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 any alcohol.

The Apache and Zuni drank alcohol which they produced for secular drinking. The Pima and Papago produced alcohol for religious ceremonies. Papago consumption was heavy. But they limited it to a single peaceful annual ceremony. And the other tribes’ drinking was also infrequent and didn’t cause problems.1

Alcohol in Colonial America (U.S.)

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. They of 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 killer of pain. It provided the energy necessary for hard work. Alcohol also served as  a social lubricant. It provided entertainment. Helped people  relax. And assisted the enjoying food. It also provided pharmacological pleasure. In sum, alcohol in colonial America 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 beer was expensive. So the early settlers brewed their own. But it was hard to make the beer they liked. That was because wild yeasts caused problems in fermentation. It resulted in a bitter brew.4 The early years of alcohol in Colonial America were not easy.


But these early settlers did not give up on producing alcohol. Wild hops grew in New England. They 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 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

Slowly, the colonists mastered 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 instance, a brewery was one of Harvard College’s first buildings. It was to provide a steady supply of beer for the students.7 And Connecticut required each town to have a place for buying beer.8

Alcohol Content

People labeled beer X, XX, or XXX according to its alcohol content. Home brewers made the weakest beer by soaking grain in water. But this “small beer” spoiled quickly. That’s because of its low alcohol content. So people drank 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.9


 alcohol in colonial AmericaThe colonists also learned to make a wide variety of wine from fruits. These included strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants. They also 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 common 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. It 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 social functions.”13

John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) supplied the need of settlers for apples. Not to eat. They wanted mainly to make hard cider.18

Distilled Spirits

Colonists believed that distilled spirits were aqua vitae. Or water of life.14 But rum was not commonly available until after 1650. Then the cost of rum dropped. That was after the colonists began importing molasses and cane sugar directly. They 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.

The Triangle Trade was an important part of colonial prosperity.16 Almost every important town from Massachusetts to the Carolinas had a rum distillery. They met the local demand, which had increased. People often used rum in mixed drinks, including flip. The contents 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.


Popular Books
    1. MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton, R. Drunken Comportment. 
    2. Royce, J. Alcohol Problems, p. 38.
    3. First Timothy 4:4; Matthew 15:11; Luke 7:33-35.
    4. Rorabaugh, W. Alcohol. In: Cayton, M., et al. (Eds.) Book of Social History, 1993. v. 3,  p. 2135.
    5. Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America, p. 5. Good for drinking alcohol in early America.
    6. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. The Treatment of Alcoholism, p. 9.
    7. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum, p. 20.
    8. Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition, p. 7.
    9. Rorabaugh, op cit. Mendelson and Mello, p. 9.
    10. Mendelson and Mello, ibid.
    11. Krout, p. 32.
    12. Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use & Abuse, pp. 5 & 8.
    13. Mendelson and Mello, op cit.
    14. Furnas, p. 18.
    15. Roueche, B. Alcohol. Its History, p. 178.
    16. Schlaadt, pp. 8-9.
    17. Mendelson and Mello, p. 10.
    18. Elliott, P. 100 Proof: Tips and Tales for Spirited Drinkers, p. 13.