1/21/2021 0 Comments
On July 4th, 1776, the thirteen colonies had declared their independence from England. Fifteen years had passed since that day, and much had been done. The revolutionaries undertook and won their war for independence, the United States of America was created with the writing and ratification of the constitution, the first President, George Washington, had been elected and inaugurated, and Alexander Hamilton had been appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Now, in the spring of 1791, Hamilton saw his federal excise tax on distilled spirits passed by Congress. This “Whiskey Tax” as it came to be known, was the last step of a financial plan for the country that he had been doggedly working on and lobbying for, and it would be the first tax imposed on the people of the newly formed country. Hamilton and those who supported him saw the plan and its tax as being critical to the growth of the country both internally and internationally. Small farmers and distillers saw it as placing upon them an unfair burden that their businesses might not survive. The “Whiskey Rebellion” was born.
Whiskey had become the “spirit” of the new country. As the previously popular rum became harder to get during the revolution (largely due to oceanic trade being interrupted), buying local whiskey made from locally grown grains was not only cheaper (since it avoided the added on cost of import and transport), drinking it also came to be seen as a patriotic act. It was much easier to transport a couple of barrels of whiskey over long distances and through the Appalachian Mountain Range that covered the western part of the country than it was to transport the many bags of grain it took to make the whiskey. This made it the best way for farmers to move and sell their grain crops. People across the country had come not just to produce and buy whiskey for consumption, but also to depend on it as a commodity, essentially using it as currency. This was important, because in the more distant parts of the country there wasn’t a lot of money in existence, either in the form of the (basically collapsed) “continental” paper, or hard coins. By taxing spirit production, an encumbrance was being placed on a significant part of the economy of the frontier areas of the U.S.
One of the ideas inherent to Hamilton’s plan was that the powerful and the wealthy were the people most likely to help the country grow. Toward that end a goal of the tax was to shift alcohol production away from small business and toward industrialized distilleries (this was the goal for the economy in general). There were two separate standards for carrying out collection of the tax, one for more rural, hard to get to areas (small farmers and distillers) and one for more urban (industrialized) areas. Justified because they were harder to get to and therefore monitor, in the rural areas the tax was figured based on the potential production of a still over the course of a year. Whereas in the urban areas, where monitoring by tax men was easy, the actual output of the distillery was taxed. Since in actuality the small-time farmers and distillers only used their stills for at most a few months out of the year, they came no-where close to producing the amount of alcohol they were being taxed on. In effect, they were paying a much higher tax on their product than the big distilleries were. And if the taxes couldn’t be paid? Land, stills, and whiskey would be confiscated, in effect robbing them of their livelihood and some of their freedom by forcing them to then go work for other people, or even to work in industrialized distilleries and other factories in order to survive. It was not just paying the tax that the people were resisting, it was this perceived unfairness and fear of loss of freedom, among other complexities, that they were standing up against.
The Rebellion started in Pitt County, Pennsylvania, near where the city of Pittsburgh was forming. This was then the heart of American whiskey production; it was also part of the western frontier. Along with the western sides of New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, it was being carved out of the woods (and away from the native peoples) to make room for the farms and towns of the growing country. It was in this far off part of the U.S. that those who were subject to the new tax began their protest through political action, tax dodging, and outright refusal to pay. When these peaceful methods of protest resulted in little change; violence broke out and spread across the region and into Virginia.
The angry farmers and distillers would gather, sometimes without but often with faces blackened or otherwise painted, wearing costumes such as women’s dresses and bonnets, or the breeches and feathers of native raiding parties. In such odd and frightening attire, they kidnapped and then tarred and feathered men who were trying to gather the new tax and even neighbors who were complying with it. They broke into and trashed homes where tax offices were located. Their violence and intimidation continued over the course of three years. Their numbers grew to include not just farmers and distillers but also people who owned no land or stills but had been suffering economically during what was the country’s first recession. They effectively took over their local militias and governance, terrorizing anyone who wasn’t with them. The rebellion came to a climax in the Autumn of 1794, when groups as large as 7,000 rebels were meeting and threatening to march on and loot Pittsburgh, to attack local Fort Fayette, and to declare themselves independent of the federal government. At Secretary Hamilton’s urging, President Washington led 13,000 troops through the mountains and into the Pittsburgh area to squash these large gatherings of protesters. This was the first time the U.S. deployed a sizable federalized military force; it was also the first time the United States used the military against its own citizens. The rebels were vastly outnumbered and so they ran. Leaders of the rebellion, frightened for their safety, disappeared into the wild west and Spanish south. Many more of the rebels went into hiding in the mountains. A few were captured, and of those most were acquitted. The two who were sentenced to hang were pardoned. The rebel’s fight was over, the whiskey tax was still in place.
What would our rebels have been drinking? The whiskey they made of course! Something as bold and high octane as they themselves were, Monongahela Rye. The regional style had picked up the name from the valley it was made in and the river whose water was often used to produce it. It was distinctive rye whiskey, different from those we’re used to today. Famous for being deep red in color, high in alcohol, and full of rich flavor, it was made using mostly rye grain, with some malted barley. It was distilled using a three column still, a style that is no longer in use today. It would have been common practice to mix that rye into a punch, the extremely popular precursor to the modern American Cocktail that would become all the rage in the following century. It’s reasonable to assume, in fact, that many bowls of rye punch were drained during early American celebrations of the Fourth of July.
American Whiskey Punch
(Recipe taken from “Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl” by David Wondrich.)
Making a good punch often requires just a bit of advanced work.
Ice: It’s ideal to have one big piece of ice. This can be accomplished by freezing water in a Tupperware container that fits inside your punch bowl.
Oleo-Saccharum: This is sugar that is aromatic with citrus oil and is the key to making this punch. To make it mix the peels of two lemons in 1 cup of sugar and let sit for an hour.
In your punch bowl mix the following:
All 8 oz of the oleo-saccharum
6 oz of lemon juice
1 cup of water
stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add:
12 oz of rye whiskey. The higher the proof and the higher the rye content the better.
3 cups of water
stir it all together then carefully add your big block of ice.
Serve your friends and yourself and raise a toast to the U.S.A. on its birthday. Have a great Independence Day!
Please drink and celebrate responsibly.
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