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

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.


  • The Mayflower Landed On Plymouth Rock Because They Ran Out Of Beer
    Photo: William Halsall / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Beer drinking dates back to some of the first European settlements in the New World. And while it doesn't exactly fit their reputation, the Puritans were huge beer drinkers. 

    When they set sail on the Mayflower, the Pilgrims packed more beer than drinking water. Pilgrims, including children, drank about a quart of beer each day on the journey. Though it was weaker than today's beer - more a heavy English-style ale - the Puritans preferred their fermented drink to fresh water. After drinking from a fresh stream, one Puritan wrote, "I dare not prefer it before good beer."

    In fact, a beer shortage drove the Pilgrims to land on Plymouth Rock instead of sailing farther south. With their beer supply dwindling, the sailors sent the Pilgrims out to find water. One angry Puritan complained they "were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer."

  • During The Revolutionary Era, Wine Was Associated With The Upper Class Because It Had To Be Imported From Europe
    Photo: Gottfried Locher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When Europeans moved to North America, they tried to reproduce European wine. But native species created acidic, strange tasting wines; European grapes failed to grow in the harsher climates of the eastern seaboard.

    As a result, for centuries wine had to be imported from Europe. Thomas Jefferson was known for importing expensive European wines. The cost of importing wine meant only wealthy Americans could afford the drink.

    By 1840, less than 3% of wines consumed by Americans were grown in the US. Everything changed with the 1849 gold rush, which flooded California with settlers. Many abandoned the quest for gold to grow grapes, founding wineries that popularized California wine. By the 1910s, 90% of wine consumed in the US came from California.

  • Rum Was The Favorite Liquor For Many Of The Founding Fathers
    Photo: William Clark / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When George Washington was president, Americans drank an average of 5.8 gallons of alcohol each year, nearly triple the average consumption of alcohol today. And among the Founding Fathers, rum was the favorite drink. 

    In Medford, Massachusetts, Isaac Hall ran a distillery and sold rum that could make “a rabbit bite a bulldog.” On his ride to warn of the British invasion, Paul Revere stopped at Hall's house, probably for a slug of rum. 

    Rum was a truly American drink. From the 16th century, sugar plantations in the West Indies created molasses as a byproduct. For years, sugar refineries dumped millions of gallons of molasses into the sea. Until they realized molasses could be made into rum. Though many called it "hot, hellish, and terrible" or "rough and disagreeable," hundreds of thousands of gallons soon poured into North America.

    By the American Revolution the average American downed four gallons of rum each year.

  • Whiskey Was So Ingrained In American Culture That People Were Willing To Kill For It
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1794, George Washington sent Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton into western Pennsylvania to make sure whiskey distillers paid their taxes. Hamilton led a group of 13,000 militiamen, who suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion.

    During the rebellion, Pennsylvanians refused to pay tax collectors, even tarring and feathering one. The whiskey tax was so unpopular that some threatened to declare independence from the fledgling United States. 

    By the early years of the US, whiskey had begun to replace rum as the most popular distilled alcohol. The Revolution slowed molasses imports, while new import duties raised their price. Surplus corn from the midwest made whiskey even cheaper: in the 1820s, whiskey cost 25 cents a gallon. Americans saw whiskey as a patriotic drink since it didn't rely on imports from the West Indies.

    As a result, Americans increasingly turned to whiskey, with the annual per capital liquor consumption hitting its highest level ever by 1830.