A Survival Guide to Colonial Cocktails (and Other Culinary Folktales)

Americans have always liked to drink. In fact, according to Steven Grasse, the author of Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History, our nation was founded by the love of liquor. He emphasizes this in his book when he writes, “Before democracy, there were spirits, and from spirits we created taverns, and it was in those taverns that we laid out the blueprint for a new kind of country. … In other words, we got drunk and invented America.”

But getting there was sometimes a deadly endeavor.

Grasse’s guide to our drunken history catalogues the colonists efforts to recreate old, familiar drinks with new ingredients; ingredient that were often times lethal. In some cases colonists reportedly resorted to sawdust.

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The author points out the problem with this particular recipe saying that it would have resulted in a glass full of methanol. Probably not exactly what the colonists were looking for.

However, there were also some delicious drinks that were being concocted in this era. These include the oddly named Ass’s Milk, Cock Ale, and Lambswool as well as an infused ale called Spruce Ale.

The Spruce Ale, however, comes with a warning: “Be sure to pluck those [Douglas Fir] tips from actual spruce trees instead of some possibly poisonous lookalike, the book cautions, so you don’t, you know, die”

So clearly developing a tasty spirit in the New World came at the risk of losing your own internal one.

Why the Fascination With the Founding Cocktails?

Grasse is uniquely qualified to dig deep into the annals of Colonial Era liquor recipes as he is the creative mastermind behind modern favorites like Hendrick’s gin, Sailor Jerry’s rum and Art in the Age craft spirits.

His latest addition to that list is an adapted version of Martha Washington’s recipe for Cherry Bounce. This infused liquor is a classic blend of brandy, cherries, and sugar. Apparently, Martha intended George to enjoy it during winter so that he would always have a fresh taste of summer.

Grasse told NPR in an interview that his goal in penning this book was not to discover some long-lost recipe but, “to present the historical context behind these recipes, while making it relatable to the modern reader. I like to retell these stories in a way that people can digest.”

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