The Chesapeake Region has come a long way from its Colonial drinking days, when most grown men and women drank at least four ounces of hard liquor every day, to prohibition which wiped out Maryland’s distilleries, and now the birth of craft vodka and whiskey.
New York Times senior op-ed editor Clay Risen wrote the book, “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit” about the long and windy road to whiskey becoming a unique American beverage.
And it started nearly as soon as colonists landed on the Chesapeake’s shores. “In 1620, Capt. James Thorpe wrote from Virginia that he had managed to distill alcohol from corn, a native crop,” writes Risen. And before the American Revolution started, a Maryland doctor traveling in New York found that a “reputation for hearty drinking was essential for admission to the best society.”
While alcohol was readily available, as more imported sugar and molasses (used to make rum) were being shipped to the colonies — and becoming cheaper as the supply grew — it wasn’t until the Revolution that it became common among the common folks. War was the ultimate liberator of personal freedoms. If you fought, you had equal rights at the pub.
But turns out molasses came from British-owned Caribbean plantations; corn was the real American crop. “Whiskey consumption exploded,” reports Risen.
In 1770, the 2.1 million American colonists consumed some 8 million gallons of rum; 20 years later, a population that had nearly doubled, to 3.9 million, drank only 7 million gallons.
Whiskey reaches its peak consumption in the U.S. between 1800 and 1830 when the average American drank about five gallons a year.
After that, according to Risen, whiskey consumption fluctuated depending on economic conditions, and on the success of the temperance moment which waxed and waned. The prohibitionists finally won out in 1919 with the 18th Amendment, only to be repealed in 1933.
Even so, whiskey production floundered in Maryland until the past ten years, when new state laws started to go into effect to help craft distilleries make a go of it. And… we’re back!