Vie and Calvados, European immigrants and second-generation colonists set up stills to take advantage of the plentiful and diverse fruits that thrived in North America.  In fact, Apple Brandy, known as Apple Jack, was the first spirit distilled in colonial America.  In 1780, Robert Laird established America’s first commercial distillery, for the production of Apple Jack, at Colt’s Neck, NJ next to the Colts Neck Inn

Photo of the Historic Marker for the Colt's Neck Inn.

Historic Marker for the Colt’s Neck Inn.

The colonists in the thirteen British colonies enjoyed both grape and fruit Brandy and so looked to both domestic and imported sources.  With frequent travel abroad, and especially to France, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both became lovers of products of French vineyards.  Jefferson tried and tried to cultivate varieties of French grapes at Monticello but, like more than a century of Virginia settlers before him, he was unsuccessful.  One of Jefferson’s passions was wine, and so, even on his deathbed, his doctors struggled to give him Brandy weak enough for his tastes yet strong enough for effect.

Franklin, who held no such qualms about the taste or strength of Brandy, used it for making punch.  While serving as Postmaster for the Colonies in the 1760’s, Franklin stayed with his friend James Bowdoin of Massachusetts.  Ever the considerate guest, Franklin left Bowdoin a note with his recipe for Milk Punch.  Milk Punch is a cold beverage somewhat akin to a posset, a hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale, often spiced.  In each case, the alcohol and added acid curdle the milk.  What follows is Benjamin Franklin’s recipe.

To make Milk Punch

Take 6 quarts of Brandy, and the Rinds of 44 Lemons pared very thin;
Steep the Rinds in the Brandy 24 hours; then strain it off.
Put to it 4 Quarts of Water, 4 large Nutmegs grated,
2 quarts of Lemon Juice, 2 pound of double refined Sugar.
When the Sugar is dissolv’d, boil 3 Quarts of Milk and put to the rest
hot as you take it off the Fire, and stir it about.
Let it stand two Hours; then run it thro’ a Jelly-bag till it is clear;
then bottle it off.

While at Valley Forge, George Washington complained of the indignity that officers only had “stinking whiskey” unless a traveling friend or French officer visited.  Once he became President, the government reimbursed his household expenses and so they are now public record.  Among receipts in the State Library of New York is the household bill for £6, 6 shillings for Brandy, ranking it up there with beer, Madeira, claret, and champagne in the top consumables.


In over-crowded, slum-ridden Georgian London, Gin was the opiate of the people.  For a few pennies, London’s poor could find an escape from cold and hunger.  Where did this scourge originate and how did it come to be one of the most popular distilled beverages of the poor in 18th century England?

The first confirmed production of Gin (jenever or genever) is the early 17th century in Holland, although some claim production before this in Italy. (, 2016)  Gin was originally produced by distilling malt wine (moutwijn in Dutch) to 50% ABV.  Because the resulting spirit was not palatable due to the lack of refined distilling techniques (only the pot still was available), distillers added herbs to mask the flavor.  Produced as a medicine, apothecary shops sold it to treat stomach complaints, gout, and gallstones.

The warming properties of Gin gave British troops, fighting in the Low Countries during the Thirty Years’ War, ‘Dutch Courage’ during the long campaigns in the damp weather.  Upon returning to England, they brought the taste for it back home.  Distillation, already taking place in a small way in England, now began on a greater scale, although the quality was very often questionable.  Nevertheless, the new drink, because of its low cost, became a firm favorite with the poor.

