Alcohol and Drinking in American Life and Culture. (Fun Facts of Our Past)

Drinking in American life goes back to the early colonial settlers. (Virtually no Native Americans had alcoholic beverages.)

drinking in American life
Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman)

Some have called making, distributing and drinking alcohol as American as apple pie. Actually, these activities may be more American than apple pie. That’s because they existed in America long before apples were introduced from Europe. Indeed, Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) apparently supplied the need of settlers for apples primarily to make alcoholic cider.1

There are many examples of the major role of alcohol drinking in American life and history from the very beginning.

Christopher Columbus

  • Christopher Columbus brought Sherry on his voyage to the New World.2
  • The Puritans loaded more beer than water onto the Mayflower before they cast off for the New World.3
  • The early colonialists made alcohol beverages from, among other things, carrots, tomatoes, onions, beets, celery, squash, corn silk, dandelions, and goldenrod.4
  • Although there wasn’t any cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, or pumpkin pie to eat at the first Thanksgiving, there was beer, brandy, gin, and wine to drink.5
  • A traveler through the Delaware Valley in 1753 compiled a list of the drinks he encountered; all but three of the 48 contained alcohol.6
  • Tavern owners enjoyed higher social status than did the clergy during part of the Colonial period.7
  • A brewery was one of Harvard College’s first construction projects so that a steady supply of beer could be served in the student dining halls.8
  • The laws of most American colonies required towns to license suitable persons to sell wine and spirits and failure to do so could result in a fine.9

Taverns Were Important

  • drinking in American lifeColonial taverns were often required to be located near the church or meetinghouse.10
  • Religious services and court sessions were often held in the major tavern of Colonial American towns.11
  • The Colonial Army supplied its troops with a daily ration of four ounces of either rum or whiskey.12
  • Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in a tavern in Philadelphia.13
  • Every signer of the American Declaration of Independence drank alcoholic beverages.14
  • The first and best known signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, was an alcohol beverage dealer.15
  • The bill for a celebration party for the 55 drafters of the US Constitution was for 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcohol punch large enough that “ducks could swim in them.”16
  • Before he took his famous ride, Paul Revere is reported to have had two drinks of rum.17
  • The patriot Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) was a bar tender.18
  • The manufacture of rum became early Colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry.19
  • The U.S. Marines’ first recruiting station was in a bar.20
  • George Washington became his new country’s first major distiller of whiskey.21
  • Martha Washington enjoyed daily toddys. In the 1790s, “happy hour” began at 3:00 p.m. and cocktails continued until dinner. Drinking in American life was clearly important.22
  • Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson both enjoyed making their own alcohol beverages.23
  • In 1793 the Whiskey Rebellion occurred when federal tax collectors were attacked in Pennsylvania by citizens outraged that the whiskey they had been making for years, much of it for their own consumption, was being taxed.24

National Anthem

  • The national anthem of the US, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” was written to the tune of a drinking song.25
  • In the 1830’s the average American aged 15 or older consumed over seven gallons of absolute alcohol. That was from an average of 9 1/2 gallons of spirits, 1/2 gallon of wine, and 27 gallons of beer. That’s about three times the current rate.26
  • Abraham Lincoln held a liquor license and operated several taverns.27
  • President Martin Van Buren was born in his father’s tavern.28
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the U.S. in 1932 on a pledge to end National Prohibition.29
  • Bourbon whiskey is an American creation and is the official spirit of the United States, by act of Congress.30

Favorite Presidential Alcoholic Drinks

The favorite alcoholic drinks of Presidents of the U.S.  include these.

  • drinking in American lifeGeorge Washington (Madeira wine)31
  • John Adams (Hard or alcoholic cider)32
  • Thomas Jefferson (Hard or alcoholic cider and beer. His favorite wine was Madeira)33
  • James Madison (A Yard of Flannel, a drink consisting of ale, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, and rum or brandy.)34
  • William Henry Harrison (Hard or alcoholic cider)35
  • John Tyler (Madeira wine)36
  • James Buchanan (Whiskey)37
  • drinking in American lifeUlysses S. Grant (Whiskey)38
  • Grover Cleveland (Beer)39
  • Theodore Roosevelt (Wine)40
  • William Howard Taft (Cocktails)41
  • Herbert Hoover (Martini)42
  • Franklin Roosevelt (Scotch whisky or brandy)43
  • Harry Truman (Bourbon)44
  • Dwight Eisenhower (Scotch whisky)45
  • Jack Kennedy (Daiquiri)46
  • drinking in American life
    Lyndon Johnson

    Lyndon Johnson (Scotch whisky and soda)47

  • Richard Nixon (Rum and coke)48
  • Gerald Ford (Gin and tonic)49
  • Ronald Regan (Orange Blossom, a cocktain typically consisting of gin, sweet vermouth, and orange juice)50
  • Bill Clinton (Tequila)51
  • Barack Obama (Beer, wine, martinis, sparkling wine, margaritas, his favorite being unclear)52

Very few presidents have been teetotalers, although George W. Bush became one long before his presidency. Donald Trump is an alcohol abstainer. Although most presidents are known to have consumed alcohol, their specific alcoholic beverage preferences are unknown. This shows the importance of drinking in American life throughout our history.

