Revolutionary Drinking: A Day-Long Experiment in Colonial Boozing

Shutterstock/ Jennifer Bui/Thrillist
Shutterstock/ Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

The American Revolution was built on a foundation of booze, led by Founding Fathers who were typically found in taverns. And sure, those taverns acted as venues for legal proceedings, debates, and town meetings, but imbibing beer, cider, and punch punctuated said events.

That our forefathers were liquor-loving is a matter of historical record. Washington owned a whiskey distillery. Jefferson imported thousands of bottles of wine. Hancock smuggled hundreds of barrels of strong Portuguese Madeira into the colonies -- an act that would cause his ship to be seized and lead to a riot and the burning of a British customs boat in Boston Common.

Shutterstock/ Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

The colonial contemporaries of these brave, besotted men were likewise fond of drink. One oft-cited quote from the era lays out a day of drinking thusly: “If I take a settler after my coffee, a cooler at nine, a bracer at ten, a whetter at eleven, and two or three stiffeners during the forenoon, who has right to complain?”

That, my good, modern friends, is a helluva day, and a common one when our country was new. Fascinating grounds for historical rumination and speculation, to be sure. But upon learning these facts about our thirsty ancestors, an incandescent and maybe self-serving question burned in my mind: WTF was that like?

So, in the name of history, patriotism, science, and thirst, I set out to discover what it would be like if colonial drinking habits were a part of my typical 21st-century day.

Flickr/muffinman71xx (edited)

8am: The “antifogmatic”

I’m not terribly excited to start my day with several shots of rum. Back in the day, this eye-opener was often called an antifogmatic. The proportion of booze imbibed upon waking, said one 18th-century writer, would be proportionate to the amount of fog one encountered. One historical report suggested some Americans might drink up to half a pint of rum in the morning. You know, just to get going.

Given modern mores, pouring pirate swill in my pajamas makes me feel more Leaving Las Vegas than American Revolutionary. But that shameful feeling doesn’t last long. In fact, with the 4oz of rum paired with my morning joe, I’m awake in record time. I feel good! Damn good! And I’m ready to tear the day apart.

9:30am: A cooler before yard work

The colonials were hard workers. Particularly those who were not wealthy and owned smaller patches of land. Hard physical labor was the name of the game. The only modern parallel available to me in the mannered suburbs of Cleveland is yard work. Now, it typically takes me an hour to mow both the front and back lawn. Also, the assisted drive on my mower is broken, so it’s a pain to push. Also, also, I injured my back the day before this entire experiment.

Funny thing, though: a “cooler” consisting of one more 2oz shot of rum causes me to be blissfully numbed to the task at hand. I mow the crap out of those lawns. And in record time. Strangely, I’m not as out-of-sorts as I thought I’d be. More pleasantly numbed. I'm really enjoying myself -- until I remember a good many of our Founding Fathers probably didn’t do this shit because they owned slaves. And now I’m really bummed out.

10-something: Let’s drink cider!

I’m feeling great by the time I finish mowing the estate, so I decide to rest a spell with a bracer of hard cider. It’s so lovely that I have a second one. Again, I realize that I’m far from being over-the-top. The pace of the drinking is simply putting me ahead of any advancing hangover. A painful prospect on a typical Thursday’s mid-morning. Maybe that’s the trick: stay warmly addled. Enough to feel slightly impulsive and free from pains, but still quite able to converse at length about those British assholes taking too many taxes for way too little representation.

Andy Kryza/Thrillist

11ish: Another cider before going to the market

The impulse to text random things to people prompts this thought: given the time it would have taken for news of the Declaration of Independence to reach King G, is it possible that it could have been the colonial equivalent of a late-night text to your girlfriend at 3am that she reads before going to work in the morning and that you realize you sent when you sober up and you’re all, “Well, I guess I better get ready to cross the Delaware,” or whatever?

Noon: What the hell, let’s have another cider or two!

We’ve returned in the horseless carriage (don’t worry, my wife was driving) from the Depot of Home. In colonial times, such a store would have had libations for me while I shopped. No such luck. I have several observations: my kids, ages 2 and 4, are waaay funnier right now. Also, I felt compelled to buy patriotic bunting to hang on the front of my house. Finally, thick slices of ham and cheese on artisan bread are incredibly fortifying with cider. I am still oddly coherent. At least I think I am.

Flickr/Derek Key

1pm to 3ish: Hail productivity! 

