If you go to the show, as my pal Helen did, you're confronted with this list of official cocktails. Clearly, the Founder's Fizz is the best option, but the list is kind of uninspiring. (Sierra Mist? Sour apple liqueur? Jack Daniel's for a Manhattan?) You can do better, even if you don't tip as well as Amy Schumer.
This got me thinking about Revolutionary-era drinks, and what kinds of things Alexander Hamilton himself and his cohorts may have enjoyed. And drink they did: in 1790, the average American drank about thirty-four gallons of beer or cider, a gallon of wine, and five gallons of distilled spirits. By 1830, average annual alcohol consumption in America for every man, woman, and child over the age of 15 was about seven gallons of pure alcohol – the equivalent of ninety bottles of 80-proof liquor, or about four shots per person per day – more triple the current rate of alcohol consumption. (Dodgy water supplies often meant that beer or other alcoholic beverages were safer to drink.) Everyone in colonial America was likely at the very least slightly buzzed, all of the time.
After Thomas Jefferson came home from France, he imported over 20,000 bottles of wine. (He also grew hemp, staying mellow along with whatever the hell he did at Monticello.)
John Hancock made most of his fortune by importing smuggling molasses, rum, tea, tobacco, and Madeira to the colonies. In June 1768, British customs officials seized his sloop Liberty because he paid duty on 25 casks of Madeira, while the ship could hold four times as many. The Sons of Liberty incited an angry mob which rioted in Boston, burned a customs official's boat, and called for a boycott of British products. Hancock was fined £9000 (or more than $1.9 million today) and had to forfeit his ship, but he retained John Adams as counsel and the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
Yes, that John Adams. He drank hard cider before breakfast and three glasses of Madeira every night before bed. In the difficult summer of 1777 (so difficult that he noted that punch was up to twenty shillings a bowl), he wrote to Abigail that "whiskey is used here instead of rum, and I don't see but it is just as good."
George Washington was partial to Madeira, and drank a lot of it. In 1797, two years before his death, he built a distillery at Mount Vernon (which was itself named after his half-brother's commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy, who ordered in 1740 that rum rations be cut with lime juice, water, and sugar), and by 1799 it produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey. (The distillery has since been reconstructed by the Distilled Spirits Council, and they make small quantities of pretty good rye whiskey and excellent peach brandy, among other things.)
Martha Washington, who was regarded as the consummate hostess, traveled to be with George at each of the Continental Army's winter encampments, including the one at Morristown, NJ during the harsh winter of 1779-80. The officers held fancy-dress dances on February 23, March 1 and April 24, 1780. Washington and 34 other officers ponied up $400 each for these parties, and of course our hero A. Ham met Elizabeth Schuyler that winter. (those letters!) Martha Washington records a good recipe for rum punch in her diaries, though we don't know if it was served during these parties.
I couldn't dig up any hard information on Hamilton's drinking activities, and I don't get the sense he was much of a drinker. Indeed, in Federalist No. 12, he advocated a tax on spirits, and said that if that tax "should tend to diminish the consumption of it, such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society. There is, perhaps, nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits." This proposed tax was enacted as the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791, which sparked the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
And yes, the word "cocktail" was famously defined in print in May 1806, almost two years after Hamilton's death, in a Hudson, New York newspaper called The Balance, and Columbian Repository. But did you realize that that well-worn citation includes a deliciously gratuitous swipe at the Democratic-Republicans from the paper's pro-Federalist editor? Apparently there had been a recent election in the nearby village of Claverack (in whose courthouse one Alexander Hamilton likely appeared, representing his inlaws), and the paper published a mock balance sheet for the Democratic-Republican loser of the election:
"Rum! Rum! Rum!
It is conjectured, that the price of this precious liquor will soon rise at Claverack, since a certain candidate has placed in his account of Loss and Gain, the following items", then going on to list "720 rum grogs, 17 brandy ditto, 32 gin-slings, 411 glasses bitters, 25 glasses cock-tail," and "My Election" under the "Loss" column, with "NOTHING" under "Gain." Ouch. All that booze spent in electioneering, and the poor Democratic-Republican candidate couldn't win.
Not content to just rub it in once, the next issue of The Balance featured a letter to the editor (well, at least a letter. I wonder if Harry Croswell, the editor, wrote it himself, given the tone. It feels like Croswell's showing off, or asking himself a question so he could publish the answer) asking what in the world was meant by "cocktail":
I observe in your paper of the 6th instant, in the account of a democratic candidate for a seat in the legislature, marked under the head of Loss, 25 do. cock-tail. Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment? Though a stranger to you, I believe, from your general character, you will not suppose this request to be impertinent.
