- Historic Sites
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
To this salty observation the Congressional Record appends the stage direction laughter and applause . Omar Dwight Conger, a Michigan Republican, then replied that any familiarity he had with whiskey was due to the many years he had spent in close association with Democrats. “If I have not been able to feel their influence,” he said, “I have certainly smelt their breath.”
The best evidence is that the pleasures of sipping our star-spangled juice of the corn plant do cross party lines. Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, the silver-tongued Republican orator from Peoria, called bourbon “liquid joy” that has spent, as he put it in the flowery language of nineteenth-century eloquence, “the dreamy tawny dusks of many perfect days … within the happy staves of oak.”
The inviting bottle, when circulated in the inner councils of the House leaders at sundown, has the reputation of being an effective aid in smoothing the way for legislation and assessing the temper of the members. The usefulness of the bourbon-and-branchwater ritual was also demonstrated in the Senate when, its presiding officer, Vice President John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, proposed to his colleagues, at about the time of the Children’s Hour, that they lay aside the cares of statesmanship and, as he put it, “strike a blow for liberty.” No less distinguished an authority upon history, government, and bourbon than the late award-winning historian Bernard DeVoto has maintained that bourbon whiskey, taken without ice by American patriots, quickens the political processes, disperses doubts and shadows, and helps men of good will to resolve their differences.
No one knows how primitive man became acquainted with alcohol. Far back in prehistory some gifted individual must have observed a mess of fruits or berries spoiling in a watery solution. He must have tasted the liquid and found that it made the world seem a wonderful place. Anthropologists have conjectured that alcohol created the first agriculture as our nomadic ancestors settled down to cultivate the vine. Stronger beverages than fermentation provides arrived with the invention of the alembic, or still. From a mash of fermented grain or fruit pulp placed in the still, alcohol was vaporized by direct heat, separated from the water because of differing boiling points, cooled, and caught again in a condensing coil—a raw distillate, colorless as water and searing in its effect.
The first ardent spirits distilled in English-speaking America were fruit cordials and brandies. The native grape was not well adapted for making wine or brandy. But apple trees flourished mightily and were common in New England from the seventeenth century on, and so was cider, meaning hard cider, which was distilled into apple brandy or applejack. John Adams took a tankard of hard cider as his morning phlegm-cutter and kept eight or ten barrels in the cellar. Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke, Harvard, class of 1746, who was awarded the college’s first degree of doctor of medicine, mixed his cider with rum, took a half pint with some water at dinner, another with his pipe afterward, and became the first Harvard man to live to be a hundred. It was apple brandy that men called upon to help them build the famous stone walls of New England. According to folk tradition, it took a gallon of apple brandy to lay up a rod of wall.
The most important spiritous liquor during the eighteenth century was rum, first known as rumbullion, a term of unknown origin. A field hand expected a gallon a month as part of his wages. Daily liquor rations were issued in the regular army until 1830, and a man who was elected an officer at the militia trainings was expected to wet his commission bountifully with Medford rum or good old Demerara. The customer in a country store expected after a substantial purchase to get a complimentary glass from the friendly rural merchant.