Food

What Kind Of Booze Were Americans Getting Drunk On Through History?  

Genevieve Carlton
7.6k views 11 items

The history of alcohol in America, from colonial cider drinkers to prohibition hooch smugglers, shows the lengths Americans went for their booze. Some cowboys were said to be so desperate at the saloons they threw back a mixture of gin and strychnine, while some speculate that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in winter because they ran out of beer. In the late 19th century, Americans flocked to bars to try new, exciting cocktails, while German immigrants popularized a new style of beer. 

The American history of alcohol is also the history of trying to control drinking. When cider's popularity threatened the temperance movement, abstainers burned down apple orchards. And when tequila smugglers crossed the Mexican border during Prohibition, the Prohibition Bureau tracked down their mules. The biggest crisis of George Washington's presidency came when the new government tried to tax whiskey. American drinking habits may have changed, but America's love of booze hasn't.

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Saloons Mixed Gin With Strychnine For A Deadly Drink Called Tarantula Juice 
Saloons Mixed Gin With Strychn... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list What Kind Of Booze Were Americans Getting Drunk On Through History?
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the Old West, saloons served up powerful alcoholic drinks to cowboys, prospectors, and settlers. In Sierra Nevada, saloons sold Tarantula Juice, or gin mixed with diluted strychnine. The poison, added in a low dose, mimicked the effects of methamphetamine. 

Saloon gin was usually unregulated. In Carson Valley, NV, the gin was wood grain alcohol that contained turpentine and sometimes tobacco oil. But the strychnine was much more dangerous than the gin.

The name Tarantula Juice came from a side effect of the strychnine, which caused muscle spasms, leaving drinkers feeling like baby tarantulas were crawling across their skin. Most saloons served up Tarantula Juice in two tumblers, warning drinkers to hold on to the second until the muscle spasms set in. The second dose of "juice" would end the baby tarantulas. 

Daiquiri is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list What Kind Of Booze Were Americans Getting Drunk On Through History?
Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The late 19th century has been called the Golden Age of Cocktails. Signature mixed drinks like the martini and the Manhattan were first invented by bartenders, and Americans across the country grew to love cocktails.

Take the daiquiri, for instance. Invented by Jennings Cox in the 1890s, the recipe included Bacardi rum, lemon juice, and sugar. Eventually the daiquiri became the drink of choice for Ernest Hemingway and John F. Kennedy.

In the late 1800s, Jerry Thomas, author of the first bartender's guide, also turned cocktails into an entertaining spectacle. Thomas invented the Blue Blazer, a flaming cocktail that he alledgedly made with white rats sitting on his shoulders. 

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Sailors Simultaneously Drank Their Daily Ration Of Alcohol And Rid Themselves Of Scurvy With Punch

British sailors once had been known to drink as much as 10 pints of beer a day. But the warmer temperatures in the tropics spoiled their beer. Enterprising sailors turned to punch.

Made from distilled spirits, juice, and sugar - with spices like nutmeg or cinnamon often added for flavor - punch quickly became the most popular drink for sailors and a favorite for colonial Americans on land. Punch had a major advantage over other alcoholic beverages: its citrus juice helped protect against scurvy. 

In the 19th century, Americans sang,

Mid plenty of bacon

and bread tho' we jog,

Be it ever so strong,

there's nothing like grog.

German Immigration In The Mid-19th Century Caused The Beer Industry To Boom
German Immigration In The Mid-... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list What Kind Of Booze Were Americans Getting Drunk On Through History?
Photo: OSU Special Collections & Archives/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Before the mid-1800s, Americans drank heavy English ales. But that changed when German immigrants popularized a new type of beer.

More than a million Germans landed on American shores in the second half of the 19th century. They brought a cold, drinkable lager that gradually replaced the English ales. And the Germans didn't just introduce new brewing methods, they even brought over new types of brewing yeast to create their beer. 

Breweries thrived across the country, until Prohibition put many small brewers out of business for good.