When the Water is so Bad, You Drink Booze

Despite health professionals telling you to drink 72 oz of water a day, those who settled in early Chuck Town would have died following such advice. Mostly due to the fact that everyone lived on the coast, boarded by salty water and brackish rivers.

Fun Fact: if you dig a well in these low lying lands, you’re going to get sandy water (my favorite) with a lovely sulfur smell and taste. Despite all this, most everyone had a well – and this beautifully brackish water is used for cooking (nope), cleaning, fire-fighting, and industry.

Various records left by early Charleston Colonists tell us that, in general, the water was bad. It tasted bad, smelled bad, looked bad, felt bad, and was bad for you. And thus, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and other water born diseases ran rampant with diarrhea being the common cause of death. Drink the water = die by shitting your brains out.

SO the solution – ALCOHOL. Drink a beverage made with boiled water, water mixed with alcohol, or skip the water entirely and just straight up drink booze. But not to worry recovering alcoholics, there were some non-alcoholic beverages as well. Apparently everyone had a cow, and thus had milk. But in the spirit of Charles Town’s excessive booze drinking, they usually mixed milk with wine (that’s gross) or stronger spirits. Unless my milk is being mixed with Kahlua or Baily’s I don’t want anything else in my milk.

Wine Voting with Tea Candles

Of course regular tea was also available here, (because what would the British be without their tea?) imported from China by Dutch and English companies (probably from the East India Trading Company) and then re-exported to the American colonies with a significant price mark-up (this eventually accumulates into the Boston Tea Party where they shove a shit ton of tea into the Boston Harbor). 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 (where would we be without 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.

Somehow, Charlestonians also had fruit juice. But since the shelf life of such a thing without a refrigerator is incredibly short, they ended up barreling it (mostly apples and oranges) and storing it and then – you guess it – they ferment it (because everything eventually makes its way to alcohol) or mix it 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. Because when you’re already dying of dysentery you might as well speed it up with a dangerously potent spirit. So we’re going to go up the ABV ladder. ABV is alcohol by volume  FYI in case you didn’t know.

So the smallest of small beer aka table beer. Probably like the table wine they have on tables in French restaurants that’s their crappy cheap wine, but is still better than anything you’d be able to pick out in a wine store. Never heard of it? Neither have I. So small beer is an old-fashioned English term for low-alcohol beer. This is the beverage that you’d apparently sip before going to school in the morning, or with your mid-day dinner. It has enough alcohol content to kill the things in your water that want to kill you, but not enough to give you much of a buzz so I’m not sure what the point of it was. Especially if you’re drinking this thing before going off to high school. It was once SUPER COMMON, but since drinking in the morning is frowned upon and you get called an alcoholic when doing so, unless you’re at brunch with mimosas, it died out.

So I’m just going to direct quote this since the writer did a good job of it. Here we go: 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.

There are the best nicknames for beer in Charleston. These are the “oil of stingo”, also known as “John Barleycorn.” Another fun fact involving old English words, is shandy. This is the modern resurrection of an old 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 up the ladder to WINE. Which kinda speaks for itself really. In the early days of Charleston there was a very high hope that the fertile climate would yield a MASSIVE amount of grapes that would then be sacrificed in the name of making wine. Despite the best efforts of everyone (and I’m sure they tried really, really hard), it turns out Charleston sucks for growing grapes. Its too hot and humid in the summer and too cold in the winter. Thus wine was imported from Europe. 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). Because how are you going to spell this word without sounding it out completely wrong.

And up the next step. The most common spirit available in the Carolina’s. RUM. Rum is distilled from the juice of sugar cane plants. This is why dark, spiced rum is so fricken good.

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. Sounds like a great relationship if you ask me.

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. Which is awesome because I love me some Gin. Also, the Jasper’s Gin that the Charleston Distillery company makes is AMAZING. I highly recommend you guys do the tour (they give you like 12 shots of their alcohol so don’t drive after doing it) and it is so much fun. Learned a lot about vodka and gin and bourbon and other liquor crap. SO gin eventually gets known as the scourge of English society in the early 1700s. Because we weren’t paying a ridiculous price for taxed imported gin. Also for some reason around this time the concept of alcoholism first appeared in our society. Gotta love that drinking was so bad in Charleston we had to come up with a new name for it.

