The Language of Libations

The Ale House Door, ca. 1790, by Henry Singleton

The Ale House Door, ca. 1790, by Henry Singleton

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history in search of something to drink. Time travel can make a body thirsty, you know. Let’s imagine that we’re traveling back to colonial South Carolina, that is, sometime between the arrival of the first European settlers here in 1670 to the 1770s, the era of the American Revolution. The journey has made us parched, so we’re in search of a beverage to quench our thirst. Choices abound, but you might be unfamiliar with the vocabulary. For example, would you care for a bowl of arrack? A pipe of syracuse? How about a nice butt of malmsey? My point is this: the beverage lingo of early South Carolina was quite different from our own, and there was a heavy emphasis on alcoholic concoctions. To understand the logic behind this situation, and to navigate the menu of colonial-era drinks, we need to start with some vocabulary help. In that spirit, I offer you this primer that I call . . .

The Language of Libations in Early South Carolina

The first and most important lesson is this: Water is not necessarily your friend. Most of our early settlers stayed near the coastline, bordered by the salty sea and brackish rivers. If you dig a well into these low-lying lands, you’re likely to get sandy water with a pretty foul smell and taste. Consider the topography of peninsular Charleston, for example. The land ranges in height from sea level to about twenty feet above sea level, and it’s bordered by two brackish rivers. If you dig a well, you’ll hit the water table just a few feet down, and the water will be sandy and brackish, and not exactly potable. Nevertheless, nearly every household yard in early Charleston had a well, and there were also public wells in many of the streets. But these wells weren’t necessarily used for drinking. Well water was mostly used for cooking, cleaning, fire-fighting, and light industry (such as tanning leather, felting hats, or making bricks and oyster shell mortar).

Various records left by early Carolina colonists tell us that, in general, the water was bad. It tasted bad, smelled bad, and it was bad for you. Wells were often sunk a few yards away from outhouses, or “necessaries,” as they called them, and so human waste percolated down into the shallow water table and contaminated the water supply. This was all long before the scientific knowledge of germ theory, which came along in the second half of the nineteenth century, but our early colonists knew from observation that drinking the local well water could make one sick. Typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases were rampant in early Charleston. Diarrhea was a common cause of death.

So what was their solution? Don’t drink the water, or at least, don’t drink water by itself. Instead, drink a beverage made with boiled water, or water mixed with alcohol, or just skip the water and drink alcohol. There were many, many options. Having spent many years reading through various records from this era, including newspapers, correspondence, and even court cases, I’ve encountered the names of dozens of types of beverages, some of which I had to dig deep to identify. To help you navigate the sea of drink available in early South Carolina, I’m going to organize the choices into simple, easily-digestible categories. We’ll start with the non-alcoholic options, and then proceed through the progressively stronger stuff.

Besides water, there were several non-alcoholic beverages to choose from in early South Carolina. Most households, even in urban Charleston, had a dairy cow, and so fresh milk was readily available. Pasteurization and bacterial inspection didn’t arrive here until the early years of the twentieth century, however, so there were no guarantees about the quality of your daily milk. To be safe, milk was routinely mixed with wine or stronger spirits. Two such English concoctions were once popular here. The first, called syllabub, combined fresh milk or cream with sugar and wine. The second, called salop or saloop, mixed milk, sugar, and wine with the flour made from ground orchid tubers. Importing orchid tubers from England or Turkey or India was expensive, however, so American colonists experimented with local alternatives. Grinding the roots of sassafras trees yielded a tolerable substitute, and so was born the American delicacy we call root beer.

If you browse through some of the early newspapers printed in colonial Charleston, you’re sure to come across advertisements for spruce beer. Like the more familiar root beer, spruce beer could be alcoholic or non-alcoholic, but it’s made by boiling the spruce essence out of the needles or young, green cones of spruce trees. Similarly, medicinal teas were routinely made by boiling the bark of certain trees, such as the South American cinchona tree. In colonial South Carolina, this concoction was called Jesuit’s bark, or Peruvian bark, and was used regularly and effectively as a treatment for fevers.

