I believe the most historically appropriate spirits to enjoy on Thanksgiving are rye whiskey and applejack/apple brandy. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, both spirits should be unaged, as was the style of Colonial America.
I don’t have any white lightning on hand, so I’m cheating a bit and having a taste of Laird’s Old Apple Brandy, 7 1/2 years old. Laird & Company is the oldest registered distillery in the United States, licensed in 1780 although in business for longer than that.
Before the Revolution, George Washington, who ran a small distillery at Mount Vernon, wrote to the Laird’s and asked for their applejack recipe, which they shared with him. All of Laird’s apples are grown here in Virginia — a couple million pounds a year — so Washington presumably had plenty of raw materials for his efforts.
The Pilgrims, although quite strict in many practices, had no problem with alcohol. While aboard the Mayflower they were allocated a gallon of beer per person per day. As a result, they were half in the bag most of the time. Including the kids! Supposedly they landed at Plymouth Rock* in Massachusetts, rather than their approved destination of Northern Virginia, because they were out of beer.
So drink up if you’re of a mind to do so. And Happy Thanksgiving!
*The story of Plymouth Rock is almost certainly fiction.
Some good news for those of you who are looking for well-made craft spirits that actually deliver on what they promise. FEW Spirits, based in Evanston, Illinois, is expanding to four more states, bringing their distribution to a total of 20 states, as well as Washington, D.C. (The brand is also distributed in the UK, throughout Europe, and in select locations in Australia, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong.)
FEW makes gins, whiskies and other craft spirits, which we have found to be generally of very high quality. You can read our review of FEW Spirits Rye Whiskey, and also see where FEW American Gin placed in our Gin and Tonic Taste Test.
FEW likes to call themselves a grain-to-glass producer. They source their ingredients from as close to their distillery as possible, and do all fermentation, distillation, aging, and bottling on-site. As founder and master distiller Paul Hletko explains, “If we can’t grow it ourselves, we buy it locally. And if we can’t buy it locally, we buy it from friends.”
On a side note, FEW is of special interest to me as a historian, as Evanston is the location of the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (an organization which, surprisingly enough, continues to this day). Evanston was also the longtime home of suffragist and prohibitionist Frances Elizabeth Willard, whose initials were appropriated for the name of the company.
As you may know, Ernest Hemingway was fond of his drink — much in the same way that a Great White Shark is fond of eating seals and surfers. To put it another way: he was a raging alcoholic. As such, he was distinguished by his thirst for cocktails, not his good taste in them.
Hemingway lived in Havana, Cuba during the 1930s, and often did his drinking at El Floridita where the great Constantino Ribalaigua Vert worked behind the bar. The self-proclaimed “Cradle of the Daiquiri,” El Floridita served a menu of cocktails that included at least five different versions of the Daiquiri that Vert created.
When Hemingway discovered El Floridita — supposedly he wandered in looking for a bathroom — he sampled the Daiquiri and found it to his liking. As Hemingway was fearful of becoming a diabetic like his father, however, he demanded a modification: “That’s good, but I prefer it without sugar and double rum.”
Antonio Meilán, a gifted bartender in his own right and an in-law of Ribalaigua’s, made a Daiquiri as Hemingway requested, and it became a regular part of Papa’s drinking rotation. At some point, a touch of Maraschino Liqueur was added to the mix, and a little grapefruit juice as well.
The cocktail that we now call the Hemingway Daiquiri is not for the faint of palate, even in its evolved form. It is strong and tart, and most will find it challenging to drink. If you are one of them, adding a small amount of sugar or simple syrup wouldn’t be out of the question. Although Hemingway might not approve, I suspect Ribalaigua would.
There is a rich tradition of fascinating and useful books about cocktail and spirits, dating back to at least the mid-19th century when “Professor” Jerry Thomas published the world’s first cocktail guide.
I’ve been steadily building my collection over the past few years, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the site, and more of which I’d like to. I’m also regularly adding new books to the library — and here is the latest batch.
I’m a lifelong reader, in addition to being a book critic for the past many years, so when I began my education in cocktails and spirits, it was inevitable that I turned to books for information. Over the past few years, I’ve collected the best volumes for my library that I can find. Poring over them has taught me most of what I know, and the experience has been invaluable.
Here are several of the books that I have learned from or enjoyed the most. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if you’re looking to learn more, these would be a great place to start. If you have any favorites you’d like to suggest, please leave a comment below.
