In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, England began exploring colonies in North America. It did so in part because it was believed that the areas of North America would have a similar climate to the Mediterranean, since the area had a similar latitude. In actuality, England’s colonies in North America yielded no rich soil, gold, or minerals. During the early 1700s, colonists in North America had to make due without beer or wine, since these products were highly expensive to ship across the ocean. This changed in the 1750s, when rum reached North America from the West Indies. By the end of the 18th century, rum was a staple of colonial life in North America—everyone drank it, and it became an accepted form of payment. Distilleries were established in North America, converting West Indian sugar into rum. At one point, the average colonist (including women and children) consumed four gallons of rum per year.
Because of the “discovery” of the New World, European alcohol lovers in the Americas faced a challenge: they had acquired a taste for alcohol, but were unable to obtain wine or beer from Europe, since shipping these products across the sea was extremely expensive. Thus, rum had a virtual monopoly on drinking culture in North America, as sugarcane was the only available resource that could be safely converted into alcohol. Standage implies that, as with wine and beer in earlier times, rum was consumed in large quantities because it represented a safe alternative to water, which carried diseases (something that the colonists would have observed).
The rum business in North America became so influential that Britain began to tax it heavily. In 1733, the infamous Molasses Act taxed North American distilleries’ sugar sources, making rum prohibitively expensive. As a result, a huge black market of rum and molasses arose in the New World. Smugglers bribed officials to sneak sugar into North America. In general, the Molasses Act was despised in North American colonies, and provided an early symbol of British tyranny.
Governing the British colonies in North America proved very difficult. Britain was thousands of miles away, and separated by an ocean—as a result, the British had to rely on excessive taxes and duties to keep the colonies in line. But these measures simply didn’t work—the colonists had developed such a fondness for alcohol that they resented any taxes on rum.
In 1764, Britain passed the Sugar Act, which strengthened the Molasses Act by raising the tax on sugar. Smugglers were punished more harshly, further raising the price of rum. The Sugar Act was the first of a series of highly unpopular acts in the 1760s and 70s: the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Tea Act. These political decisions on Britain’s part would eventually lead to the Revolutionary War of 1775.
The Molasses Act was only the first of many excessive measures that the British crown used in an attempt to control the British colonists in North America. Ultimately, Standage argues that the colonists’ fondness for rum led directly to their resentment of British authority, and eventually to the American Revolution. This is, of course, a simplified portrayal of history, but Standage also puts an emphasis on interesting trends that otherwise might go unnoticed.
During the Revolutionary War, alcohol was a crucial part of the American war effort. George Washington (knowing full well that Americans were rebelling in part because they’d been deprived of rum) made sure to provide all of his soldiers with adequate rations of rum, along with beef, bread, and pork. John Adams once wrote that the tax on molasses was “an essential ingredient” of the American Revolution.
Admittedly, the link that Standage is drawing here—between the colonists’ fondness for rum and their desire to rebel against the British crown—is much more tenuous than anything he attempted in the earlier chapters. Yet Standage bolsters his claims with quotes from John Adams—a famous figure of the Revolution
Following the Revolutionary War, whiskey replaced rum as the dominant drink in America, in part because the sugar supply flowing from the West Indies had been disrupted by the war. Whiskey could be produced in North America without any trade whatsoever—all it required was cereal grains. Whiskey was also used as a currency, and even clergymen were paid in whiskey. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington, proposed that the government tax the consumption and sale of whiskey, causing a minor uproar in the colonies. The uproar culminated in the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Thousands of farmers and distillery-owners refused to pay their whiskey taxes. In response, Washington sent an army of 13,000 men to the South to collect the whiskey taxes, and was able to obtain the money without a fight.
Ironically, the new American government (which had, according to Standage, fought for its independence partly because of its desire to drink rum without taxation) ran into trouble when it interfered with its own citizens’ desire to drink whiskey without taxation. The Whiskey Rebellion was an important milestone in American history, because it proved that the centralized government of the U.S. would use military force to rule its own states—a fact later reinforced in the much bloodier Civil War.
The stigma of whiskey following the Whiskey Rebellion led to the invention of new whiskey derivatives, such as bourbon, which incorporated corn into its recipe. Wine remained fairly popular in America, but despite the fact that President Thomas Jefferson loved it, it never replaced whiskey or rum as a national drink. In part this was because wine was expensive to ship from Europe, but this was also because wine symbolized the decadence and pretentiousness of the Old World—whiskey, by contrast, was a democratic, down-to-earth drink.
The Americans in the 19th century distinguished themselves from Europeans by drinking bourbon, whiskey, and other non-wine drinks. This mirrors the process by which the Muslims refused to drink alcohol—the Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from their European rivals. By this process, whiskey came to symbolize commonness, ruggedness, and other quintessentially American qualities.
As America shifted from a rebellious colony to a major imperial power in the Western hemisphere, it used alcohol to control and manipulate its enemies. In the American West, Native Americans were known to love alcohol—which they’d never experienced before their contact with Europeans. Because Americans knew about Native Americans’ love for beer, whiskey, and other forms of alcohol, they used alcohol to “sweeten the deal” when trading with Native Americans. One French missionary criticized European traders for shamelessly using brandy to manipulate Native Americans into accepting unfair deals.
In one of the most disturbing passages in Standage’s book, he explains how the Americans used alcohol to manipulate the Native Americans and essentially steal their land. Unfortunately, we’ll also see a similar process at work in the chapter on tea (where the British Empire used the sale of opium—a drug it knew to be deadly and addictive—to negotiate better deals with China).
One consequence of the importance of alcohol in commerce between Native Americans and representatives of the U.S. was the rise of new forms of alcohol, such as mescal, the drink that incorporated the fermented juice of the agave plant. For many hundreds of years, spirits were a fixture of colonial life: spirits inspired colonies to rise up against Britain, and were later used to subjugate slaves and Native Americans.
Although Standage argues that beverages represent different historical eras and all the cultural baggage that goes with them, he’s also ready to admit that drinks don’t symbolize the same things to everybody. Thus, for some whiskey might be a symbol of American independence and resistance—but to a Native American, whiskey might be a symbol of colonial manipulation and treachery.