Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Once and Future Rye, Part 2: Drinking Like a (Colonial) American



2. Drinking Like a (Colonial) American

If you and I are to explore the history of Rye Whiskey in America (and that is certainly my intention), we must begin at the beginning. And that beginning is, amazingly enough, Rum.

The American Colonies before the War of Independence were not peopled by teetotalers. Far from it! Life was hard, pleasures were  few, and the water was dangerous to drink. So, from the earliest colonists on, American society was awash in beer, hard cider, applejack, and distilled spirits. Some even sank so low as to drink wine—though American wine was dreadful and imported wine so expensive that only Thomas Jefferson could afford it regularly.

But while Americans would drink pretty much anything, in the Colonial era the tipple of choice was rum.  This was not the smooth and delicious drink we now know but a cruder version distilled from the byproducts of the molasses industry. Still, it was the best of a bad lot and prodigious amounts of it were made and sold.

There were two problems with rum.

The first was that it was a major component of the "triangular trade." The Americas sold sugar and rum to England, which sent cloth and manufactured goods to Africa, which sent slaves to the Americas. So it was a part of our great nation's Original Sin. Not that this bothered many Americans at the time. Which is also a part of our collective national guilt.

The second problem is that rum at that time was pretty rough stuff. Which is why so many Colonial drink recipes involved massive amounts of fruit and sugar.

One of the best of these drinks was invented at a gentlemen's fishing club on the banks of the Schuylkill River, not far from the world headquarters of the American Martini Institute. It is named Fish House Punch, after the august institution in which it was first concocted

Most recipes involve bottles of each ingredient and sacks of sugar, because they were meant to be served in enormous punch bowls to large groups of hard-drinking men and women who had no idea how soon they would become our Founding Fathers and Mothers. With perseverance, however, you can find more manageable recipes. Here's one:


Fish House Punch 

1 shot rum

1 shot cognac

3/4 shot peach brandy

1 1/2 shots simple syrup.

juice from 1 lemon 

spiced cherry


directions: mix, chill, and serve with a spiced cherry for garnish


And the results? as you might guess, this is an intensely sweet drink. Also very, very fruity. But anyone mixing this cocktail is going to know that going in. At the taste test, Fish House Punch won over even the skeptics. It is flavorful, bright, and festive. A terrific party drink and far superior to the dreadful things that are usually served in punch bowls.

Also, it packs a punch. Our Colonial forebears certainly knew how to party!

So for one bright, warm moment, all (if you could ignore the slavery part, that is) was good.

But then—spoiler alert!—came the American Revolution and everything changed, changed utterly. Including what kind of alcohol Americans drank


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