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'Spirited Republic' Exhibit Explores America's History With Alcohol

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to talk next about our nation's founding drinkers. A new exhibit at the National Archives here in D.C. called Spirited Republic explores the relationship between Americans and alcohol. Think the booze receipt from Lewis and Clark's cross-country trek or F.D.R.'s cocktail shaker or the first edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. Throughout this year, the Archives will host a series of seminars digging into that history and it'll pour era-appropriate concoctions. Derek Brown is the exhibit's chief spirits advisor and he owns a number of bars here in D.C. and is this year's bartender of the year according to Imbibe magazine, and he's here in the studio.

Derek Brown, welcome to the program.

DEREK BROWN: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

CORNISH: So the seminars are going to begin actually with the period called the BC era - before the cocktail, right?

BROWN: That's right.

CORNISH: And I guess, I mean, when does our history of drinking start here in America?

BROWN: I'm an anthropology student and I love the vast human history, so when we talk about drinking and humanity, it really is a long conversation. But clearly, drinking in America starts when America starts, and in the colonial period right before it. But what we try to do is also link some of North American drinking and South American drinking as well, before the colonists, and show that there is really this amazing confluence of both Mesoamerican cultures and in some case, some Native American cultures, and settlers and colonists and how that created unique and interesting drinking rituals.

CORNISH: So not be too literal about it, but like, Columbus, I assume brought alcohol with him, right?

BROWN: Drinking was a huge part of sea voyaging and Christopher Columbus was no different. He brought an amazing amount of alcohol on his trip. And in fact, he brought the first wine to America, and that wine was sherry. One of the reasons why is because it's fortified. Other wines, let's say, chardonnays or cabernet sauvignons, both burgundy and Bordeaux, which were very famous and well-known wines back then, they wouldn't survive the sea voyage. It was too long and it was too treacherous. It's delicious. A lot of people think of sherry as sweet. Sherry ranges from very dry to extremely sweet. It's more realistic to call sherry a category of wines instead of one singular wine.

CORNISH: Now, I understand there was a popular drink with the early settlers, a kind of punch. Help us understand what that means, given our spectrum of alcohols today. What do we mean when we talk about colonial-era punch?

BROWN: Right. One of the funny things is, just like sherry has a great misunderstanding about it, punch does too because a lot of us have had it in large trash cans during college. And that is not exactly the kind of punch we're talking about. It was more likely that when you sat down to drink, it wasn't just about, you know, having your individualized cocktail. It was much more about communal drinking. So if two guys, three guys, four guys sat down to drink a punch, you had to finish it all, which might've given them the courage to overthrow the greatest superpower in the world.

CORNISH: (Laughter). Well, I hope you're not going to hold us to that rule because I hear you actually brought some punch with you. Is that what's in this bottle in front of you?

BROWN: Yeah, that's right. So this one is a drink created by Phil Clark for Mockingbird Hill - that's my sherry bar - closer to the sort of Mesoamerican drinks. So it involves chocolate, mace, agave products. He included sherry as well. So it's sort of a tribute to these ancient drinks.

CORNISH: And we should describe this for people. It's in this glass bottle that's sort of square-shaped, right? Am I looking at the right one?

BROWN: That's right.

CORNISH: And it's brown, kind of like, cappuccino-colored. And it does have a kind of foam on top.

BROWN: The foam is essential in Mayan culture. They would pour it from this really high height to get an extra layer of foam on it.

So one of the things you might notice about this drink is that its room temperature. Early cocktails were also room temperature, and in fact, most drinks prior to refrigeration and widespread use of ice were also room temperature.

This is a little cayenne that I'm putting on top.

CORNISH: Cayenne pepper. OK.

BROWN: I wonder if I put too much on. You'll have to tell me.

CORNISH: (Laughter) I think we're about to find out.

BROWN: (Laughter). Well, I'll take the one I put more on.

CORNISH: OK. Oh, it smells a little like - in Jamaica, there's a kind of Christmas cake and it's a little rummy...

BROWN: Oh, yeah?

CORNISH: ...And fruit, and this smells like that.

BROWN: That makes perfect sense. It's the mace in it.

CORNISH: Oh, it's mace, OK.

It's good.

BROWN: It's good, right?

CORNISH: Yeah, but it is - it's very rich.

BROWN: Right. And this is maybe not something that you can imagine drinking poolside, but it is definitely...

CORNISH: No. Fireside, maybe.

BROWN: ...Yeah, exactly. But it's definitely a trip into the past.

CORNISH: Now, you know, George Washington distilled whiskey, Samuel Adams was a brewer. Were any of these founding fathers teetotalers?

BROWN: You know what? I don't really know which ones were teetotalers. I just know the drinkers. And most of our most popular and recognized founding fathers are, in fact, founding drinkers as well. But it's interesting, drunkenness was not something that was OK in colonial times. You could drink all day, but you were not to get drunk. In the exhibit, the Spirited Republic, when you first walk in, there's this incredible chart and it's done by large jugs of how much pure alcohol Americans drank over time. And the first thing you notice is where it begins there is an entire column of gallons. It's 7.1 gallons, in fact.

CORNISH: So the average American drank 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol a year?

BROWN: That's correct.

CORNISH: And this was during what time? This was early settlers' time?

BROWN: Yeah, this was from the 18th century to the 19th century. Keep it in mind that beer has between five - and some high-gravity beers have 10 percent alcohol, so that's a lot.

CORNISH: Just for a little context, were Americans drinking that because they didn't have access to clean water?

BROWN: Yeah, that's part of it, is that there are many reasons why Americans drank and continue to drink. But one of the most important aspects of it is definitely that water was unsafe to drink.

CORNISH: Do you have any drinks from this period, this before the cocktail period, or early settlers period, that surprised you?

BROWN: Yeah, and this relates to the colonial period specifically. There was a drink called the syllabub. Today when you say syllabub, if you do know what it is, you probably think of it as a dessert. It's a combination of whipped cream wine, and in some cases, they would flavor the whipped cream with fruits or even rosemary. And so it's a pretty unusual drink, and me and some of the people that work with me started to play around with it and try to create one that was era-specific. And we found it was really cool and interesting that it had that foamy top to it, that it had a very complex flavor to it. It could be sweet, for sure. And I can see how it ended up becoming more of a dessert than a drink. But that was a fascinating drink. And you saw the complexity that they would put into early drinks. Like, we tend to think of today the mixologist as somebody who is inventing new drinks. But really, we're borrowing from our past. Alcohol and humanity is really a conversation that's been happening for thousands and thousands of years.

CORNISH: Well, Derek Brown, thank you for bringing in a drink from the exhibit.

BROWN: My pleasure. I'm glad to be here.

CORNISH: Derek Brown, noted bartender and chief spirits advisor to the exhibit Spirited Republic at the National Archives. And I guess I should say cheers.

BROWN: Cheers.

CORNISH: All right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.