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Revolution in a Bottle: Review of Colonial Spirits

Revolution in a Bottle: Review of Colonial Spirits

“Once,” writes Art in the Age founder Steven Grasse, “our forefathers roamed this great countryside, foraging and gathering, eyeing up plants and grains both foreign and familiar, holding them up to an early sun, looking at each other and inquiring, ‘Hey, ya think you could get stewed on this?’”

That’s the premise of Grasse’s inventive, entertaining new book, Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History, sub-subtitled Being a Revolutionary Drinking Guide to Brewing and Batching, Mixing and Serving, Imbibing and Jibing, Fighting and Freedom in the Ruins of the Ancient Civilization Known as America. Illustrated in full color with gorgeous colonial-style watercolors by Reverend Michael Alan, Colonial Spirits is part history book, part cookbook, and part coffee-table book.

Grasse, who’s known for making some of the most inventive liquors in Philadelphia, lives and works in historic Old City, and his daily walks down the same cobblestone paths trod by the Founding Fathers inspire this meticulously researched look at colonial-era drinking culture.

colonial-spirits-spruce-ale-drawing
Though many think of early American colonists as a serious, sober bunch, they were in fact serious drinkers—really serious drinkers—so much so that, in 1776, taverns and drinking-houses accounted for a whopping 10 percent of the real estate in urban Philadelphia. They’d come from Europe, where clean water was hard to find and where those who didn’t care to die of dysentery took their liquids in fermented form. Even though the water was much safer in the New World, to be on the safe side, just about everybody in the colonies drank beer, cider, and “small beer”: a lower-alcohol, less fermented version served to children. Pubs and taverns were the centers of social life, not to mention revolutionary plotting. On the agricultural side, colonists figured out through trial and error  which crops would grow in which climates, planted accordingly, and then experimented with new ways to get sloshed.

Though colonial farmers tried valiantly to grow passable grapes, they didn’t have much luck producing wine; quince wine was one substitute, but rye grew better in places like Pennsylvania. Whiskey became so crucial to the economy that farmers in what is now Pittsburgh rose up in arms against President Washington in the Whiskey Rebellion when the newly formed federal government tried to impose a tax on distilled spirits.

colonial-spirits-cover-salesFurther south, the gruesome trade in sugar and enslaved African people produced the wildly popular rumbullion (quickly shortened to rum), which swept through the continent and inspired sermons from early temperance advocates like Increase Mather, the New England forerunner of the religious right. Meanwhile, housewives were preserving fruits as liqueurs and wines, status-conscious partiers were serving elaborate punches, and doctors were combining Native people’s herbal knowledge with folk remedies and wild speculation to produce medicinal cordials (including the highly restorative mint julep).

Grasse explores failures alongside successes—trying to distill alcohol from wood, for example, turns out to be a really, really bad idea—and gives readers old-fashioned recipes along with updated versions. An 1873 “receipt” for spruce beer, for example, sits alongside Grasse’s adaptation, which contains detailed measurements and instructions on what kinds of spruce tips are safe to use and where these can be sourced. Each chapter contains several recipes that are entirely workable in a modern kitchen; some are easily done by novices, while others call for a little knowledge of basic homebrewing techniques. There are plenty of cocktails that any reader can whip up in a moment, while others call for specialized ingredients or are intended to steep or ferment for a few days or weeks.

Grasse’s wry but enthusiastic voice permeates every recipe, as do plenty of historical anecdotes. His recipe for “Hysterical Water,” a health cordial meant to calm those hysterical ladies, gently mocks the sexism of the era while also noting that the drink’s herbal ingredients, which include valerian, chamomile, and St. John’s wort, really do contain calming or sedative properties. He also notes that the original recipe, “we kid you not, would have called for millipedes.”

Along the way, short articles, quotes, and illustrated sidebars dip into all sorts of fascinating tendencies and tidbits—we learn, for instance, that George Washington served lots of bumbo (a grog-like rum drink) on the campaign trail, that Johnny Appleseed was more interested in spreading mystical Swedenborgian Christianity than apple trees, and that Ben Franklin enjoyed the occasional occult orgy in Philadelphia’s after-hours nightclubs.

This is a book that can be read in small bites or devoured at once; it’s light reading and a lot of fun, but anyone interested in this era of U.S. history will find plenty of substance here. The recipes are plentiful, appealing, clear, well designed, and instructive enough to tempt even the inexperienced to try their hand at crafting spirits. It’s also a beautiful book, with lots of small design details that delight the eye even as they give a real sense of the aesthetic of the time.

With an Old City feel that will appeal to readers far beyond Philadelphia, Colonial Spirits would make an excellent gift for homebrewers, history buffs, and fans of Hamilton and Drunk History alike.

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Spiced Whiskey


Makes about 1 quart
Recipe by The Reverend Michael Alan

For our recipes in this chapter, we have charitably decided not to instruct you to distill your own whiskey. Though potentially fun and profitable, this also would be highly dangerous and deeply illegal. Rather, consider this cocktail, whose flavors might put you in mind of those early days of American whiskey. The cayenne pepper here adds a subtle kick, reminiscent of Atomic Fireball candy. The simple syrup called for is a mixture of equal parts water and granulated sugar with a pinch of salt, heated just until the sugar dissolves; adding it gives the beverage a more liqueur-like feeling.

For more complexity, substitute the simple syrup with a simple syrup made from brown sugar and water, honey and water, maple syrup and water, or a combination of some or all.

  • 12 cinnamon sticks
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 12 allspice berries, cracked
  • 6 cardamom pods, cracked
  • 3 star anise pods
  • 1 (750 ml) bottle whiskey or bourbon
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) simple syrup, optional, see above

In a small saute pan, combine the cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, cardamom, and star anise and toast over medium-high heat just until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the toasted spices to a 1-quart (960-ml) jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add the whiskey, vanilla bean, and seeds, and cayenne pepper, if using, to the jar and seal. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks, shaking the jar daily.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or a couple of coffee filters into a clean container. Add the simple syrup, if using, and store in a tightly sealed jar or bottle. Use within 2 months.

Recipe & Illustrations by The Reverend Michael Alan


Sarah Grey is a Spoonful monthly columnist. Her writing on food has been published in Edible Philly, Serious Eats, Lucky Peach, and more and anthologized in Best Food Writing 2015. She also writes on language and politics at sarahgreywrites.com and is a full-time freelance editor at Grey Editing LLC. When she’s not wordsmithing, she’s usually knitting, serving meatballs at fridaynightmeatballs.com, or reading with her daughter. She lives in Philadelphia.

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