Most Americans celebrate Independence Day with barbecues, picnics, fireworks, hanging out at the beach, or just vegging in front of the television. All of these activities reflect our national pride to an extent, but above all, there’s one aspect of 4th of July celebrations that our nation’s ancestors would find most quintessentially American.
Typically we have beer and wine at our July 4th shindigs, but our nation’s ancestors were revolutionaries, and as such, they drank even harder stuff.
Apparently, Americans drank more alcoholic beverages between 1790 and 1840 than at any other period in our nation’s history – nearly a half pint of hard liquor per man each day.
So what were Americans drinking back then? Well before the American Revolution, it was mostly madeira, hard apple cider, apple brandy, rum, and really anything they could get their hands on to distill that wasn’t otherwise being taxed too greatly by the British. The demand for whiskey increased as supplies of rum ran dry during the American Revolution. After the revolution, however, the tipple of choice was largely rye whiskey – it was both cheap and plentiful, and most importantly, American!
According to historian William Rorabaugh, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Washington in Seattle, communal binge drinking was so customary at July 4th festivities, that “it was surely no accident that one early temperance society adopted a pledge that allowed its members to become intoxicated on Independence Day.” In fact, Rorabaugh writes in his classic text, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, “during the 1820s no holiday had more import than the 4th of July,” a date that would evoke “a national intoxication.”
Back at the time of our nation’s founding, whiskey and other distilled spirits were seen as staple foods to shake up an otherwise bland diet. Think of it as rye bread versus white bread. Whiskey was also thought to be curative, healing colds, fevers, and a palliative for aches well into the 19th century. At that time, most sources of water were neither clear nor sparkling, nor in any way appetizing.
It is all too often forgotten that until Prohibition, America had a proud tradition in its domestic rye whiskey industry, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania. There has been a certain recrudescence of the rye trade, and many new brands have been introduced. But straight rye whiskey is still a vastly underappreciated spirit if actual sales are anything to go by.
Thus, we recommend uncorking some premium rye whisky at your Independence Day celebration that our forefathers would be proud to drink. Here are our top picks:
Catoctin Creek Organic Roundstone Rye Whisky (40 percent abv; $38; certified organic and kosher under the Star-K): Lovely, brash, and oily, with aromas and flavors of spicy rye, dried walnuts, vanilla, sliced banana, caramel, butterscotch and oak. Water adds to the creaminess, but detracts from the complexity. Additional maturation will likely improve future expressions of this already fine, clean, vibrant rye whisky. Yum.
For those seeking a fine, inexpensive, slightly more aged rye, consider: Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Rye (45 percent abv; $25): This warming, super smooth, fun, light-ish yet wonderful rye offers aromas and flavors of almonds, caramel, honey, vanilla, oak, cherries(!?), banana bread, racy/spicy cinnamon, and NY rye bread. Mild mannered as rye whiskies go, but just superb.
Finally, for those wanting something new, and to cast an eye towards the rum that used to slake this nation’s pre-independence thirst, consider this Caribbean Rum cask finished rye whiskey:
Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey (50% abv; $70): A semi-sweet whiskey with vibrant, spicy rye notes (cinnamon and mint), weirdly tamed yet not smothered by rich maple syrup, and exhibiting additional aromas and flavors of graham crackers, gingerbread, creamy vanilla, nutty toffee, some gentle tropical fruit, and golden raisins. The medium-length finish offers more rum than rye notes, but the interplay throughout just works. The price leaves something to be desired, but is (sadly) not outrageous as these things go.
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