Alcohol in Colonial America: Earliest Beginnings

Alcohol in Colonial America began with the arrival of Europeans.  Except for several nations in the Southwest, Native Americans did not have alcohol beverages. The Apache and Zuni drank alcoholic beverages which they produced for secular consumption. The Pima and Papago produced alcohol for religious ceremonial consumption. Papago consumption was heavy. However, they limited it to a single peaceable annual ceremony. And the other tribes’ drinking was also infrequent and didn’t cause problems. (1)

The Early Years

The Puritans loaded more beer than water onboard the Mayflower before casting off for the New World. (2)  This reflected their traditional drinking beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. They considered alcohol to be a natural and normal part of life. They believed that God created alcohol and that it was inherently good. Indeed, Jesus both made and drank wine and approved drinking in moderate. (3)

Their experience was that it was safer to drink alcohol than the typically polluted water. Alcohol was also an effective analgesic. It provided the energy necessary for hard work. Alcohol served as  a social lubricant, provided entertainment, facilitated relaxation and contributed to the enjoyment of food. It also provided pharmacological pleasure. In sum, alcohol in colonial America generally enhanced the quality of life.


For hundreds of years their English ancestors had enjoyed beer and ale. People of both sexes and all ages typically drank beer with their meals.

Importing a continuing supply of beer was expensive. So the early settlers brewed their own. However, it was difficult to make the beer to which they were accustomed. That was because wild yeasts caused problems in fermentation. For this reason it resulted in a bitter, unappetizing brew. (4) The early years of alcohol in Colonial America were not easy.


But these early adventurers did not give up. Wild hops grew in New England. They ordered hop seeds from England in order to cultivate an adequate supply for traditional beer. In the meantime, the colonists improvised a beer made from red and black spruce twigs boiled in water. They also made a beer from ginger. A ditty from the 1630s reflects their determination and ingenuity.

If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault.
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips. (5)

alcohol in colonial AmericaSlowly, the colonists mastered the intricacies of brewing in the New World. Then beer became widely available. And many farmers made their own with the help of a malster. The malster malted their barley, or more often, corn. (6)

Beer was Important

The colonists considered beer to be very important. For example, a brewery was one of Harvard College’s first construction projects. It was to provide a steady supply of beer for the students. (7) And Connecticut required each town to ensure that a place was available for the purchase of beer. (8)

Alcohol Content

People labeled beer  X, XX, or XXX according to its alcohol content. Brewers made the weakest and most commonly available beer by soaking grain in water. But this “small beer” spoiled quickly because of its low alcohol content. Therefore, people consumed it quickly. The homemaker brewed beer once or twice a week. “Ships beers” were stronger and also readily available. But the strongest beer, brewed with malt and extra sugar, was expensive and uncommon. (9)


The colonists also learned to make a wide variety of wine from fruits. These included strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants. They made wines from numerous vegetables. These included carrots, tomatoes, onions, beets, celery, squash, corn silk, dandelions, and goldenrod. They also made wine from such products as flowers, herbs, and even oak leaves. (10) Early on, French vine-growers came to the New World to teach settlers how to cultivate grapes. (11)

Hard Cider

Cider had been popular in England but apples were not native to New England. Farmers promptly planted the first orchard using English seeds. Over time apples became abundant in the colonies.

People typically fermented apple juice in barrels over the winter. (12) Colonists sometimes added honey or cane sugar. This  increased the alcohol content and also creating natural carbonation. “Apple champagne” was a special treat. “Cider was served to every member of the family at breakfast, dinner, and supper. Cider was consumed in the fields between meals, and was a regular staple at all the communal social functions.” (13)

Distilled Spirits

Colonists believed that distilled spirits were aqua vitae, or water of life. (14) However, rum was not commonly available until after 1650. Then, it increasingly came from the Caribbean. However, the cost of rum dropped after the colonists began importing molasses and cane sugar directly and distilled their own. By 1657, a rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful. Within a generation the production of rum became colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry. (15) Clearly, distilled spirits were a very important part of alcohol in Colonial America.

Triangle Trade
alcohol in colonial America
The Triangle Trade

In the profitable Triangle Trade, traders took rum to England for manufactured products.  Then in West Africa they traded those products for slaves. In the West Indies they traded slaves for more molasses.  The triangle continued when New England distillers made the molasses into more rum.

This three point trading arrangement was an important part of colonial commercial life and prosperity. (16) Almost every important town from Massachusetts to the Carolinas had a rum distillery. They met the local demand, which had increased dramatically. People often used rum in mixed drinks, including flip. The ingredients of this popular drink were rum, beer and sugar. Plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into the serving mug warmed it. (17)

We’ve seen highlights of alcohol in Colonial America among the earliest European settlers. As time passed attitudes toward alcohol began to change. Let’s see how this changed Alcohol in Early America.

  1. MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton, R. Drunken Comportment. A Social Explanation. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.
  2. Royce, J. Alcohol Problems and Alcoholism. NY: Free Press, 1981, p. 38.
  3. First Timothy  4:4; Matthew 15:11; Luke 7:33-35.
  4. Rorabaugh, W. Alcohol and Alcoholism. In: Cayton, M., et al. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Social History. NY: Scribner’s, 1993. v. 3,  p. 2135.
  5. Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America. A History. NY: Free Press, 1982, p. 5.
  6. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1985, p. 9.
  7. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. NY: Putnam, 1965, p. 20.
  8. Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition. NY: Knopf, 1925, p. 7.
  9. Rorabaugh, ibid.; Mendelson and Mello, p. 9.
  10. Mendelson and Mello, ibid.
  11. Krout, p. 32.
  12. Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use & Abuse. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1992, pp. 5 & 8.
  13. Mendelson and Mello, ibid.
  14. Furnas, p. 18.
  15. Roueche, B. Alcohol: Its History, Folklore, and Effect on the Human Body. NY: Grove, 1962, p. 178.
  16. Schlaadt, pp. 8-9.
  17. Mendelson and Mello, p. 10.
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