I love most everything about my job. Especially the research. Last month, I had to go out and buy a bunch of artisan chocolate and spend three days pairing it with wine for a piece going in the February issue of Redbook Magazine. This week, I needed to research what people drank in colonial times, for a live radio interview. The host wanted to discuss the ins and outs of what folks like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were imbibing way back then. The title of the piece was, “Drink Like Our Founding Fathers.”
In retrospect, maybe the title should have been “Drunk Like Our Founding Fathers.” What I learned will blow you away, and make you smile. Those legendary men at the core of our country’s early existence–the epic, iconic, heroic untouchables–were likely teetering on the edge of alcoholism most days.
No one drank water. In the Revolutionary War era, water was declared unfit to drink (probably a safe assumption). Beer was identified a healthy substitute, and even children drank the stuff. Plus, drinking beer showed social status–only the most destitute drank water. And we’re not just talking about a cool one to relax after a day at the office. We’re talking beer for breakfast, and every few hours after, till you passed out.
Benjamin Franklin, a huge wine advocate and lover, was sometimes made fun of by fellow workers in his printing press, because he couldn’t keep up with their guzzling. Here’s what he had to say of his comrades: “My companions at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast with bread and cheese, a pint in between breakfast and dinner (lunch), a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his days work.” (Barr, 1999)
As shipments from England slowed down, and Americans were forced to become more self-reliant, they realized that the ingredients for beer did not grow well in New England. Never fear, for where barley and hops did not thrive, apple orchards did. Soon hard cider was the drink of choice and the Puritans would start their day with a quart or more at breakfast.
As Americans moved West, the drink scene changed once again. Corn was the crop of the west, and whiskey it’s prize. The Pioneers lived an unfathomably harsh, brutal existence. It is no wonder they called whiskey their “good creature of god.” It gave them the strength to just keep going.
By now you winos are probably wondering when I’m going to get back to talking about what is really important. Yes, wine played a part in all of this consumption. If you had the means to acquire it. Which many a founding father did.
Washington, Monroe, Madison and Adams were all wine lovers. But the most iconic wine lover-father was Thomas Jefferson, who spent his life learning about wine. He was an avid collector of mostly French wines. He especially appreciated Sauternes, the sweet wine of Bordeaux France, and Madeira, a fortified sweet wine made on an island off the coast of Portugal. Both wines would have been hearty enough to survive long sea voyages. Beyond collecting and imbibing, Jefferson was deeply interested in viticulture, and would travel to the vineyards in Europe often, gaining insight for his attempts at planting vines near his home at Monticello. Bugs, heat and humidity always triumphed over his vines, but they could not squelch his passion for good wine. I quote him often in Hello, Wine. Here are two of my favorites:
“Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”
“You are not to conclude that I am a drinker. My measure is a perfectly sober one of three or four glasses at dinner, and not a drop at any other time. But as to those three or four glasses, I am very fond.”
What did I learn from all of my research? That alcohol has been making life a little more rosy, for a lot of folks, for a long time. And that wine especially, has the magical ability to connect, inspire and stimulate. Come to think of it, it is a little surprising that our founding fathers where capable of winning a war, founding a country and establishing a government. Maybe that rosy glow was their secret weapon!