Of course regular tea was also available here, imported from China by Dutch and English companies and then re-exported to the American colonies with a significant price mark-up. Souchong tea, Bohea tea (now called Wu-yi tea), Hyson tea, and other varieties were once sold here to the wealthiest of South Carolinians. Similarly, coffee was an expensive luxury available here in colonial times, imported from the West Indies, Latin America, and South America by way of Dutch merchants. Coffee was first introduced to the English-speaking world in the 1660s, but a century later, at the beginning of the American Revolution, it was a staple part of the upper-class diet.

And of course any discussion of non-alcoholic drinks must include fruit juices. In colonial Charleston, ships from the West Indies routinely delivered oranges, limes, lemons, and other fresh fruit, while ships from the northern colonies brought fresh apples. Simply squeezing these fruits yields a tolerable beverage, of course, but other methods had to be used to make them last without refrigeration. Apple cider and orange juice, for example, were routinely barreled and bottled for storage, but the shelf life was limited. Eventually, they had to be fermented or mixed with alcohol to extend their palatability.

Beyond the aforementioned non-alcoholic beverages, all of your colonial-era libations contained some degree of alcohol, ranging from mildly intoxicating tipples to dangerously potent spirits. Let’s start from the least potent concoctions and move our way up the proof scale, otherwise known as the “alcohol-by-volume” measure, or ABV.

First comes the smallest of “small beer,” also called “table beer.” Never heard of it? Small beer is an old-fashioned English term for what we would call low-alcohol beer. This is the beverage that you’d sip before going to school in the morning, or with your mid-day dinner. It has enough alcohol content to kill the microscopic bugs in your water, but not enough to give you much of a buzz. It was once common in South Carolina and all of early America. In fact, the website of Mount Vernon has George Washington’s personal recipe for his favorite small beer.

If you want regular beer, you had two options in colonial times: pale ale or dark porter. Both of these beer varieties originated in England, where beer was customarily fermented at relatively warm temperatures. In fact, much of the beer in colonial Charleston was coming directly from England. Yes, there were several attempts to create breweries in early South Carolina, but none of these ventures lasted very long. The frequent arrival of ships carrying Bristol ale, London porter, and even Philadelphia beer, made it difficult for local breweries to compete. Few South Carolina planters raised barley, malt, and hops, so most of the necessary ingredients had to be imported as well. In the long run, it was simply cheaper to import beer in vast quantities rather than brew it for ourselves.

One final note on the “oil of stingo”, also known as “John Barleycorn” (my two favorite English nicknames for beer): today’s supermarket beer selection includes a fruity libation called shandy. This is the modern resurrection of an old English term for the mixture of citrus juice and beer. Orange, lemon, and lime shandies were once common in colonial Charleston, and represent a tasty way to experience the flavor of a colonial seaport.

Moving our way up the alcohol ladder, let’s talk about wine. In the earliest days of Carolina, it was hoped that the fertile soil here could host vast fields of grapes. The arrival of protestant refugees from France in the late 1600s gave further hope to the birth of a wine industry in Carolina. Try as they might, however, the sub-tropical climate of South Carolina proved to be too hot and humid in the summer and too cold in the winter. Wine production was never more than a cottage industry in colonial times, so vast quantities of European wines were imported through the port of Charleston. Although Britain was frequently at war with France, French wines made their way to South Carolina by way of various neutral parties, like Portugal and Holland. One of the most common wines in early Carolina was called claret, which is simply the general English term for wines from the Burgundy region of France, mostly red or rosé in color. Another French wine popular here was a sweet white made from muscat grapes, called Frontignac (and misspelled a number of ways in our early newspapers).

French wines might be the most famous, but due to the political and economic conditions of colonial South Carolina, we imported a huge quantity of drink from Portugal and the Portuguese-controlled territories of Madeira and the Canary Islands. Madeira wine, which is actually a red wine fortified with a bit of a stronger spirit like brandy, and its cousins—port, sack, and sherry—were extremely common in early South Carolina. Unlike their dainty French counterparts, these fortified wines held up well in our hot southern climate, and our close trading partnership with Portugal made them much more plentiful. Through our Portuguese friends we also got other wines from the Mediterranean region, which might be fortified or not. These were sold under a variety of names, including Palma wine, Tenerife wine, Canary wine, Lisbon wine, Vidonia wine, Syracuse wine (made from the syrah grape), and finally Malmsey. Not familiar with Malmsey? This is the English word for a wine made from the malvasia grape, which grows throughout the Mediterranean, but was once especially popular on the island of Madeira.