American Whiskey Trail

drinking in American lifeThe American Whiskey Trail highlights the important and fascinating role distilled spirits beverages have played in American history.  The history goes from the Colonial era to the Whiskey Rebellion through Prohibition and into contemporary society.

Frommers rated the American Whiskey Trail one of the top 13 international and domestic travel destinations one year from nominations submitted by travel editors and authors.

“We picked the American Whiskey Trail because it highlights a fascinating– but an often overlooked and still ongoing — part of U.S. history,” said Frommer’s Editorial Director. “Points along the trail make prime destinations for a leisurely road trip in some of the most charming parts of the country.”53

George Washington’s reconstructed distillery.

Probably the most popular destination on the American Whiskey Trail is George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia. George Washington was the new country’s first large distiller. His reconstructed distillery demonstrates the complete distilling process. Other points on the trail are located in a number of states as well as in the Caribbean. But they all point to the importance of drinking in American life.

Resources on Alcohol and Drinking in American Life



1. Elliott, P. 100 Proof: Tips and Tales for Spirited Drinkers Everywhere. NY: Penguin, 2000, p. 13.

2. The History of Drinking: Uncorking the Past. Economist, Dec 22, 2001, p. 30.

3. Royce, J. Alcohol Problems. NY: Free Press, 1981, 38.

4. Mendelson, J. and Mello, N. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

5. The First Thanksgiving.  Comm Trader, Manchester, NY, Nov.,1988.

6. Grimes, W. Straight Up or On the Rocks. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993, pp. 44-45. 

7. Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition. NY: Knopf, 1925, p. 44.

8. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1965, p. 20.

9. Prendergast, M. A History of Alcohol Problem Prevention Efforts. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Control Issues in Alcohol Abuse Prevention. Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1987, pp. 25-52.

10. Ibid, p. 27.

11. Ibid, pp. 25-52.

12. Goode, E. Drugs in American Society. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 182.

13. Barr, A. Drink: A Social History of America. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999, p. 370.

14. Burns, E. The Spirit of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple U Press, 2004, p. 182.

15. Ibid, p. 214.

16. website.

17. Burns, p. 27.

18. Ibid, p. 26.

19. Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963 pp. 167-182.

20. Flint, D. U.S. Marine Corps, personal communication.

21. Head, T. First in war, first in peace, first in whiskey. George Washington as distiller. South Folkways Alli, June 14, 2005. Eisele, A. Resurrecting George Washington’s booze. The Hill, June 9, 2005.

22. Haught, R. Distilling the truth about George. Oklahoman, Feb 20, 2003.

23. Lender, M. and Martin, J. Drinking in America. NY: Free Press, 1982, p. 6.

24. Boyd, S. The Whiskey Rebellion. Past and Present Perspectives. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

25. Mingo, J., and Barrett, E. Just Curious, Jeeves. Emeryville, California: Ask Jeeves, 2000, p. 265.

26. Clark, N. Deliver Us From Evil. An Interpretation of American Prohibition. NY: Norton, 1976, p. 20. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. NY: Greenwood, 1968. Rorabaugh, W. The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979, Appendix 1.

27. Cowdery, C. Abraham Lincoln, Bourbon Country’s Native Son. Bourbon Count Read, 1988, 3 (6), p. 1.

28. Burn, p. 27.

29. Yenne, B., and Debolski, T. The Ultimate Book of Beer Trivia. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood, 1994, pp. 83-84.

30. Defining “Bourbon.” The State (Columbia, SC), May 1, 2002, p. D1.

31. Put it on Washington’s tab. Hist House website.

32. Hard apple cider: a history. Essortment website.

33. Thomas Jerferson. Food Timeline website.

34. James Madison. Food Timeline website.

35. William Henry Harrison. White House website.

36. John Tyler. Food Timeline website.

37. Hansen, C. White House happy hours. What do our presidentd drink? website.

38. Carson, G. The Social History of Bourbon. An Unhurried Account of Our Star-Spangled American Drink. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1963.

39. Boller, P. Presidential Anecdotes. NY: Oxford U Press, 1981, p. 178.

40. Theodore Roosevelt. Food timeline website.

41. That cocktail controversy. New York Times. Sept 24, 1911.

42. The spirit of Washington. Elk Grove Citizen, Feb 19, 2003.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Eisenhower National historic Site website.

46. Carson, Ibid. 

47. J. Califano, Jr., quoted in Presidential Vehicles. National Park service web site.

48. The spirit of Washington. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Bumgarner, J. The Health of the Presidents. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 1994, p. 282.

51. Presidential cocktails. Suite web site.

52 Parnes, A. What and when President Obama likes to drink. Politico, July 17, 2009.

53. Frommer’s names American Whiskey Trail top tourist destination for 2008. PRNewswire, March 26, 2008.