And then there is the completely obscure drink called Arrack. From what the writer of this article can tell us of this drink, 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 as it’s kind of a stretch that a drink from southeast Asia would find its way to colonial South Carolina, but the Dutch East India company imported exotic things like Chinese export porcelain so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. And also people find a way to ferment literally anything so I’m sure that anything food based that every made its way through the Charleston harbor was eventually turned into an alcoholic beverage.

So I’m going to read this word for word because it’s so fricken funny. The author of this article we got the information for early Charleston drinks discovered this really strange word in Chuck Town’s early newspaper and I am forever going to use this word when I order this spirit at bars. So here’s the article section: 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.

I need me some Wis-ka-ba. I’m totally going to own this word since I’m like 98% Irish.

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. BOURBON. But that’s Kentucky and this isn’t a podcast about Kentucky so we’re not going to go into it.

There is another distilled drink, but there really isn’t any information on it besides the fact that it is distilled from rice. This may sound like an actual, real drink BECAUSE IT IS. Japan is way head of our sorry attempt at distilling rice, calling it Sake and Shochu. However as far as I know, our home-grown rice spirit never got an English name.

Hunting and Drinking

Not everyone in early South Carolina was drinking straight liquors, of course. There was probably like 5 of these individuals back then.  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. Jungle Juice for us college folks, also known as ‘what the hell is in our fridge that we can mix vodka with.’

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, medicine go dooowwn, medicine go down. Ok- I’m going to stop now.

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, because all medical issues back then were solved with booze, 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.

Once again straight form the article because I couldn’t figure out how else to write this: 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 describing quantities larger than a gallon, we don’t have any. But since they drank so much our Chuck Town settlers had some words. 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.

So now to the REALLY fun part – if you want to experience what drinks were like back then we’ve got a list for you. Try these things at your own risk.

First drink: Syllabub. It is fresh milk or cream mixed with sugar and wine. To be perfectly honest we have no idea what type of wine so try between white and red and let us know.

Second drink: Salop or Saloop. This is milk, sugar, wine and flour made from ground orchid tubers.

So we do not recommend you trying this drink since it may invoke many health problems: this drink is Spruce Beer. It is made by boiling the essence out of the needles of young, green cones of spruce trees. This was how most medicines were made back then, by boiling the bark of certain trees, such as South American Cinchona Tree. That particular concoction was called Jesuit’s bark, or Peruvian bark, and was used mostly to treat fevers.

You probably remember (or don’t whatever) from the first episode the infamous Madeira wine. Yes, you can actually buy Madeira Charleston Wine in your nearest Total Wine Store (I looked it up and raced my ass over to the store after work to buy this thing). I wandered around the wine section of the store for fricken ever until I asked someone where the heck this thing was and he informed me that it’s in the liquor section because it’s almost 20% ABV. So don’t drink this bottle by yourself in an attempt to get over your latest breakup. Whether that breakup involves significant others, or the end of your favorite Netflix show – Just. Don’t. Do. It.  

–           Dragoon’s Punch: Charleston was the home of the “Light Dragoons,” a pseudo-military society of carousing gentlemen in the late 1700’s who really knew how to throw a party. This punch WAS in fact the party – it serves about 50! It is also known as “the iron fist in the velvet glove.” The below is the old recipe and this is the Husk’s recipe (which you can get at the Bar at Husk: Combine sugar, lemon juice, tea, brandy, rum, peach brandy, and lemon peels in a large bowl. Stir until sugar is dissolved and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

o    4 quarts of black tea (use the Charleston Plantation Tea)

o    4 cups sugar

o    1 quart and one cup lemon juice

o    1 quart dark rum (Jamaican)

o    4 quarts California Brandy (any non-gourmet brandy)

o    ½ pint peach (or apricot) brandy

o    Equal parts Club soda


o    Make the black tea/lemon juice mixture, stirring in sugar when hot. Add the alcohol. Set aside or bottle for later use.

o    In a punch bowl place blocks of ice and garnishes of lemon and orange peels. Pour in equal parts of the tea-brandy-rum mixture with club soda.

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