(Note that I’ve left several of the classics off this list, either because they’re out-of-print, expensive, or otherwise hard to get. I wanted to recommend things that people can easily find if they’re curious.)
Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail was the first drinks book I read, so it will always have a special place in my heart. DeGroff is a legendary bartender for good reason — he was the crucial figure in jump-starting the craft cocktail movement of the 1990’s and the return of bartending to its historical roots. Filled with great recipes and great stories, this is invaluable and a terrific read.
The book that taught me how to Tiki. I only had a vague knowledge of Tiki drinks and the men who created them before I read Jeff Berry’s books, but he started me down the path to what has become my favorite “genre” of cocktails. It’s hard to overstate the importance of his work on modern drinking. (Plus, if it hadn’t been for this book, there would be no Professor Cocktail’s Zombie Horde.)
A vastly entertaining book from the former spirits columnist of The Washington Post. Jason Wilson traveled far and wide, searching out the best in booze, and he recounted his adventures in this volume. This is a book that a general reader — as opposed to just a cocktail enthusiast — can definitely enjoy.
Another book that the average reader with only a modest interest in drinking can still appreciate. Eric Felten wrote about booze for The Wall Street Journal for many years, and this brings together some of his best work. In it, Felten examines our enduring cultural connection to drinking, relating the history of a variety of cocktails with interesting and often amusing stories.
A comprehensive guide to spirits from the Man with the Golden Palate. F. Paul Pacult is the dean of spirits critics, and I’ve learned more about tasting spirits from him than anyone else. This book is a little outdated now, but it’s definitely still worth reading. Here’s hoping he published a new edition soon! (Its an expensive book, but if it stops you from buying even a couple bottles of bad booze, it’s worth it.)
Another invaluable book, not just for its collection of recipes, but for its introduction of Regan’s remarkable system for analyzing and categorizing drinks, helping us not only to understand them better (and remember how to make them), but to guide us in creating drinks of our own.
Probably the most remarkable new book dedicated to cocktails in many years. One of the world’s top bartenders shares his knowledge — along with an extraordinary collection of recipes. Plus, it’s a gorgeous book. (See the complete review.)
If you want to learn about bourbon (and rye and Tennessee whiskey), this is the book to read. Chuck Cowdery is the master, and he gives the unvarnished history and no-nonsense truth — a rare things in the bourbon world, which is filled with more tall tales than the halls of Congress.
American history as seen through the bottom of a glass. Wayne Curtis combines two of my interests — booze and history — in one book. How could I not like it? And I think you will, too. Curtis has an interesting take on history that is both literate and fun to read.
Although most people don’t know his name, Jerry Thomas was a remarkable figure in the history of alcohol and drinking in America. Thomas was the world’s first “celebrity” bartender and the author of the first major bartending book. Wondrich takes us through Thomas’s work, along with lively commentary and reliable recreations of the recipes he made famous. A great piece of drinks history.
Another book that dives into the depths of some of the classic drinks of the past that have fallen by the wayside. Good recipes and interesting commentary — and since Ted Haigh is a graphic designer in Hollywood, it has beautiful visuals as well.
A little more esoteric than some of the rest, but a remarkable history. (And another lovely book to look at.) Brad Thomas Parsons traces the history of bitters — which began as health tonics — up through their essential addition to cocktails. This book tells you everything you need to know on the subject, including how to make your own.
I'm fascinated with orange liqueurs. Whether it's triple sec or curaçao, dry or sweet, orange or blue, I love the stuff. Not to drink on its own — I've never really cared for that — but for use in cocktails. Orange liqueur is one of the most important cocktail ingredients, adding depth and flavor to so many great drinks. (Two of my favorites are the Mai Tai and the Margarita.)
I've been meaning for some time to do a comprehensive write-up of orange liqueurs, but there's a lot of work involved and I haven't gotten around to it yet. In the meantime, though, Michael Dietsch at Serious Eats has put together a very useful primer on the subject.
Dietsch does a good job of defining the different types of orange liqueur, although in practice the terms are so misused that it's often hard to tell what is what. In short:
Orange liqueur is any sweetened distilled spirit with orange flavoring added. This includes curaçao, triple sec and other varieties.
Curaçao is a liqueur made with a base of brandy that is sweetened and flavored with orange. It was originally a liqueur produced on the island of Curaçao, made from brandy and flavored with the dried peels of Curaçao (Laraha) oranges. There is still one company, Senior, that produces curaçao in this fashion.