Beer and wine are both fermented beverages, but alcoholic spirits, on the other hand, are distilled. That is, spirits are made by separating and concentrating the alcohol produced from a fermented mash. The result is a stronger, more intoxicating drink, and the colonists of early South Carolina couldn’t get enough of it. As with brewing, a handful of investors tried their hands at setting up distilleries in and around early Charleston, but none lasted very long. There was simply too much good, reasonably-priced liquor flowing in from our trading partners in the West Indies, in England, and even in the northern colonies. By far, the most common spirit available in early South Carolina was rum, which is distilled from the juice of sugar cane plants. The islands of Barbados and Jamaica, among others, were almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of sugarcane and rum, so we established a convenient reciprocal trade with them. South Carolina exported huge quantities of firewood and lumber for making things like stills and barrels, and the islands sent us barrels of refined sugar and distilled rum. If you delve into the newspapers of colonial Charleston, you’ll see that we imported a fair amount of what was called “northward rum.” This was mostly the product of Rhode Island, a colony that flourished by importing raw sugar from Barbados and then distilling and exporting a vast amount of cheap rum. Thanks to this rum trade, and their cooler climate, Newport, Rhode Island developed strong economic and social connections with Charleston, and these connections lasted well beyond the Civil War.

Besides rum, there were other distilled spirits flowing into the port of colonial Charleston. Brandy, made from distilled fruit juices, was quite common and came from a variety of sources. Gin, also called “Geneva” in our early newspapers, was also readily available, coming to us from England and Holland. As far as distilled drinks go, gin was the new kid on the block in the early 1700s. It was easy to make, cheap, and the first liquor to be mass-produced. All of these qualities made gin the scourge of English society in the early 1700s, when the concept of alcoholism first appeared in our society.

On the more obscure end of the spectrum is a spirit called arrack. I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory definition of this old drink, but arrack appears with some frequency in our early newspapers. As far as I can tell, it’s either a spirit from southeast Asia, distilled from the fermented sap of coconut flowers and/or sugarcane and/or fruit juices, or it’s an anise-flavored spirit from the eastern Mediterranean or North Africa. The later arrack seems more probable, but I’m not sure. It might seem unlikely that a drink from southeast Asia would find its way to colonial South Carolina, but the lucrative trade of early corporations like the English South Sea Company and the Dutch East India company made it possible to have exotic things like Chinese export porcelain here in Charleston.

Similarly, I was puzzled at first when I came across references in our early newspapers to a beverage with an unfamiliar name, usually spelled “usquebaugh,” and I didn’t have a clue. I happened to ask a friend from Ireland, who stared at me as if I were simple. “Wis-ka-ba” he shouted. “It’s an ancient Irish word–the water of life.” I blinked. He paused. “It’s whiskey,” he finally said. Yes, our forbears in early South Carolina had access to Irish (and Scots) whiskey, but it was apparently not available here in large quantities. After the Revolution, a home-grown, American version of usquebaugh, using corn more than barley, became popular, and an industry was born. But that’s another story, so let’s turn back to early South Carolina.

The final distilled spirit I’ll mention doesn’t really have a name, at least not one that I’m familiar with. Hopefully everyone knows by now that rice was at the center of the South Carolina economy in the 18th century. Huge quantities of it were exported from this state, involving the labor of thousands of enslaved African people and thousands of acres of land. In the 1720s, when rice culture was still in its infancy here, there was a government push to encourage the production of a marketable beverage distilled from rice. Some small quantities were apparently produced, and it was judged to be a tasty drink, but, alas, we never developed a rice liquor industry. In Japan, such a drink is called shochu, and it looks sort of like vodka, but as far as I know, our home-grown rice spirit never got an English name.

Not everyone in early South Carolina was drinking straight liquors, of course. More commonly, people mixed strong spirits with other foods to create preparations or compounds with a lower-alcohol content. By far the most common term used to describe such a concoction was “punch,” which has two different meanings. Today most people think of punch as a beverage served in a large bowl, into which you mix a variety of liquors as well as sugar and fruits. That’s a valid use of the term punch, but in earlier times, say in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century Charleston, punch had a different meaning. It was simply the generic term for a mixture of water and any sort of distilled spirit. That is, watered-down rum, or watered-down gin, for example. Since the water was foul, mixing it with a bit of liquor helped the medicine go down, if you’ll excuse the Mary Poppins reference. And it made your liquor go farther.

