July 4th is Independence Day, a time to celebrate and reflect on our country and the freedom we have to pursue whatever our hearts desire – beer, hard cider, whiskey, rum and wine included! After all, we are just following the examples set by our Founding Fathers.
Let’s take George Washington for example. General in the Revolutionary War, winning against incredible odds. First President of the United States. Yeah, you’ve heard of this guy. But what you might not know is that George was a beer and whiskey lover. As proof, after finishing his second Presidential term and returning to his Mount Vernon estate, he built both a brewery and whiskey distillery. A handwritten recipe for his Mount Vernon Small Beer is preserved at the New York Public Library and has been used to try to recreate the original beer (a few modifications made it more beer-like).
The rye whiskey distillery produced around 11,000 gallons per year at peak capacity, one of the nation’s largest at the time, and was an important financial part of running Mount Vernon. President Washington, it turns out, was also quite the businessman. The Mount Vernon distillery has been resurrected over the past few years to revive an important historical aspect from the early days of this country. Using Washington’s recipe along with expertise provided by former Maker’s Mark Master Distiller James Pickerell, the distillery today makes something akin to what you might have tried several hundred years ago.
Thomas Jefferson: author of The Declaration of Independence, U.S. Minister to France, First U.S. Secretary of State, Vice President, Third President. Oh, and one of the most knowledgeable people of the day about viticulture and wine. During his time as U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson visited the vineyards of France, Italy and Germany, acquiring favorites along the way to send back to his Monticello estate. He was known for having a world-class wine cellar and frequently entertained guests with his collection of Sauternes, Bordeaux, Riesling, etc. Jefferson also tried to plant his own vineyards, but his grapes were constant victims of phylloxera, a pest yet to be identified at the time. Jefferson enjoyed his wine, but considered himself a moderate drinker, consuming a few glasses with dinner only.
As was the case with Washington, historical parts of the Jefferson plans have been reestablished. Beginning in 1985, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has brought his 1807 vineyard plans to fruition, planting pest-resistant grape varieties including many that Jefferson wrote about. In fact, the entire south vineyard was planted with Sangiovese, used to make Chianti and specifically mentioned by Jefferson.
Benjamin Franklin liked his beer. But he liked his wines even more. You know that often quoted Beer/Proof/God/Love phrase attributed to him? Yeah, it was really about wine. “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” In addition to enjoying his drinks, Ben was always the witty observer of what they can do to you should you drink too much, creating and publishing a list of 220 terms that mean “drunk”. Did Ben “kiss black Betty” or have his “head full of bees” on rum? Nope. Ben preferred Madeira, a fortified wine from the Portuguese island it is named for. And Franklin wasn’t alone–Madeira was affordable, readily accessible, and enjoyed by many colonists of the day.
So did all of our founding statesmen, Presidents, and colonial leaders booze it up? Well, most enjoyed beer, wine, cider, rum, and/or whiskey … but not all. Benedict Arnold probably wasn’t a big proponent of drinking, considering his own father’s alcoholism, but he’s not exactly a shining example of 4th of July patriotism, either. And isn’t that what we are celebrating today? Let’s raise a glass and celebrate!