The Worshipful Company of Distillers, chartered by King Charles I in 1638, had the sole right to distill spirits in London and Westminster and up to twenty-one miles beyond.  They worked to improve both the quality of gin and its reputation – it helped English agriculture by using surplus corn and barley.  Then, when King William III, better known as William of Orange, came to the English throne in 1689, he enacted a series of laws actively encouraging distillation of spirits in England.  Under these new laws, anyone could now distill by simply posting a notice in public and waiting ten days.  Gin became so popular that sometimes city workers received it as part of their wages.  Before long, the daily volume of Gin sold exceeded that of the more expensive beer and ale. (Defoe, A brief case of the distillers: and of the distilling trade in England, 1726)

In 1729, in trying to control the plague that the “gin craze” was becoming, and to realize income for the government, new laws introduced the requirement for a £20 excise license to manufacture Gin and a duty of two shillings per gallon.  In addition, retailers now required a license to sell Gin.  The effect of this was to suppress the production and sale of good Gin, while consumption of bad spirits continued to rise.  By 1730, London had over 7,000 shops that sold only spirits.  Daniel Defoe wrote of “the prodigious number of shopkeepers whose business is wholly and solely the “selling of spirits,” and in some areas, spirits were sold, on average, from one private house in four. (Defoe, 1728)

The increasing abuse of alcohol by the poor continued and became a major problem.  Tobias Smollett, the 18th century Scottish novelist, wrote, “In these dismal caverns (‘strong water shops’) they (the poor) lay until they recovered some of their faculties and then they had recourse to this same mischievous potion.” (Smollett, 1825)  Lord Hervey declared, “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” (Hervey, 1848)  William Hogarth in his ‘Gin Lane’, an engraving of about this period, portrays a scene of idleness, vice, and misery, leading to madness and death.

Gin Lane - an engraving by William Hogarth

Gin Lane – an engraving by William Hogarth

The government attempted to tackle the problem in 1736 by introducing the Gin Act, which made Gin prohibitively expensive.  A license to retail Gin cost £50 and duty was raised five-fold to £1 per gallon with the smallest quantity you could buy retail being two gallons.  The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and Dr. Samuel Johnson opposed the Act.  They considered it unenforceable, since it went against the will of the common people, and they were right.  Riots broke out and the law was widely and openly broken.  At the time the Gin Act was enacted, distillers in London were producing about 11 million gallons of Gin; over 20 times the 1690 figure.  This works out to about 14 gallons of Gin for each adult male in London at the time.  During the six years after the introduction of the Gin Act, only two distillers took out licenses while over the same period, production rose by almost fifty per cent. (, 2016)

In 1742, the Gin Act, was finally officially acknowledged as unenforceable and repealed. A new policy, which distillers helped to draft, was introduced to replace it.  This policy included reasonably high prices, reasonable excise duties and licensed retailers under supervision of magistrates.  Because of these changes, the more respectable firms embarked on the business of distilling and retailing Gin and it became the drink of high quality that we know today.  Many companies established themselves as well-to-do manufacturers, often becoming patrons for major enterprises.  One such enterprise was the attempt to discover the North West Passage 1829-33: the attempt failed, but the expedition did show the true position of the North Magnetic Pole.  (Royal Museums Greenwich, 2016)


Rum is an alcoholic beverage produced by distilling fermented sugarcane juice or molasses,  and the waste products of sugar-making.  Many historians believe that fermented drinks, produced from sugarcane juice originated either in ancient India or in China and spread from there.  One example of such an early drink is Brum, produced by the Malay people and dating back thousands of years.  One of the first European encounters with a Rum-like drink was in the 14th Century when Marco Polo reported encountering a “very good wine made from sugar” in what is now Iran. (Polo, 1845)

The first modern Rum, distilled from sugarcane by-products, was produced in the Caribbean in the early to mid 17th century when slaves found they could ferment molasses into an alcoholic beverage and then distill it to remove its impurities.  The British island of Barbados and the French island of Martinique seem to be the most likely birthplaces of Rum making.  However, in the decade of the 1620s, we find evidence of Rum production in Brazil.  Archeologists found a liquid identified as Rum in a tin bottle recovered from the wreck of the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank in 1628. (, 2013)  Regardless of the origins of distilling this beverage, by the late 1600s, thousands of sugar works dotted the island landscapes of the Caribbean and nearly every plantation employed a copper pot still to make alcohol from the fermented skimming of sugar production and molasses.

