Mankind has been happily consuming alcoholic beverages for thousands of years. Historical evidence points to beer being made long before wine. At the very least, we know that the scores of unfortunate souls who built the pyramids were paid in beer and bread. The two, after all, are related. We also know that beer predates wine because cereal grains were among the first crops cultivated by early man after settling down into the hunter-gatherer mini-series phase. Mixing ground grain with water yielded a nutritious gruel. If there were leftovers, microbes (yeast) did their magic. Wine, however, was a bit more problematic because someone had to figure out how to domesticate vitis vinifera grape vines in quantity. Only then could the grapes be consumed or turned into juice, with the inevitable yeast thing happening.
Once methods for fermentation and storage of these heady brews were developed, entire industries grew up around them in regards to sales, distribution, and transport. Sounds just like today. But there was also a method to the madness behind who made and drank what where. It had to do with place. Grapes to make wine could only be grown in temperate climates. Cereal grains needed for making beer thrived in colder places. So wine initially grew up around the Mediterranean basin and beer farther north in cooler climes.
There’s one more vital part to the alcohol equation. Distillation. Early evidence of distilling has been found in connection to perfumery on Akkadian tables dating to around 1,200 BCE. The tablets display evidence that a primitive form of distillation was known to the Babylonians. Historical records also show that alchemists working in Alexandria in Roman Egypt in the 1st Century CE used a crude form of distillation. But distilling wouldn’t be used for potent potables until the middle ages, when monks concocted various potions to assuage various ails including digestive malfunction, impotence, and male-pattern baldness.
The appearance of stills is the final piece in the ethanol equation. In its updated form, it reads something like this: in temperate climates grapes are grown, wine is made, and the wine is distilled into brandy. In colder climates, cereal grains are grown, beer is fermented, and the beer is distilled into whiskey.
One could almost demarcate the Western World into beer zones and wine zones. And it’s with the former that we’re finally landing the plane. In the early days of what would become our country, repeated attempts by colonists to make wine failed. The climate was too hot and humid to grow fine wine grapes. Add a plethora of new pests and diseases to the mix and no wonder vinous progress was a mission impossible. At the same time, more than a few species of native grapes proliferated in the countryside. However, wines made from these vines proved near undrinkable. I’m thinking they were also sweet and tasted like a cross between a Glade plug-in air freshener and Aqua Velva.
Beer more than made up for the shortcomings of early American wine. Cereal grains thrived throughout the northeast and what was then called the western frontier. In short order, beer became a staple of the colonial diet and distilleries quickly sprang up in homes and businesses. Soon young America was awash in beer and whiskey—and for more reason than mere access. The water in many places wasn’t safe to drink.
As for wine and the colonies, any vintage of quality came from Europe, i.e., France, via ship. Eventually, George III put a considerable tax on all European goods going to the colonies. Overnight European wine became prohibitively expensive–with one notable exception. George III was a short-sighted tyrant–and he was also sorely lacking in geographical knowledge. Wine from Madeira remained untaxed and continued to be imported by the colonies in quantity. This because George thought the island was part of Africa and not Portugal. Madeira would remain a popular wine long after the Revolutionary War ended. More on that in a moment.
After independence, whiskey came into play for newly inaugurated President George Washington. One of the first official acts of his administration was to pass a whiskey tax in 1791, intended to raise revenue for debt incurred during the war. The tax was met with widespread protest. Farmers in the western frontier routinely distilled their surplus rye, barley, wheat, and corn into whiskey for personal use and additional income. No surprise they were categorically against the new law, as many were also war veterans who thought the tax was eerily similar to taxation without representation—a major reason why the revolution was fought.
In Pennsylvania protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the new tax. Things came to a head in July 1794 when more than 500 men attacked the home of a federal tax inspector. The president responded by sending a team of negotiators to cool things off. But he still called for the governor to enforce the tax. When initial efforts failed, Washington himself rode at the head of a militia of over 13,000 to suppress the uprising. By the time they arrived, the so-called rebels had all returned home so there was no confrontation. Some twenty men were later arrested, but all were acquitted or pardoned. And the legend of the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion was born.
Booze tax aside, old habits die hard. Even after the war, citizens in our fledgling country kept reaching for bottles of Madeira even though European wines were available and in some cases affordable. Madeira remained a popular wine in the U.S. well into the 19th century. In fact, it was the wine of choice served at state dinners well into the 1880s. I know this from having been on a private tour of the White House in 2004.
At the time, I was teaching an MS Introductory Course in D.C. with several colleagues. Someone in the group knew Daniel Shanks, then the Assistant Usher at the White House. Shanks generously offered a private tour scheduled for one of the nights. The tour was a remarkable experience and increased my interest of and appreciation for U.S. history ten-fold. One of the highlights was sitting in Washington’s chair. It was a sturdy piece of furniture. One wonders if the same wood was used for George’s legendary teeth.
One of the more memorable moments of the tour was seeing the official China Room, where the china, flatware, and glassware from each administration dating back to Washington are displayed. What quickly struck me was how small the wine glasses and decanters were, up through Grant’s administration in the 1870s. Daniel was quick to point out that Madeira was served at state dinners almost to the 20th century. In a way, Madeira makes sense as the go-to White House dinner hooch. The wine is fortified, oxidized, and cooked. In other words, it’s indestructible. A bottle can be left open for years without any detrimental effect to the wine, making it the perfect restaurant wine by the glass. It also has 18% alcohol, making it an appealing speed dating wine as well.
After the China Room, Daniel took us into the kitchen which was surprisingly small. Seventeen chefs work out of it to produce 238 meals for a state dinner. That number is the maximum the formal dining room can hold. The official wine cellar is much smaller and only holds about 40 cases. With the exception of Champagne, all wine served at state functions is made in the U.S. As we left the kitchen, someone in our group asked Daniel how long state dinners were under then president George W. Bush. The answer: 55 minutes. In that time, three courses were served “southern style,” meaning the second course was placed as the first was cleared. Ditto for the third course. All three wines served were pre-poured. Within an hour, the president and his wife would stand signaling to those assembled that dinner was over, they were leaving, and to do likewise with appropriate decorum.
In the end, American history is intertwined with various alcoholic beverages. Some of our greatest failed political experiments like Prohibition are also indelibly linked to them. And Prohibition only passed because congress did away with the excise tax on alcohol in 1915—which was replaced by the personal income tax. Yes, we’re hosed any way you look at it. But at least we’ll always have whiskey and beer. And a glass of Madeira while we’re at it.