By Christina Ying
Alcohol has always been central to many different cultures around the world. It has been consumed as part of so many spiritual and religious rituals including an integral part of one of Jesus’ first miracles: water into wine. So, it’s no surprise that alcohol became such an important component of almost every country’s culture.
The British (who else!) developed a formerly medicinal liquid into one of the country’s most popular drinks, the Vikings used to enjoy copious amounts of beer as celebration in their meeting halls, while other European countries developed ouzo, vodka, absinthe all manner of liquers and from the East came sake and Chinese maotai. (Although this one is said to be an acquired taste.)
And of course the French developed wine making into a fine art.
These culturally important spirits and traditions traveled to America with immigrants and have become a key part of our American culture, community and recreation time.
When the Pilgrims immigrated to America on the Mayflower they carried with them more ale than water. This was not any indication of an alcohol problem afflicting the immigrating people, but it was actually necessary to their survival since plain water could carry harmful bacteria and spread infectious disease throughout the ship. According to Dana Johnson from Birko, the ale they carried with them was safe to drink throughout the journey not only because of it’s low alcohol content, but also because it provided the struggling travelers with some of their needed calories.
Prior to European colonization, alcoholic beverages were made from fruit and vegetables that were native to North America such as blackberries, strawberries, squash, and celery. The Southwestern tribes of North America such as the Apache, Zuni, Pima, and Papago drank alcohol for rituals and cultural ceremonies only. Drinking for pleasure and social engagement would become a custom with the arrival of the Spanish.
When Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, Spanish and French Huguenot settlers began making Muscadine wine. The wine process required a bit of adjustment, because the European grapes refused to adjust to North America’s wet climates. Eventually, Spanish and French wine makers found new grapes that were native to the U.S. and expanded their businesses with wineries across the nation.
Without Cuba and the Caribbean, we would not have rum! Americans loved it so much that it was the drink of choice for many of our country’s founding fathers who indulged on a regular, even daily basis. Cognac was said to be a considerable contributing factor in the framing of our Constitution. (However the rum based cocktail, Fish House Punch, was a favorite of our first president, George Washington and rumor has it one occasion, Washington drank so much he couldn’t write in his diary for three days.)
On the dark side of history the import of rum and cognac wouldn’t have been possible without the “Triangle Trade,” in which rum was traded for West African slaves. The trade continued in the West Indies for more molasses which was then made into more rum. This trading of rum and cognac was essential to the prosperity of colonial life becoming so popular that eventually every major city across the East Coast had a rum distillery.
Cocktails as we know it today were invented in the early 1800s. The first published definition of a cocktail appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806 as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” However, today’s cocktails as we know them would never have happened if it weren’t for ice. The commodity only became accessible during the early years of the nineteenth century with the help of one Frederic Tudor, with his revolutionary business for transporting ice.
During the 1830s and 1840s the ice trade expanded rapidly to England, India, South America, China and Australia and with this importing of ice from various countries around the world, Tudor made his vast fortune and changed the way we consume cocktails.
The massive wave of immigrating Europeans in the mid-1800s brought over European beer, whiskey, gin and a wide variety of wines. It was the introduction of lager beer by the Germans that forever changed the way Americans drink beer. However this change in the drink that was almost a staple of everyday life was not initially welcomed with open arms. In 1851, a Philadelphia editor described lager as a “vile compound of dirt and poison” and was “worse, far worse, than rye whiskey; a mixture to madden and destroy.” Though on what unbiased basis it is not clear.
The Europeans continued to experience discrimination when it came to alcohol. Many were accustomed to spending Sundays with family and friends in beer gardens, mostly because it was their only day off. So when cities enforced an ordinance for the closing of beer gardens on Sundays it was considered to be highly discriminatory against the German-American population. Despite this initial discrimination, the German preference for beer was not received too negatively by the American public. This encouraged more German brewing and as many different flavors and strengths became available beer became the “opiate” of the masses and became the essential ingredient in American culture it is today. In addition to assimilating new immigrants into American society and establishing a beer culture, it is rumored (although denied by many many other claimants) that the Germans also invented cocktails. They were already making a version with “wine cups,” which have a combination of spirits, wines, liqueurs, and flavored syrups so when German immigrants began working at American bars the tradition of American mixology was born and “cocktail hour” became a go-to feature of the day.
Places like San Francisco during the Gold Rush had a huge influx of new immigrant communities. It was unlike anywhere else in the world and without these social drinking spaces, not even bars but mostly makeshift tents with long trestle tables, there was no way these new immigrants would have adapted so readily and so quickly. True melting pots albeit with their own rigid social strata.
In addition to Southerners and Yankees living in the same spaces post Civil War, the streets were also filled with men from Australia, Mexico, China, Russia, Europe, and South America. Because of the Gold Rush, San Francisco became built up around real saloons as we know them and these served as social hubs for people from all around the world to meet and mingle and build community. Historically, the saloons and pubs in most American cities catered to immigrants and members of the working class thus producing a camaraderie and common cause that broke down national and ethnic barriers.
Then came the crunch. Prohibition!
During the 1800’s alchohol consumption in the newly formed republic reached what some saw as epidemic proportions not unlike the opioid crisis of today. Public disorder, violence and sexual assaults coupled with saloon-based political corruption prompted fundamental religious believers and other prohibitionists in power to end the manufacture and sale of alcohol to, as they saw it, rid society of this evil. (There was also huge political bias in the vote to deny one set of supporters a basic daily need. The rich always had access to whatever they wanted.)
When Prohibition began immigrants from all walks worked in the illegal trade as distillers or distributors in the whiskey business. A Jewish immigrant from the United Kingdom, Jacob “Jack” Grohusko, one of the most significant cocktail bartenders in American cocktails, made waves with his cocktail concoctions in bars located in lower Manhattan. Grohusko subsequently published several editions of Jack’s Manual his handbook for crafting nearly 400 different cocktails, which was essential in the development of mixology (and the creative force that produced so many new mixes) all around the world.
Whiskey is an American staple. The production process however requires a lot of time, from the original mash, through the distilling and maturing in casks down to the bottling and distribution can, in the best of brands, often many years. This made decent whiskey, as opposed to the rot gut variety sold in the Old West, not always readily available to consumers and a local spirit from south of the border became their ideal choice of drink. Tequila
After World War II, the U.S. initiated the Bracero programs which imported migrant workers from Mexico to work in the country temporarily or become naturalized citizens of the United States. Many of the migrant workers brought their indigenous brand of hooch made from the agave plant with them. Tequila. It caught on! Now a global billion dollar industry tequila is the choice for shots from all stratas of society. From Park Avenue penthouses to Texas panhandle dives we are awash with this potent product. Seven out of every 10 liters of tequila produced in Mexico are exported abroad, with the United States purchasing 80%.
So, for better (I think so) or worse (there’s still prohitionists out there) immigrants changed the structure of US society with their own brand of white lightening. Today it may be under pressure from a rapidly expanding legal marijuana industry but the signs are still that our choice to take the edge off comes out of a bottle and the contents of that bottle have been influenced by centuries of overseas influence. Immigrants.
This brief look at the history of alcohol in the US highlights the contribution immigrants have made to our culture. In their pursuit of a better life, they found a way to adapt despite dealing with racism and discrimination. When you have a group of people who’s sole focus is to better themselves and their communities, they will elevate our culture. Because of immigrants some of our best memories are enjoyed over a sip or two of their efforts and we can’t help but acknowledge the colorful history that went into bringing those drinks to our tables.