The term “cordial” encompassed a large variety of mixed drinks in early America. In general, a cordial is a blend of some strong alcohol with either fruits, herbs, spices, or all of the above. Cordials originally developed as medicinal compounds, but they eventually drifted into the recreational category, and were very common in colonial South Carolina. One variety that was especially popular was shrub, a term that has a few different meanings. One type of shrub is a mixture of rum or brandy with sugar and citrus juice, and perhaps citrus rinds as well. Another type of shrub is a blend of spirits with vinegar made from fermented fruits. I haven’t found any shrub recipes from early South Carolina, so I’m not sure which to recommend for your next historical dinner party.

Now that we’ve covered the beverage vocabulary of our ancestors, there’s still a bit of important lingo required to order a drink in colonial Charleston. Whether you want to purchase a single drink or stock up for the entire family, you need to know some units of measure. It’s important to remember that drinks weren’t readily available in individual portions. All drinks, including potable or sweet water, were transported and sold in large wooden casks. To make it to your table, whether in your own home or at a tavern or public house, it had to be boulted. That is, one had to drain (and strain) some smaller quantity of liquid from a larger cask into a bottle of some sort. Early South Carolinians measured liquids in pints, quarts and gallons, just like we do. In fact, the unit of measure we call the gallon in the modern United States came to us from England in colonial times, but modern Britain no longer uses the same gallon. Our American gallon is actually the “wine gallon” standardized by English law in 1707. Britain switched to the modern “imperial gallon” in 1826, while we continue to use the old colonial measure.

In describing quantities larger than a gallon, our twenty-first-century vocabulary fails us. In early America, and even into the twentieth century, however, beverages were transported in large wooden casks with a variety of names to describe the graduated sizes. The basic unit of measure was the vat-sized “tun,” which holds 252 gallons. Beverages might be brewed in a tun, but that’s just too big for transport, so the contents were broken down for ease of shipment. A barrel is 1/8th of a tun, or 31 ½ gallons. A tierce is 1/6th of a tun, or 42 gallons. A hogshead is 1/4th of a tun, or 63 gallons. A puncheon is 1/3rd of a tun, or 84 gallons. A pipe or butt is half of a tun, or 126 gallons. You’ll find all of these terms used in the newspapers and other records of early South Carolina, so they’re important for understanding the economics of drinking and daily life of our forbears.

This arcane vocabulary is also helpful when studying Shakespeare. For example, in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, we learn that King Richard’s brother, George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence, was taken to the Tower of London and there “drown in a butt of malmsey.” Without a knowledge of these old units of measure, you wouldn’t understand that Clarence met his fate in a wooden cask holding 126 gallons of a sweet white wine from the Mediterranean.

Once a beverage has been boulted from the cask into a jar or bottle, it’s ready to be served at the table. And here we’ll need some further vocabulary before we can finally slake our time-traveling thirst. For example, one doesn’t order a glass of wine in colonial Charleston, but rather a bowl of wine. The bowl in question is not a big ceramic dish, of course; it’s the rounded part of the wine glass into which the wine is poured. A tankard is a pewter or silver drinking vessel with a hinged lid, which keeps the flies and no-see-ums out of your drink. A can is a like a tankard, but without a lid. A mug is, well, a mug. What about a bumper, as in “Last evening Barnard and the lads drank a bumper of the most excellent Tenerife.” Bumper is an old term that you’ll find used throughout colonial America, but I still haven’t been able to find a satisfactory definition of it. It’s probably synonymous with our term, “round,” because the drinking of bumpers was often associated with the giving of toasts.

The drinking of toasting was a very common practice in early Charleston, and in our early newspapers you’ll find the texts of hundreds of toasts given on various occasions, such as the king’s birthday, St. George’s Day, and of course, after the Revolution, on the 28th of June, the 4th of July, and Washington’s birthday. The most common of all toasts was “a health”; that is, a sincere wish for good health, which is, after all, a person’s greatest possession.

On that note, I’ll raise a parting glass to you, my invisible audience, and offer this humble toast:  A health to you and yours.  May the knowledge of our shared history bring you happiness in the present and strength for the future.  Sláinte!