Triple sec is a liqueur made with a base of neutral spirit (essentially vodka) that is sweetened and flavored with orange. The "sec" in this case is the French word for "dry," since originally triple sec was less sweet than curaçao.
Dietsch includes a lot more detail and history, which is definitely worth reading. And yes, the subject gets confusing, especially as there are no regulations on the use of the different terms. So distillers can call their product "triple sec" or "curaçao" without regard to how it's actually produced or what it contains.
The bulk of the article is a look at several different brands of orange liqueurs, with brief critiques of each. I agree with most of what he wrote, and it's something you'll want to review before making your next trip to the liquor store.
The two most important names in orange liqueurs are the two that most people already know: Cointreau and Grand Marnier. These are two of the most expensive liqueurs you're likely to buy, but in this case you really get what you pay for. Their quality may not be unmatched, but it's certainly unsurpassed. (However, if you're like me and hate paying for the good stuff, Dietsch suggests some alternatives.)
As for the answer to the question that is so often asked: Grand Marnier is curaçao and Cointreau is triple sec.
Now go make a Mai Tai. Or Margarita. Or Cosmo. Or Sidecar. Or Kamikaze. Or White Lady. Or Pegu Club. Or Derby. Or…
The Planter's Punch is one of the oldest rum cocktails, a classic combination of rum, lime juice and sugar that dates back to 18th-century Jamaica. There the drink was originally made according to a recipe with the rhythm of a nursery rhyme: "One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak." (That would be: lime juice, sugar, rum, and water.)
The first recorded appearance of Planter's Punch in the United States was in a New York Times article from 1908. (They ran a gussied up version of the traditional Jamaican ditty.) Although punches of all sorts had been very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it's hard to determine how popular the drink was by the 1900s. Rum-based cocktails in general tended to find little favor with most of the public.
After Prohibition ended, however, things began to change. The great Donn Beach had discovered Planter's Punch during his travels and brought it back to the States with him. When he opened his first Tiki bar/restaurant in 1934, not only was the drink on the menu, it also served as the inspiration for many of the other rum concoctions he invented. As the Tiki craze grew in popularity, so did the thirst for Planter's Punch.
There are as many recipes for this drink as there are bartenders and cocktail books. Some have lime or lemon juice; some have pineapple or orange juice (or a combination of all four). Some have light rum, gold rum, dark rum or all three. They often have grenadine, and some add triple sec or orange Curaçao. I even have a recipe that calls for crème de cacao. (I don't think I'll be trying that one.)
Don the Beachcomber served at least five different versions of Planter's Punch. His most popular recipe called for three different types of rum, lime juice, simple syrup, grenadine, falernum and Angostura bitters. This makes a very good drink, but I was looking for something a little simpler.
In The Gentleman's Companion (1939), Charles H. Baker Jr.'s story of his spirituous travels around the world, the author discusses ten different methods for making Planter's Punch. He pronounces all of them excellent, but advises, "Get decent well-aged rum…[And] don't try to use canned fruit juices of any kind." Solid advice for this, or any, cocktail.
Most of Baker's recipes are variations on the basic theme, although some of them call for Cognac or bourbon, which I don't think would work very well at all. (I didn't even try it.) He piqued my interest, though, with his suggestion of using grapefruit juice.
As Wayne Curtis points out in his excellent And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails, Planter's Punch is less a specific drink than it is a class of drinks, and that's a good way to think of it. This is a cocktail that cries out for experimentation. It's like a melody that a jazz musician can take and improvise on — based on such a solid foundation, there are unlimited directions in which it can go.
So that's what I did, trying out several different variations in an attempt to come up with a cocktail that tastes great, but doesn't require too many ingredients or too much work to make. The recipe I've settled on (for now, anyway) has quickly become a favorite in our house.
2 oz Rum 1 oz Grapefruit Juice 1/2 oz Lime Juice 1 oz Grenadine 1 tbsp Sugar Cane Syrup 1/2 oz 151 Rum (optional)
Shake all the ingredients (except 151 Rum) with ice until well-chilled. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass, or use something pretty if you've got it. Float the 151 Rum on top.
If you don't have cane syrup, you can use regular simple syrup, although the cane syrup gives it a richer flavor. Try to find some decent grenadine — Rose's should only be used in an emergency.
You can use whatever type of rum you have on hand, although it's going to change the flavor of the drink quite a bit depending on what you use. I prefer a gold or dark Jamaican rum, like Appleton or Myers's.