Photograph of an 18th Century Copper Pot Still

18th Century Copper Pot Still

In 1655, Admiral William Penn of the British fleet, the father of the founder of Pennsylvania, captured Jamaica from the Spanish and authorized the locally made sugar-cane spirit to replace the official beer ration for the Caribbean squadron.  When he sailed from Jamaica, he found that Rum had the advantage of remaining sweet in the cask for very much longer than water or beer.  It was not until 1731, however, that the Navy Board were persuaded to make the official daily ration, one pint of wine or half a pint of Rum, to be issued neat (at 80% ABV.) in two equal amounts daily.  Every ‘rating’ would be entitled to the ration each day, plus a gallon of beer if he wanted it.  It was a right and a prized privilege that shielded him from the squalor and brutality of life in the Royal Navy.

In 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon claimed, ‘the vice of drunkenness is but too visibly increasing in our mariners’ and secured the change of ration to a quart of water to a half pint of Rum.  Tradition holds that, because of the unusual grogram material of his naval cloak, he was known as ‘Old Grog’.  Hence, when the lower strength ration was enforced, sailors referred to it as ‘Grog’.  Tradition also says that Vernon suggested adding limes and sugar to make the drink more palatable, which led to grog mixed with lime juice being known as ‘limey’, and that Americans calling British people ‘limeys’ derives from this.

A portrait of "Old Grog" Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy

“Old Grog” Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy

Following Rum’s “development” in the Caribbean, the drink’s popularity spread to Colonial North America.  In order to support the demand for the drink, the first Rum distillery in the British colonies of North America was set up in 1664 on present-day Staten Island.  Three years later, Boston, Massachusetts opened a distillery as well. (Blue, 2004)  New England became a distilling center due to the technical, metalworking, cooperage skills and abundant lumber and the manufacture of Rum quickly became early Colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry.  Rhode Island Rum even joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a time. (Blue, 2004)  Estimates of Rum consumption in the American colonies before the American Revolutionary War had every man, woman, or child drinking an average of three (3) imperial gallons of Rum each year. (Tannahill, 1973)

The popularity of Rum continued after the American Revolution, with George Washington ordering a hogshead of the finest aged Barbados Rum for his 1789 inauguration party. (Frost, 2005)  As time went on, Rum started to play an important role in the American political system as candidates attempted to influence the outcome of an election through their generosity with Rum.  Soon, people would attend election rallies and speeches to see which candidate appeared more generous and vote accordingly.  In addition, voters expected the candidate to drink with them to show he was independent and truly a man of the people.  Eventually the restrictions on sugar imports from the British islands of the Caribbean, combined with development of American Whisky, led to a decline in the drink’s popularity in North America.

Portrait of Governor William Bligh

Governor William Bligh

While Rum production was extremely important to the Caribbean islands and the American colonies, they were not the only ones producing Rum.  In colonial Australia, Rum was prized both as a drink and, because of a lack of currency, as a form of payment.  Because of this practice, people in Australia became associated with drunkenness in the eyes of their British upper class colonial governors.  In 1806, to remedy their dependence on Rum, the new Governor of New South Wales attempted to ban the use of Rum as currency.  For this, the Governor, William Bligh, (yes, the same Bligh who had captained HMS Bounty during its infamous mutiny), was placed under arrest in his house by the militia, and the mutineers maintained control of the colony for the next four years. (Clarke, 2002)

Whisky (or Whiskey)

Whisky or Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash.  Various grains (which may be malted), including barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat, are used for different varieties of Whisky.  Whiskey is typically aged in wooden casks made of charred white oak.

