American Spirits: Mike Rowe Pours a Shot of Alcoholic Economic History

SaloonThere are lots of ways to tell the story of America's history; unfortunately, most of them are boring. So when Mike Rowe, host of The Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs and the son of a history teacher, decided to try his hand at telling the tale, the first rule was that his version had to be compelling. His solution? He told the story through the lens of America's love/hate relationship with alcohol.

In his new program, How Booze Built America, Rowe mixes little-known history with economic analysis, puns, and a healthy serving of fermented spirits to explain how the American story is really the tale of one nation's love affair with alcohol. "I'm no James Burke," he admits, referring to the classic BBC history program Connections. "But I wanted to show how history can be cool."

To give a glimpse of the story, here are a few of Rowe's favorite high points from our fermented past:

How Booze Made America
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American Spirits: Mike Rowe Pours a Shot of Alcoholic Economic History

History records that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, but what it sometimes neglects to mention is that they had planned on going further south. The trouble was, they thought they were out of beer (actually, the sailors were hoarding it). Since water was often unsanitary in those days, beer was a staple at the Pilgrims' tables, and a lack of beer meant that the Mayflower's voyage was over. The Pilgrims made landfall, found a nice, safe place to brew more beer, and eventually decided to stay where they were. The rest is history.

Pilgrims are usually associated with churches and meetinghouses, but one of the first things they built was a network of taverns. As they spread out across the Massachusetts colonies, they followed the lead of the ancient Romans, constructing a series of inns that were spaced roughly the average distance that a guy could travel in a day with a cart. Water resources were rare and often unsanitary, and food was sometimes scarce, so these inns and taverns became important refilling stops for travelers -- places where they could stop for a cool, filling glass of beer. Beer was a major part of the Pilgrim diet: They drank four times the amount of beer that today's average drinker consumes.

The tavern wasn't only about thirst and nutrition; it was also the heart of the community. People from every social level would gather there for town hall meetings, religious services, informal discussions ... and, of course, to drink. The tavern was one of the few places where the lowliest farmer could share his miseries with the town mayor -- and the town mayor could campaign for the sharecropper's vote.

Not surprisingly, taverns were also key stops on the ride of Paul Revere. As Minutemen massed in their local inns and taverns, preparing for what would become the battle of Lexington and Concord, Revere came by to announce that the British were coming. And, as Revere later recorded in a letter, riding through the night can be thirsty business: While announcing the arrival of the British, he visited at least two taverns.

But even before Paul Revere made his famous beer run, alcohol was already a big part of the Revolution. In 1733, Britain tried to get its fingers in the triangle trade by levying a tax on molasses. Since molasses was used to make rum -- a keystone of Colonial life -- the new law touched almost every segment of society, from rum producers to rum consumers, taverns to teamsters.

Of course, many Colonists smuggled molasses into Boston. But the Molasses Act -- and the later Sugar Act -- were a big part of the anger and frustration that led to Boston's famous Tea Party in 1773. And rum continued to play a part in the young country; years later, after the War of 1812, America even used a British drinking song -- "To Anacreon in Heaven" -- as the tune for its new anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."

Not long after the United States was created, it faced one of its first domestic tests -- and booze was at the heart of it. In 1791, America was mired in war debt, so President Washington levied a tax on whiskey to help repay the country's creditors. Unfortunately, corn whiskey was much more valuable than raw corn, so many farmers focused their production on booze, rather than grain. In fact, some laborers were even paid in whiskey.

When Washington's tax hit whiskey producers in Pennsylvania, they rebelled, attacking the home of tax inspector General John Neville. Washington raised a militia to fight the protesters; luckily, they never came into direct conflict. But rather than pay the tax, many corn growers moved west to Kentucky and Tennessee, driving forward America's early westward expansion, and creating a rich Appalachian distilling culture that lives on to this day.

Not all pioneers stopped at the Appalachians. By the early 1800's, beaver skin hats were the style in Europe, and North American trappers had spread across the continent, where they worked hard to feed the European appetite for fur. Unfortunately, paper money was unwieldy, so when John Jacob Astor's company set out to trade with trappers, its carriages were loaded with booze.

Ultimately, the role of booze in the Western expansion increased, leading to another alcohol-based social center: the saloon, which become one of the first buildings that every settler's town built. For later lawmen like Judge Roy Bean, it was a courtroom. And for anybody who harkened back to the old Puritan taverns, it was another version of the classic American meeting place.

Booze was a central part of America's war with itself. Slavery, after all, was not just a part of the South's agricultural economy -- it was also part of the triangle trade that brought molasses to Massachusetts. In the White House, alcohol didn't show up on Abraham Lincoln's table -- he was a teetotaler -- but it played a big part in the events that brought him to the presidency. Lincoln's father had worked at a farm in Knob Creek, Kentucky, near a creek that fed what later became the Knob Creek bourbon distillery. As for Lincoln himself, he owned several stores that sold liquor.

Lincoln's ability to straddle the fence on alcohol came in handy when it came time for him to deal with his generals. When some of Ulysses Grant's critics claimed that the general was an alcoholic, Lincoln supposedly told them "By the way, gentlemen, can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey ? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it!" As a side note, General Grant's preferred brand was, allegedly, Old Crow.


Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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