I’m not known for being handy around the house. My projects are often unmeasured, poorly planned, and break within weeks. I’m not proud of that fact, but there it is. With this understanding, and a liver working overtime, I approach a project I’ve been putting off since becoming a homeowner. We have an ugly brass fireplace screen I’ve been meaning to paint black -- a simple matter of hitting it with some high heat and semi-gloss grill paint, from the can (natch). Buoyed up by the booze, I launch into the work with more concentration and care than I’ve ever approached any home project. I tape up the glass carefully, obey all instructions on the spray paint can, and over an hour later have a carefully completed project that looks stunning. This is not me. This is not what I’m capable of. But there it is somehow, looking like Bob Vila stopped by to spruce things up a bit.
You ever see that movie, The Secret? You know, all about how you can manifest a better universe through pleasant thoughts and whatnot? Well, I think I’ve found the real Secret. It’s drinking all day. Truth.


4pm: Off to the tavern

My local tavern, a kinda gastropub called Crumb & Spigot, located in a strip mall about a half-mile from my home, strikes me as the perfect place to end my day. It has a menu that the colonials would have recognized, featuring rustic fare from a wood-fired oven and a damn fine bar. God bless America. The problem is that the walk there follows a busy highway at rush hour. There are no sidewalks. Or crosswalks.

I dress in loud madras pants to be seen and hit the whiskey for fortitude. Whiskey was a common drink for colonials West of the Allegheny. It was a good way to preserve crops of corn and helped them ease the incredible burden of taming a frontier. For me, it tames nerves as I make my tavern journey. While fun to ride in, the horseless carriage is terrifying to walk beside! What manner of fuel compels them on with such rumbling and fury! Steady on!

I now know why travelers would drink at every tavern they reached... alive. (Side note: Paul Revere was lucky he stayed on his horse for that entire ride, considering the many public houses where he proclaimed his news.)

Flickr/Selena N.B.H.

6pm: Spirits, food, and friends

Hearing of my experiment, my kind mustachioed bartender suggests a Sazerac (rye whiskey, bitters, absinthe). While slightly anachronistic, a Sazerac does recall a time when people would mix “bitters,” protean cocktails that had yet received the name. I’m fine with that. Thing is, the tavern is where the colonials would really start to tie one on, talking and strategizing and just straight-up drankin’.
For the most part I follow suit. Food helps matters. I have a massive pretzel, some bar-made jerky, and a pickled egg. Colonials loved pickled stuff. They pickled everything. Meats. Salads. Mutant fetuses. You name it.
A friend stops in to join me around 7pm. I’m still coherent as we drink a pilsner and I explain to him the real Secret. The talk is easy and fun. At least for me. I haven’t let him get a word in edgewise.
On the bar TV (WHAT MANNER OF WIZARDRY IS THIS?!) I notice a constant stream of beer commercials. It seems as if we, as Americans, understand that booze built the nation. That we could sense, somehow, it was necessary for progress. The ads show beach day-drinking and daytime beer-fun with friends. Implicitly the images say: “this is weekend behavior.” But it was every day for our forefathers. The difference was that their joy in drink was measured throughout the day. It was carefully applied medicine (for better or worse). It was the anti-depressant in a time that desperately needed one. How else would you deal with public hangings, an insane infant-mortality rate, unfair taxation from a foreign despot, and general lack of political freedom? Bottoms up!

Flickr/Frank DiBona

9pm: A nightcap

Ben Franklin collected over a hundred words for intoxication, none of which could have described me at any point today. I know what overdoing it is. I was 21 once. But at no point during the day was I ever a slobbering, lurching mess.

I pour a glass of fortified wine, akin to the wildly popular Madeira of colonial times. It’s sweet and warm and makes me drowsy. It’s before 10pm. The sun has set and I am ready to lay my head down.

I think back on the day, amazed by how productive I’ve been. Over 12 hours of booze and I remained standing. I never so much as tripped. It's perplexing and confusing. Would this kind of drinking lead to permanent damage? Damn straight. And many a colonial likely fell to a destroyed liver (if natural diseases and infections from things like hangnails didn’t get them first).

Here’s the thing. I would never do this on the regular, as amazing and fun as it is. I don’t need to drink like a colonial. There is not enough pain and suffering in my life to require it. I have my freedom. I have a tremendous amount of leisure time and good health. My pains are an occasional bad back and a numb ass from binge-watching the John Adams mini-series on Amazon. There are better ways to manage the ills of modern-day society. We have good drugs for depression and pain and sleep and waking.

That said, a day of colonial drinking may be occasionally necessary. Maybe for those times when I need a bit more bravery. Maybe for those times when I need to greet the day with a breath of fire, ready to take on everything. Maybe next Saturday, for no reason.

If it was good enough to build America, it’s good enough for me.

Patrick Coleman is the former Thrillist Portland editor, a current Cleveland suburbanite, and an eternal patriot. Follow him to jingoistic flagons: @PatrickAColeman.