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Revolutionary War-Era Recipes for the Fourth of July

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Milk and water. Traditionally the most wholesome, most healthy stuff a person can drink. Drinks that a hard-working, pure-hearted colonial American would rely on. Fuel for his freedom-hungry soul as it wrestled the constraints of British rule. Right?

Nope. In reality, the colonists hardly touched the stuff. The thing about 18th century milk and water was that there was always a good chance it would sicken or kill whoever drank it. Milk was unpasteurized and often teeming with disease. And water? Death in a Pewter Stein. Diphtheria, cholera, typhoid … all that horrible stuff came from just drinking water that was impure, which was most of it. 

Our young country was founded by people of exceptional strength and brilliance … who still pooped really close to their own water sources and dumped all sorts of rotten and foul things into their rivers. It wasn’t their fault. Science was still mostly leeches and trepanning back then. 

So, boiled-water drinks—coffee and tea—were relied on heavily. But, they were imported at high cost and heavily taxed. (There was some fuss over that in Boston Harbor one night. You may have heard of it.) Plus, colonists, for the most part, preferred stronger hydration.

But rotten water doesn’t have to be a problem—because if you let the right things rot in it, that water becomes sterile. We call it alcohol.  

Getting Lordly with Sir John Strawberry

Alcohol was extremely important to the colonials. They used it for basic hydration, for medicine, and for the rare leisure such a difficult existence allowed.

In accordance with that leisurely attitude toward the stuff, in 1737, Benjamin Franklin compiled a dictionary of 200 synonyms for “being drunk.” My personal favorites include, “Been too free with Sir John Strawberry,” “Nimptopsical,” and simply, “Lordly.” (The mental_floss Store currently carries some fantastic and unique drinkware if you intend to get Lordly with some friends this Fourth, and want to introduce them to Sir John Strawberry.)

One of the reasons a person in the 18th century could drink all day and still have a functioning liver as they entered middle-age (which, to be fair, was their late 20s) was because of “small beer.” For centuries, Western civilization had relied on small beer which usually contained only between 2 to 4 percent alcohol, enough to make sure the water was safe, but not enough to mess you up.  The American colonists (cheerfully fueling the slave trade at the very moment they were considering the concept of their own freedom) especially enjoyed small beer brewed from Caribbean molasses (they were also quite fond of Caribbean rum).

Boozing Without Brits

All that molasses brew and rum dried up when the Revolutionary War started, and the British blockaded colonial seaports. Americans tried to make their own wine, but that never took off. They honestly thought it would, bless them. But, as it turns out, America’s west coast would be more ideally suited for wine valleys.

So, replacements were needed to soothe the dry throats of our militia. Cider, made from pressing apples or peaches and allowing them to ferment, replaced a lot of the molasses-based drinks. And then came corn whiskey! During the Revolutionary War, corn whiskey wasn’t just the domain of moonshiners and pipe smoking, Hatfield-hatin’, Appalachian grandmas.

The whiskey biz turned a major perishable crop of America—corn—into something shelf-stable. And it helped the fledgling nation grow its economy. In 1799, George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon was producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. George Washington brewed whiskey as a means of boosting the American economy and helping to establish independence from all things British. Thus, by the transitive property, if you love America, you will drink whiskey this Fourth of July.

Some Real 18th Century Drink Concoctions for Your Flossy Fourth Party

Some of the most well-named, most creative colonial drinks are, sadly, not suitable for summer consumption.  Rattle-Skull involves mixing 3/4 ounce dark rum, 3/4 ounce brandy, 1 bottle of porter, and the juice of half a lime. Grate nutmeg on top. Drink. Lie down for the rest of the day.

Whistle-Belly Vengeance, which is such a good name I would consider it for a child, was made of sour household beer simmered in a kettle, sweetened with molasses, filled with brown breadcrumbs and drunk hot.

Below are some better options for your Fourth of July BBQ. These may be the very drinks our founding fathers used to toast the likelihood of their eminent executions for treason after signing the Declaration of Independence. (A better glass for such a toast doesn’t exist.)

Or, if you would like for your party’s drinkware to be reflective of a more modern staple of Americana, try these Red Cup Living cups. They look just like the kind you toss (in the recycling bin) when the party is over, but these are super-sturdy, dishwasher-safe, and reusable for many parties to come. The wine and cocktail versions give the “classier” libations the casual attire they need for a backyard barbeque.

Fish House Punch

Difficulty Level: Pretty darn complicated. For true patriots only.

Ingredients:
¾ pound sugar
1 Bottle of lemon juice
2 Bottles of Jamaican rum
1 Bottle of Cognac
2 Bottles of water
1 Wine-glass-full of peach cordial
Lots of ice (it says “cake of ice” but we don’t know where to tell you to find one of those)

Directions:
Completely dissolve 3/4 pound of sugar in a little water, in punch bowl
Add a bottle of lemon juice. 
Add 2 bottles Jamaican rum,
1 bottle cognac,
2 bottles of water
1 Wine glassful of peach cordial. 
Put a big cake of ice in the punch bowl. 
Let Punch stand about 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
In winter, when ice melts more slowly, more water may be used; in summer less.  The melting of the ice dilutes the mixture sufficiently.
Makes about 60 4-ounce glasses

GINGER BEER

Difficulty level: Medium to Hard – sometimes finding the ingredients will be the hardest part. By the way, the fermentation time isn’t long enough to create alcohol, just a nice carbonated fizz.

Ingredients:
2 ounces of powdered ginger root (or more if it is not very strong)
1/2 ounce of cream of tartar
2 large lemons, sliced
2 pounds of broken loaf sugar
2 gallons of soft boiling water 

Directions:
Put all ingredients into a kettle and simmer them over a slow fire for half an hour (you may be able to find a more modern solution that produces the same effect).
Remove from heat.
When the liquor is nearly cold, stir into it a large tablespoonful of the best yeast (only the best).
After it has fermented, which will be in about 24 hours, bottle for use.

Switchel 

An electrolyte-heavy, sweet-tart drink that staves off thirst. The Gatorade of the Revolutionary War.

Difficulty level: Really pretty easy

Ingredients:
1 c. light brown sugar
1 c. apple vinegar
1/2 c. light molasses
1 tbsp. ginger
2 qtrs. cold water

Directions:
Combine and stir well. 

So at your first-annual Flossy Fourth Party, raise your cup of American corn whiskey mixed with Switchel, and give thanks to the magnificent drunkards that came before you!


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Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700
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Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

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84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
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It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
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Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
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With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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