The spelling ‘Whiskey’ is common in Ireland and the United States while ‘Whisky’ is the general usage in every other Whisky producing country in the world.  In the US, the usage has not always been consistent.  From the late eighteenth century until introduction of newspaper style guides in the mid-twentieth century, American writers used both spellings interchangeably.  Since the 1960s, American writers have increasingly used Whiskey as the accepted spelling for aged grain spirits made in the US and Whisky for aged grain spirits made outside the US. (Zandona, 2016)  Some prominent American brands, such as George Dickel, Maker’s Mark, and Old Forester (all made by different companies), use the Whisky spelling on their labels, and the ‘Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits’, the legal regulations for spirit in the US, uses the ‘Whisky’ spelling throughout. (United States Government, 2016)

There are two main “types” of Whisky; Malt Whisky, primarily made from malted barley, and Grain Whisky, made from any type of grain.  Although not necessarily true during the Late Georgian era, today, distillers designate alt and grain Whisky in several ways.

  • Single Malt Whisky is Whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. Unless the distiller describes the Whisky as single-cask, it has Whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognizable as typical of the distillery.
  • Blended Malt Whisky is a mixture of Single Malt Whiskies from different distilleries. If a Whisky is labelled “pure malt” or just “malt,” it is almost certainly a blended Malt Whisky, formerly called a “vatted malt” Whisky.
  • Blended Whisky is made from a mixture of different types of Whisky. A blend may contain Whisky from many distilleries.
  • Cask Strength (also known as barrel proof) Whiskies are rare, and usually distillers bottle only the very best Whiskies in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted.
  • Single Cask (also known as single barrel) Whiskies come from an individual cask, and often the distillers label the bottles with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of these Whiskies may vary substantially from cask to cask.

Scotch Whisky

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, Scotch Whisky evolved from a Scottish drink called “uisge beatha,” which means “water of life.” (The Scotch Whisky Association, 2012)  The earliest record of distillation in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494, as documented in the Exchequer Rolls, which were records of royal income and expenditure.  They record “eight bolls of malt given to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” over the previous year. (Exchequer of Scotland, 1494-95, p. Vol. 10 Page 487)  This would be enough for 1,500 bottles, which suggests a well-established distilling tradition by the late 15th century.

Taxation of Scotch Whisky production, beginning in 1644, caused a rise in illicit Whisky distilling in the country.  By around 1780, there were about 8 legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones.  In 1823, Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries with the ‘Excise Act’, while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate, thereby ushering in the modern era of Scotch production.  Originally, all Scotch Whisky was made from malted barley however, commercial distilleries began introducing Whisky made from wheat and rye in the late 18th century. (MacLean, 2009)

English Whisky

England, like Scotland, had a history of producing single malt Whisky.  However, the production of English single malt Whisky ceased around 1905.  Until the late 19th century, there were distillers operating in London, Liverpool, and Bristol that included:

  • Bristol Distillery (founded in the 17th century) — produced grain Whisky which was “sent to Scotland and Ireland to make a Blended Scotch and Irish Whisky, for whisky purpose it was specially adapted, and stood in high favor“.
  • Vauxhall Distillery in Liverpool (founded in 1781) — produced grain Whisky
  • Bank Hall Distillery in Liverpool (founded 1790) — produced grain and malt Whisky (Barnard, 1887)

Irish Whisky

Irish Whisky claims to be one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, arising around the 12th century.  Many believe that Irish monks brought the technique of distilling perfumes back to Ireland from their travels to the Mediterranean countries around 1000 A.D.  The Irish modified this technique to get a drinkable spirit.  The first official record of Whisky production in Ireland was in 1405.  Production continued, in an unregulated state, until the Crown enacted a statute in the late 16th century introducing a vice-regal license for the manufacture of Whisky.  The Old Bushmills Distillery claims to be the oldest surviving licensed distillery in the world, claiming a heritage to a license from James I in 1608, although production of Whisky did not begin at Bushmills until the company’s establishment in 1784.

