Give thanks for the drinks of the inventors of Thanksgiving

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Among the many aspects of Thanksgiving history — our peculiar Usonian holiday — that we’ve collectively forgotten in the interest of socio-political and economic convenience, the prevalence of drink in the annual celebration remains something like an open secret dating back to the supposed inaugural event in 1621. 

The “pious Pilgrims-meet- friendly-Indians” fiction is absurd on a number of levels (see Page 22 for more on that), including that these godly goodmen and goodwomen were sober. Multiple sources — no less than the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones — are clear that the Puritans not only stowed away more beer than water on their evangelical voyage, but the ship landed at Plymouth, Mass. not by providence, but because it had been blown off course and likely wouldn’t sustain enough beer on board to serve the crew for its return voyage unless it put into port as quickly as possible.

At one point, Jones even faced a possible riot because he withheld beer rations from the passengers in order to save some for his sailors. Deciding to land in Massachusetts solved that problem; knowing that he could restock meant he could have a freer hand with the suds, appeasing both his clients and the thirsty Jack tars under his command, all of whom demanded at least a quart of beer per day.

Of course, it’s also forgotten that among the first actions of the Puritans at Plymouth was to build and put into operation a brewery. Along with their food crops, the hapless colonists also tried — and famously failed — to cultivate the necessary vegetable constituents needed to brew beer, thus had to starve not only for food but slake their thirst with, horror of horrors, water.

Historical records of the exact spread on the table in 1621 are speculative, though we know that alcoholic cider and beer were staple beverages of the period. 

Hard cider, despite its relatively recent reappearance in quantity on grocery shelves, is more rightly regarded as the original “American” tipple, being drunk in heroic amounts by man, woman and child throughout the entire early republic — that is, until whiskey took over in the 1820s-1830s, prompting an aged oenophile Thomas Jefferson (d. July 4, 1826, the same day as John Adams, who started each day with a full tankard of hard apple cider) to decry the “poison” of the spirituous liquor, which was rapidly turning his countrymen into raucous, sectional sots spoiling for a civil war even then.

Even Increase Mather, the otherwise humorless Massachusetts Puritan clergyman who helped oversee the Salem Witch Trials, had this to say about hooch: “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan. The wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”

What follows are three recipes for drinks that can be roughly correlated to the three eras of Thanksgiving: 1621, 1863 and 1939. Whatever you pour into your glass, we hope it’s to toast a season of thankfulness and (guarded) optimism for the future. We’ve all earned a hearty celebration for making it this far, all the while remembering what it took to get us here. 

Hot ale flip

Hot beer is anathema to the human spirit (pun intended). Warm beer in wartime has generated several monographs by historians — especially in the context of World War II — when GI’s were specifically warned upon enlistment that the beer they would receive while in theater would very likely be room temperature, at best, and in the Pacific, positively hot. This made for one of the most common grievances among soldiers; of course, other than dying.

Anyway, it seems highly irregular to think of any alcoholic concoction that includes beer above at least a minor chill. Yet, our so-called founders were quite fond of this proto-cocktail, consisting in broad strokes of beer, rum, molasses and eggs.

On its face, that sounds like an abomination. Yet, the flip is as American as apple pie — drawing on a combination of a few of our inherited national traits, that is, taking something we like all the time (beer), accelerating it (rum) and bizarrely suggesting “it’s good for you” (eggs). Kind of like patriotism.

There are a lot of “flips” in my Old Mr. Boston’s De Luxe Official Bartender’s Guide (publication date 1941), but this exact concoction doesn’t show up in its pages. I do, however, trust the website, where I found this recipe, which dates from 1690 — a bit past Plymouth Rock, but we’re working with “circa” here:

• 2 eggs, beaten, in a pitcher

• 2 oz. rum (I would double this)

• 1 tbs. molasses (or superfine sugar)

• Combine by beating

In a saucepan, heat 8-10 oz. brown ale (an amber or English Special Bitter would do, the latter perhaps by Red Hook, which I personally like) over low until it steams

Pour the warmed beer into the eggy rum 

Blend the mixture by pouring back and forth into separate vessels until fully combined (when frothy)

Shave some nutmeg on the head and serve.

