Essay: Alcohol in the colonial life of America

Alcohol played an important role in the colonial life of America. The Puritans brought more beer than water on the Mayflower, which would seem to go counter to our idea of puritanical behavior. However, at the time drinking wine and beer was safer than drinking water, because water came from the same sources used to dispose of sewage and garbage. Beer was probably the first alcoholic beverage produced in the early settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth. Whisky-making was one of the first cottage industries in this country. The first liquors made use of a wide variety of ingredients: berries, plums, potatoes, apples, carrots, and grain. Until the mid-18th century, whiskey was made in relatively small quantities, mainly by farmer-distillers. George Washington knew all about distilling liquor; he erected stills at Mount Vernon in the 1770s in order to produce rum and whiskey.
Liquor, beer, and wine have long been targets of taxation from governments. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, proposed a tax to help the new country pay off its debts from the Revolutionary War, and George Washington approved the excise tax on all spirits’both imported and domestic. Rates were based on the alcoholic strength of the product, spirits made from home-grown products were taxed less than those made from imported goods, and an annual tax was levied on each still, depending on its capacity.
The 1791 tax on American whiskey was unpopular among the farmer-distillers, particularly in Pennsylvania where the whiskey makers revolted. In 1792 the government reduced the taxes a bit (down to around 7 cents a gallon from 11 cents) and during this same period Kentucky became a state. In 1794, after further reducing the taxes but still not getting cooperation from the Pennsylvania farmers, George Washington rallied federal troops to quell the uprising, called the Whiskey Rebellion. Pardons were offered to anyone who agreed to comply with the law. As a settlement, Washington offered incentives for pioneers to move southwest to the frontier of Virginia beyond the Allegheny mountains, and Thomas Jefferson offered 60 acres to ‘create a permanent structure and crops of native origin.’ This led to the formation of Bourbon County, Kentucky, named after the French royal family whose government had helped the US defeat the British not long before. Bourbon County was a rich agricultural area consisting of 34 counties on the main frontier of American westward expansion. A number of Pennsylvania farmers headed to Kentucky. Mainly of Scottish and Irish descent, they depended on whiskey as an important commodity produced from their excess corn and grain yields.

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