Whisky in America

Rye Whisky

Whisky making in Virginia began about 1620, when colonist George Thorpe figured out he could distill a mash of Indian corn.  “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that,” he wrote to his cousin in England, John Smith of Nibley.  Despite George Thorpe’s efforts, since maize grew better than barley, distillers used corn, rye or both.  Whisky, however, did not catch on in America until the eighteenth century. (Theobald, 2008)

Before the American Revolution, Rum was the drink of choice in the American colonies since it was cheap, plentiful, and distilled in the northern colonies using molasses from the British colonies in the Caribbean.  Because of this, Whisky seldom shows up on tavern price lists before the Revolutionary War.  Any frontier farmer who raised more grain than he could eat or feed to his livestock could distill Whisky at home and many did just that.  If he did not own a still, he found a neighbor who did, and gave him some of the Whisky as payment.  A bushel of corn made about three gallons and was worth more in liquid form.  Rye and corn became the preferred grains of colonial Whisky makers, with rye the main ingredient.

A photo of the restored Rye Whisky distillery at George Washington's Mount Vernon

The restored Rye Whisky distillery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, most New England Rum distillers converted to Whisky.  Whisky was an all-American drink, made in America by Americans from American grain unlike Rum, wine, Gin, Madeira, Brandy, coffee, chocolate, or tea, which had to be imported and subject to taxation.  Rye Whisky was the prevalent Whisky of the northeastern states, especially Pennsylvania and Maryland.  Pittsburgh was the center of Rye Whisky production in the late 1700s and early 1800s and by 1808, Allegheny County farmers were selling one half barrel for each man, woman and child in the country.  Rye Whisky largely disappeared after Prohibition.

Whisky would soon create one of America’s first Constitutional crises.  Faced with Revolutionary War debts, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton moved in 1791 to tax domestically produced spirits.  Distillers demanded repeal, saying the levy, an excise, fell disproportionately on the poor.  Moreover, they were “apprehensive that this excise will by degrees be extended to other articles of consumption, until everything we eat, drink, or wear be, as in England and other European countries, subjected to heavy duties and the obnoxious inspection of a host of officers.” (Gallatin, 1792)

A group calling themselves the ‘whisky boys’ went on a rampage, burning tax collectors’ homes, tarring and feathering excise officers, and destroying property of any who complied with the tax.  Thousands of whisky boys marched on, and occupied, Pittsburgh.  Reluctantly, President George Washington called out the militia and the rebellion collapsed.  The government captured, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death a few rebels; however, President Washington pardoned them.

History books have long presented a sympathetic picture of the whisky boys, saying that their livelihoods depended on the sale of spirits to consumers on the other side of the Appalachians.  “Supposedly,” writes historian Andrew Barr, “it was impractical for the backwoodsmen to haul bulky consignments of grain over the mountains,” so they turned it into more easily transported Whisky.  “This was a myth created by their descendants.  There is no evidence of backwoods whiskey being sold in eastern Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. . . . The backwoodsmen drank it all themselves.” (Theobald, 2008)


Bourbon Whisky is a type of barrel-aged American Whisky primarily made from corn.  The process of making Whisky from corn developed later in the eighteenth century in the backwoods area of Virginia known as Bourbon County.  Organized in 1785, this region included 34 of today’s counties in Kentucky.  These Kentucky farmers began making Whisky exclusively with corn, instead of rye, in 1789.  What made this “new” Whisky distinctive was aging.  The distillers discovered that charring the inside of oak barrels, and aging their Whisky in them, gave their matured Whiskey a superior flavor and dark, rich color.  The first use of the term “Bourbon” for this Whisky has been traced to the 1820s, and the term became consistently used in Kentucky in the 1870s. (Kiniry, 2013)  Thus, the term is not generally an proper term for Whisky during most of the Georgian Era.

While our “survey,” conducted in the last few posts, of Georgian Era beverages in the English-speaking world  has been far from comprehensive, I believe that we have touched on the major types and examples of these beverages; both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.  There are hundreds of books, in print and out, covering most of the beverages we discussed but this series should give the reader an idea of what is right for the period.

If you have a favorite period beverage that you believe we missed, either in this article, or in Part 1 or Part 2, please share it with us in the comments section and I will take a look into it.  You never know, your comment might be the inspiration for a future article here on this blog!

© 2015 Chuck Hudson

Works Cited

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