In the Spirit of Independence Day, Drink Like a Founding Father
Most Americans celebrate Independence Day with barbecues, picnics, parades, fireworks, hanging out at the beach, or just vegging in front of the television. A component of our collective Independence Day celebrations that seems to have lost appreciation for its historical importance is the booze. Sure, we have beer and wine at our July 4 shindigs, but our nation’s ancestors would get thoroughly pickled at such affairs.
Given the current state of domestic political affairs, following in the footsteps of our national forebears by getting all – to use the clinical medical terms – farshnickert, farshikert, or farshnoshket seems a not unreasonable decision this July Fourth. Though do be sensible about it. As Dean Martin used to say: “if you drink, don’t drive—don’t even put.”
According to historian William Rorabaugh, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Washington in Seattle, communal binge drinking was so customary at Fourth of July festivities that “it was surely no accident that one early temperance society adopted a pledge that allowed its members to become intoxicated on Independence Day.” In fact, Rorabaugh writes in his classic text, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1979), “during the 1820s no holiday had more import than the 4th of July,” a date that would evoke “a national intoxication.”
Apparently, Americans drank more alcoholic beverages between 1790 and 1840 than at any other period in our nation’s history — nearly a half pint of hard liquor per man each day.
So what were Americans drinking back then? Well before the American Revolution, it was mostly madeira, hard apple cider, apple brandy, rum, and really anything they could get their hands on to distill that wasn’t otherwise being taxed too greatly by the British. The demand for whiskey increased as supplies of rum ran dry during the American Revolution. After the revolution, however, the tipple of choice was largely rye whiskey — it was both cheap and plentiful, and American.
Back at the time of our nation’s founding, whiskey and other distilled spirits were seen as staple foods to shake up an otherwise bland diet. Think of it as rye bread versus white bread. Whiskey was also thought to be curative, healing colds, fevers, and a palliative for aches well into the nineteenth century. At that time, most sources of water were neither clear nor in any way appetizing.
It is all too often forgotten that until Prohibition in the 1920s, America took pride in its domestic rye whiskey industry, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Sure bourbon, since a 1964 congressional resolution, has been “officially” America’s Native Spirit, and so folks might think it the better distilled spirit for this occasion. But as with most congressional proclamations, American instinct can’t resist a little iconoclasm. Don’t misunderstand — I love bourbon, but no plutocratic fat-cats will tell me what to drink when celebrating my national independence.
All of which is to say that straight rye whiskey, the tipple of our nation’s hearty, freedom-loving forebears, should be accorded at least a modicum of respect, and is certainly worth at least a sample taste.
So consider: Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (45 percent abv; $46): This warming, super smooth, fun, light-ish yet wonderful rye offers aromas and flavors of almonds, caramel, honey, vanilla, oak, cherries, banana bread, racy/spicy cinnamon, and N.Y. rye bread. Mild mannered as rye whiskies go, but just superb. L’Chaim!