The Surprising Thing That Fueled the American Revolution. And the Rise of Our First President.

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(illustration: Wes Duvall)

Forget the Boston Tea Party. The American Revolution was really about rum. Need proof? How about the fact that the father of our nation had a lifelong fixation with the famed Caribbean elixir? George Washington’s obsession may have been left out of the textbooks, but his copious letters and diaries are chock-full of it.

When Washington entered politics for the first time in 1757, rum figured prominently. In that era, rum was the most popular tipple in the American colonies, to the tune of 3.7 gallons per person per year. It was a tradition in Virginia to offer boozy refreshment to the voters. Washington found this sort of electioneering distasteful and ran instead on his own merits.

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Three candidates vied for two Frederick County seats in the House of Burgesses. The top two each won about 46 percent of the vote and were duly elected. Washington failed miserably with 7 percent.

It was the only election he would ever lose. When Washington stood again the following year, he took no chances. Washington’s agents doled out 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 46 gallons of beer, 34 gallons of wine and, just for good measure, two gallons of hard cider.

Worried about the outcome nonetheless, Washington wrote to his campaign manager, “My only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.” He needn’t have worried, as he had truly appealed to the people and earned the most votes of any contender.

One Nation Under Rum

America in this period was flush with rum imported from England’s Caribbean colonies, chiefly Barbados. But Americans saw a tempting business opportunity in importing molasses, from which most rum is made, so that they could distill their own spirits at home. This began the chain of events that would reshape the continent and make Washington a famed general and politician.

As American distillers sought better deals and increased production by obtaining molasses from French, as well as English, colonies, Britain’s Parliament imposed a series of so-called Navigation Acts that precluded their own colonists from all trade with those of other European countries.

Americans rejected these restrictions and continued to deal with the French for their prized molasses, prompting Parliament to levy the 1733 Molasses Act, which taxed all non-English molasses. But wily entrepreneurs, determined to continue producing rum, kept smuggling molasses in defiance of the tariff.

British overlords escalated their response, establishing the 1764 Sugar Act to crack down on the illicit trafficking. Protests began, which soon turned into open rebellion, all because thirsty Americans would not allow their flow of rum to be curtailed.

Mount Vernon

A Liberal Use of Spirits

As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington had many responsibilities and concerns. Rum was, as ever, at the forefront. In addition to its persuasive powers with voters, rum was valued as a brief liquid respite that kept restive troops functioning in grim war time. So vital was this provision that one of Washington’s cavalry generals wrote to him seeking more—and listed it second only to forage for his horses.

“The Scarcity of Rum is so great that the Infantry can only have it dealt to them on certain occasions,” a beleaguered Washington wrote back in January of 1778. ”Your men must therefore content themselves till times of greater plenty.”

Those times of plenty were long in coming. In June of the following year, a desperate Washington ordered that rum be appropriated from medical use—it was dispensed to the wounded in the days before anesthetic—and given over to battle-ready soldiers.

“The distress of the Army for Rum … has induced me to consent that a quantity shall be drawn from the Hospital Stores. … I have therefore to desire that you will deliver … All the Rum you have in the public Stores under your care,” Washington ordered. But he wasn’t without mercy for the injured, allowing his medical corps to keep “thirty Hogsheads, which I should hope would be more than fully sufficient to answer every Hospital purpose.”

As the war wore on, Washington’s need from rum didn’t abate, but its availability only grew worse. By September of 1780, he began to simply tell his commanders to just steal rum if they needed it badly enough: “I am informed there is a quantity of Rum in the hands of some persons in the neighbourhood of the State. … I wish you to try to procure this Rum by purchase or to be replaced in kind in a reasonable time as may be most convenient,” Washington graciously began. But he quickly pivoted to rum realpolitik, instructing his officers that ”if the Holders of it will not part with it in this way, our necessities are so great that You must take it.”

But despite his frequent difficulties in procuring it, Washington never wavered in his appreciation of rum, which he viewed as genuinely life-saving.

“When we take into consideration how precious the lives of our men are, how much their health depends upon a liberal use of Spirits,” he wrote late in the war. “[W]e cannot hesitate to determine that the Public ought to incur a small expense … and preserve the lives of a great number of men. … I consider it therefore a duty to them as well as to my Country to request that the 50 Hogsheads of Rum … may be procured and forwarded as soon as it is practicable.”

With sufficient rum secured, the war was won. A grateful nation turned to Washington to serve as its first president, and a vengeful Britain continued to limit America’s access to Caribbean molasses, choking off the domestic rum industry. But the same pioneer ingenuity that brought the Americans into rum distilling propelled them into producing whiskey, which could be made from locally farmed grains.

High Horse (image: Gina Haase)

Distiller in Chief

Ironically, as America transformed from a rum-swilling nation to a whiskey-chugging one, the same need to raise revenue that had compelled Parliament to enact its rum taxes led President Washington to institute his 1791 whiskey tax. Insurrection arose once more, in the form of the famous Whiskey Rebellion, but Washington had no sympathy for these rebels. His administration quickly crushed the uprising, and the land was secure for both distillation and taxation.

At the completion of his presidency, Washington retired to his plantation, known as Mount Vernon. Like the rum-producing Caribbean colonies, Virginia was built on the work of slaves, and Mount Vernon was no exception. A lifelong slave owner, Washington had as many as 317 enslaved people living on his estate.

The irony of waging a war that began with a declaration that “all men are created equal” while continuing to own people as property was not entirely lost on Washington, who struggled for years with this contradiction. Privately, he repeatedly advocated for the abolition of slavery. A friend remembered Washington telling him in 1798, “Not only do I pray for [abolition] on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.” Yet he took no public stand on the matter before, during or after his presidency.

At Mount Vernon, Washington soon got into the distillation business. His farm manager, James Anderson, who had learned to distill whiskey during his youth in Scotland, began production in 1797 on a small still. Washington was impressed with its output and ordered a purpose-built distillery be constructed. Run by slaves like the rest of Mount Vernon, it was the largest in the country at that time, turning out 11,000 gallons of whiskey and fruit brandies in 1799, the year of Washington’s death.

Whiskey and brandy but, with molasses difficult to obtain, no rum. As a distiller, Washington had to abandon the spirit that had served him so well throughout his career as a politician and a soldier. “In my research, I have not found any evidence of Washington making rum at Mount Vernon,” says Steven T. Bashore, the director of historic trades at today’s Mount Vernon.

But Washington still bought a lot of it. “He procured rum from a distillery in Alexandria and from other West Indies sources,” says Bashore. This was drunk by his guests as well as his slaves, as part of their daily rations.

Like Washington once fought to do, it falls to us all now to keep the rum flowing. To aid in that goal, Shannon Tebay Sidle, a bartender at New York’s Death & Co, created the High Horse cocktail, inspired by colonial-era ingredients.

“When I thought of George Washington and colonial flavor associations, my mind immediately went to the proverbial cherry tree,” she says. “The name was inspired not only by the many classical equine portraits of the nation’s first president but also the popular myth that the young George could not tell a lie.”

Get the recipe for the High Horse here.

Series & Type: History
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