Recently I made a batch with Pyrat XO Reserve Rum and it was delicious. (This makes sense, as the Pyrat XO Reserve has more than a hint of orange flavor to it.) My wife had a Planter's Punch at the Columbia Room that Derek Brown mixed up for her with Banks 5 Island Rum and it was amazing.
The 151 Rum float gives the drink a nice kick and a delicious accent of burnt caramel. If you'd like a lighter cocktail, however, you can omit it and the drink is still a delight.
So the next time you feel like trying something new, mix up a Planter's Punch and put your own twist on it — and then share the results with the rest of us.
Who was the only sitting U.S. president to personally lead an army into battle?
If you answered "George Washington," then you earned yourself a shot! I'll wait while you go drink it. In fact, even if you guessed "Benjamin Franklin" (who was never president and never lead an army into anything except a tavern), you can still have a shot. What the heck, it's not like I'm buying.
You back now? Good. (And you thought learning about history was going to be boring.)
The Whiskey Rebellion was one of the more interesting episodes in U.S. history because it occurred at the intersection of two great American pastimes: making liquor and bitching about taxes.
Back in the early days of the Republic there was no income tax. The government didn't spend a lot of money (nobody had thought up Social Security or aircraft carriers yet), so they didn't need a lot of revenue. Most of what they required was gotten through tariffs on imports. Nobody liked paying taxes (remember, that was one of the things the colonists hated about the British), but an import tariff was indirect enough that nobody complained too much.
Well, as is so often the case, the government found themselves a little short when it came time to pay its bills. The Revolutionary War had cost a pretty penny and back then the Treasury couldn't just sell bonds to the Chinese; they actually had to come up with some real money. So in 1791, they slapped a tax on whiskey.
Although this move was no doubt highly offensive to the drunkards of the day, the people it really pissed off were the farmers. The highest cost a farmer on the American frontier (we're talking Western Pennsylvania or Ohio) faced was transportation. They were growing a lot of corn and wheat and other grains, and hauling all that stuff to market was expensive. So someone hit upon the genius idea of turning a lot of that grain into alcohol, thus concentrating its value in a much smaller volume of merchandise.
Since these farmers were essentially in the whiskey business — they even used sometimes booze for currency — the government's new tax hit them particularly hard. And as the colonists' experience with the Brits had so recently shown, when people were pissed off about taxes, a little rebellion could be a very effective tool. Anger and resentment starting brewing, and eventually reached a boil in 1794.
The farmers began to organize, pledging not to pay the tax, and harassing the tax agents when they tried to collect it. (You think it's hard being an IRS agent today? Back then they used to get tarred and feathered — literally!)
Eventually things escalated to the point where 500 armed men marched on the estate of General John Neville, the local tax inspector. Shots were exchanged, the general's house was burned down, and at least two men were killed.
Emboldened by this action, the farmers next gathered a militia of 6000 men who massed in Braddock's Field, a few miles outside of Pittsburgh. They paraded around, flexed their muscles, contemplated sacking Pittsburgh, and even threatened to secede from the Union.
Enough was enough. In the face of such a serious challenge to the authority of the new federal government (keep in mind this was only 7 years after the adoption of the Constitution), President George Washington pledged to take action. He got his old uniform out of mothballs and, with Alexander Hamilton by his side, led an army of 13,000 men towards Western Pennsylvania. This was a larger army than Washington generally led during the Revolutionary War — the man meant business.
By the time Washington and his troops arrived in Pennsylvania, the rebellious farmers had dispersed. They may have been stubborn, but they weren't stupid. A couple of the ringleaders were captured and tried, but were later pardoned. The army went home and Washington went back to Philadelphia (the capital at that time). The anger gradually faded away.
In the end, protesting the tax was as much a pretext for standing up to the government as a legitimate beef. And the farmers had seen what standing up to the Feds can get you. Besides, a tax on whiskey really just meant the consumer paid a little more for his jug — it wasn't worth getting killed over.
As a result of the events of the Whiskey Rebellion, it became abundantly clear that the new federal government was firmly in charge of the United States and its peoples, not just in the settled cities of the East, but in all the states and territories. There was a role for the state and local authorities, but the ultimate power lay in the hands of the Feds — and they were willing to use force to back that up.
We've been paying taxes on our whiskey ever since.
Note: In preparation for writing this essay, I pulled several volumes off the shelf to consult. The primary book I used was The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (Oxford University Press, 1993). It's a well-regarded and learned treatise on early-American history. Just don't drop it on your foot.