Mr. Boston’s has the “Hot Brandy Flip,” which calls for 1 egg, 1 1/2 oz. brandy and 1 tsp. powdered sugar, beaten and poured into a mug, filled with hot milk and topped with grated nutmeg.


Americans have never been drunker than they were in the mid-19th century. There’s a damn good reason we had a temperance movement at the turn of the 20th century; we were simply a nation of dire drunks after the trauma of the Civil War. Not that the war itself made us turn to drink — that had been building since those early days of cider for breakfast and flips for lunch. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, by W.J. Rorabaugh, is essential reading to understand how the “American Experiment” is better described as “Drunk-Dialing History.”)

People in the newly reconstituted United States of America had long been accustomed to “toasts,” which were highly public events of highly public drunkenness, especially during times of giving thanks. As Rorabaugh writes, these occasions were essentially group binges, during which participants would slurp down enough booze to turn things, well, weird. People woke up in gutters, on sidewalks, in trees — you name it. Some died, some were killed. It was like a booze-fueled purge, except it happened all the time. 

Lincoln, of course, was not a habitual friend of “the creature.” Yet, as the consummate politician of American history, he understood both that his countrymen were by and large lushes and also that they needed to make friends after years of slaughter. Enter: Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer (some my know her as the pen behind “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) who from her position as editor-in-chief of Godey’s Lady Book, lobbied Lincoln into canonizing an official day of “thanks giving” to heal the divide in the country, specifically after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Shrewd operator that he was, Lincoln was into it, and issued a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863 that the last Thursday of November should be a day of Thanksgiving for delivering the union out of an apocalyptic war.

In keeping with the prickly nature of “state’s rights” during the period (nothing changes), individual communities could decide whether or not to observe the new holiday, but many did. Though the 19th century saw the birth of the cocktail as we know it today, the booze of choice during that time was good old fashioned whiskey. Americans love a holiday — especially when it gives them an opportunity to get blasted and not worry about going to work the next morning:

• 2 oz. whiskey (I suggest Old Forester, as it’s the oldest bottled-in-bond brand)

• Add 1/2 oz. water, if you feel like it

If you own or fly a Confederate battle flag and/or own and/or display a Gadsden flag in any way shape or form, substitute all above ingredients for toilet bowl water, then stick your head in the toilet bowl.

The FDR martini

Among the too-many-to-mention aspects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s three terms (albeit, tragically, partial) terms as president, are his repeal of Prohibition and establishment of Thanksgiving as we know it today, on the penultimate Thursday in November.

FDR, next to George Washington and Lincoln, are The Presidents of the United States. I have my thoughts about GW, but I’ll keep them to myself.

The reason you can hoist a drink anywhere outside your home (or bathtub, if you’re one of those mad home gin makers, which is still frowned upon. Seriously, you’ll go blind.), is because of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Regardless of his iconic status and historic administration, I argue one of his greatest achievements was making Thanksgiving “a thing.” Hitherto it was a local affair, contingent on whether folks had enough to celebrate and/or wanted to. Remember: When FDR took office this country was in the worst position it had been in since Honest Abe — a fact Frank D. was well aware of (read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time for more).

To unite the country, yet again, the Great Man not only made all booze legal, but made Thanksgiving a set day on the second Thursday of November, condemning all our dearly beloved retail, restaurant and otherwise service workers to hustle for our economy and convenience. Talk about job creation; FDR’s still making work 75 years after he died. That’s why some called the holiday “Franksgiving.” Here’s to him:

• 2 oz. gin

• 1 oz. dry vermouth

• A minor dollop (soupçon) of olive brine

• Lemon twist and 1 olive

• Stir with ice (sorry James Bond) and pour

Lore, which I take to be legit, says that Winston Churchill would visit his transatlantic partner on occasion and the two would toast well into the wee hours with the aforementioned martinis by the U.S. president and UK PM drinking “old brandy,” as he described this “essential” provision for day-to-day life. Yet Winston’s fave was Pol Roger champagne. He consumed a bottle with every lunch. (And another with dinner.) He was half American, on his mother’s side, so deserves a toast of thanks giving, too.

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