I have heard of a jorum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, of moistening the clay, of a fillip, a spur in the head, quenching a spark in the throat, of flip &c, but never in my life, though I have lived a good many years, did I hear of cock tail before. Is it peculiar to a part of this country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body? Or does it signify that the democrats who take the potion are turned topsyturvy, and have their heads where their tails should be? I should think the latter to be the real solution; but am unwilling to determine finally until I receive all the information in my power.
At the beginning of the revolution, a physician publicly recommended the moss which grew on a tree as a substitute for tea. He found on experiment, that it had more of a stimulating quality than he approved; and therefore, he afterwards as publicly denounced it. Whatever cock tail is, it may be properly administered only at certain times and to certain constitutions. A few years ago, when the democrats were bawling for Jefferson and Clinton, one of the polls was held in the city of New York at a place where ice-cream was sold. Their temperament then was remarkably adust and bilious. Something was necessary to cool them. Now when they are sunk into rigidity, it might be equally necessary, by cock-tail to warm and rouse them.
I hope you will construe nothing that I have said as disrespectful. I read your paper with great pleasure and wish it the most extensive circulation. Whether you answer my inquiry or not, I shall still remain,
[As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent:– Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of Spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters–it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.
Wow. So not only does the editor neatly define the word we're most interested in here, he manages to smack around his political opponents with some style at the same time.
Another fun tidbit or three: Harry Croswell was a staunch Federalist who started editing the Balance in 1801 when he moved to Hudson. When rival editor and Jeffersonian Charles Holt started up the fiercely Democratic-Republican Hudson Bee the next year (Jefferson was a paying subscriber), Croswell responded by starting a small paper ("printed in the Garret of The Balance") called "The Wasp", "because a wasp often stings a bee." The September 9, 1802 issue of the Wasp got Croswell in some trouble, after he reported a charge from the New York Post (don't forget who founded that paper) that Jefferson had paid fellow Virginian and scandalmonger James Thompson Callender -- a nasty character who had earlier leaked the story of Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds -- to attack the Adams Administration and impugn the late George Washington. The New York attorney general, who Croswell also attacked in the same issue of the Wasp, prosecuted him on libel and sedition charges, and Croswell was convicted of publishing the statements. (Croswell was represented pro bono by, among others, William P. Van Ness...who would later serve as Burr's second for his duel with Hamilton.) For his appeal, Croswell was represented by none but our hero A. Ham, who delivered such a powerful exhortation that truth was an absolute defense to a libel claim that the principle was written into New York state law and the New York Constitution, and remains a bedrock principle of First Amendment law.)
History is so cool.
But how best to commemorate his life in liquid form? Especially if you don't want to serve up Brandy Alexander Hamiltons? I really liked the sound of the "My Shot" cocktail from Good Food Stories. It sounds wonderful, and it's made up of spirits that were popular during his era: applejack (which one of Washington's New Jersey-based soldiers Robert Laird distilled, and whose ancestors still make Laird's Applejack), pimento dram, whiskey, rum, and cider (from the Aaron Burr Cidery.) Mmmmm. Good Food Stories also posted a Schuyler Sisters cocktail, with ingredients chosen to reflect the personalities of the three sisters depicted in the show. (!) You could even drink them out of dueling shot glasses.
For the release yesterday of the #Hamiltome (aka Lin-Manuel Miranda's new book "Hamilton: The Revolution"), the good people at my excellent local independent bookstore, the Astoria Bookshop, asked me to come up with an appropriate and historically accurate tipple for their party. After some research, I came up with "Whiskey Rebellion Punch", an update of Jerry Thomas's "Canadian Punch" from the 1862 edition of "How To Mix Drinks", the first bartending book published in the United States. As always with old recipes, and especially pre-Prohibition ones, and even more so with Punch, I let David Wondrich's sagacity and advice be my guide.
Whiskey Rebellion Punch
- 3 bottles 100-proof rye whiskey (I used Rittenhouse. If you have cask-strength whiskey, go with the proportions of whiskey and water given above.)
- 16 oz. Jamaica rum (I used the nicely funky 114-proof Smith & Cross)
- 8 lemons (Wondrich suggests upping the amount of lemons to 8, following the suggestion of the 1869 Haney's Steward and Barkeeper's Manual)
- 1 pineapple
- 3 liters seltzer
- 12 oz. white granulated or superfine sugar
Slice the pineapple and the lemons thinly, and place them in a pot with the spirits. Cover and let infuse overnight (without squeezing the fruit.) Make a simple syrup with 12 oz. sugar and 12 oz. water (which will result in about 20 oz. of the 1:1 syrup) and set aside. (If you need to transport it, take the fruit out with a slotted spoon and put it in a quart-size food storage bag, and bottle the infused spirits in the bottles you emptied.) To serve, mix the fruit, the infused spirits, the simple syrup, and the seltzer together, and slip in a large ice block. Garnish each serving with a piece of the pineapple and a slice of lemon, and do not throw away your shot.