Libations in the Land of Liberty

By Pamela Wyn Shannon

What was it that drove the early American settlers of New England to drink? Was it the wailing winter winds? The arduous work of daily survival? The life-risking journeys on wobbly wooden wheels or in tattered boots through rimy, rigorous and unpaved trails? Or perhaps a person drank not only to ease the physical ailments and discomforts of hard work and hard weather but to ease the mental stresses as well. One might say that a greybeard jug of ale or a pewter monteith full of punch could have been a parson’s muse, a connection with the spirits to give an inspirational lift to his sermons, which in turn would raise the morale of his fellow townspeople. After all, early on taverns were purposefully built in close vicinity to the meeting-house and there is even documentation that before the meeting-house was built, religious services were often held in the taverns.

Ah, to warm the body and soul with potations both traditional and experimental. If the New World was like a teenager experiencing growing pains, then surely there would have been some experiments with beverages going on in the woods. Syllabub, posset, mead, elixirs, caudles, crèmes, ratafias, spirituous waters, flip, cider, perry, ale, beer, wine and medicinal drinks were some of the libations that the newly liberated would linger over when necessity or leisure allowed.

Wealthy men imported their own wines and spirits from abroad, but ordinary householders bought theirs from the grocer or made them at home. Women were usually responsible for making such drinks. Beer was the first beverage to be brought into New England. Shortly thereafter, colonists learned to use Indian corn in the making of beer. According to John Hull Brown, author of Early American Beverages, beer and wine could be made with just about anything. There are beer recipes made from various tree twigs, bark, and pumpkin and pear parings. Wines were made out of dandelions, elderberries, currants, and other fruits. There is even a recipe recorded for tobacco wine! That would send today’s Surgeon General over the edge! But what a way to kill two birds with one stone – a drink and a smoke in one glass. The lyrics from this old song reiterates the inventiveness of beverage making:

“Oh we can make liquor
to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins, of parsnips,
of walnut-tree chips.”

Traditional beverages that were brought over from the old country, such as ale, beer and wine, were good kin to the early American settlers. If you owned a pewter montieth, a wine/punch bowl with scalloped rim, (Rev. Adonijah Bidwell owned four!) you might as well bring the recipe for a good punch out to the fringe of civilization with you. By the way, the word “monteith” was named after an innovative and fashionable dandy from England, Mr. Monteith, who sported a waistcoat with scalloped edges. Bidwell House’s restorers, Jack Hargis and David Brush, would have appreciated Mr. Monteith’s fashion influence on pewter design!

Cider was also a popular beverage. Orchards were plentiful and hard cider was easy to make. Even children would partake in a bit of hard cider with their breakfast. Maybe our elders knew more about keeping a child quiet and content than we do!

It would have been fun to play colonial chemist and bring booze to Bidwell for our 18th Century cooking program. But alas, I found myself indulging in the health conscious ways of our time (besides the elderberries are not ripe enough for wine making). Perhaps we could jump on the bottled water bandwagon with the various early American drinks and start a new niche, “Bid Your Body Well: Bidwell Flavored Waters.” On my hunt to bring the visitors at Bidwell a good sampling of non-alcoholic beverages (no early American O’Doul’s that I know of), I came across many delicious but subtle waters and teas. I prepared Flaxseed Lemonade, Appleade, a medicinal herb tea of hawthorn leaves, sage, lemon balm, and mint, and a ginger water. All beverages were sweetened with either molasses or honey.

Belden, Louise Conway. The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900. W.W. Norton & Company. 1983
Brown, John Hull. Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books. 1966

Recipes to Wet Your Whistle

Medicinal Herb Tea: Take of hawthorn leaves, dried two parts, sage and balm one part; mix these well together, and they will make an excellent and pleasant tea, particularly wholesome to nervous people.

Flaxseed Lemonade: Pour one quart of boiling water over four tablespoonfuls of whole flaxseed, and steep three hours. Strain and sweeten to taste, and add the juice of two lemons. Add a little more water if the liquid seems too thick. This is soothing in colds.

Oatmeal Caudle: Take a quart of ale, a pint of stale beer, and a quart of water; mix all together and add a handful of fine oatmeal, six cloves, two blades of mace, some nutmeg, and eight allspice berries bruised. Set over a slow fire, and let it boil for half an hour, stirring it well all the time; then strain through a coarse sieve, add half a pound of sugar, or to taste, a piece of lemon-peel. Pour into a pan, cover close, and warm before serving

Posset Ale: Boil a pint of new milk with a slice of toasted bread, sweeten a bottle of mild ale, and pour it into a basin with nutmeg or other spices, add the boiling milk to it, and when the head rises serve.

Article first published in the Bidwell House Museum Fall 2004 Newsletter