Tapping into the History of Alcohol in the Old Dominion

The Virginia Historical Society History on Tap Program brings history into the present by recreating alcohol recipes from the past.


Drinking in Colonial Virginia 

Virginia has a long list of historic connections to alcohol. Jamestown had the first brewery in the American colonies, and the first cookbook published in the American Colonies, The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, was reprinted in 1742 in Williamsburg, Virginia, by William Parks. Written by Eliza Smith and originally published in England in 1727, this book contained recipes for food (including the first recipes for ketchup and bread pudding), medicine, and alcohol. In 1777, Virginian Mary Randolph published The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook, which was the first American cookbook and the first regional American cookbook that featured alcohol recipes.


Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook

The idea that recipe books feature alcohol recipes made sense in colonial America. Drinking in Colonial America in 1790 was part of everyday life. On average, individuals over age 15 were drinking 34 gallons of beer and cider, 5 gallons of spirits, and 1 gallon of wine per year. This may seem large compared to our modern society’s views of alcohol consumption, but in 18th-century Virginia, water was not as clean as it is today, so alcohol posed a safer alternative because alcohol was boiled first. Another interesting fact about drinking in colonial America is that women were the main producers of alcohol. Sarah Meacham, author of Every Home a DistilleryAlcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake, finds that the distillation and brewing of alcohol in colonial American society traditionally fell to women and that women were the main producers of alcohol until the middle of the 18th century.

The Founding Fathers also embraced drinking alcohol and the making of it in their homes. George Washington had a distillery and brewery. Thomas Jefferson tested viticulture and wine making and had his own brewing operation, which was operated by his slave, Peter Hemings.

Bringing History into the Present with Recipes from the Virginia Historical Society Archives

These connections between Virginia and the history of alcohol convinced staff at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) to create a program called “History on Tap.” We select an alcohol recipe from the VHS collection and partner with a brewery, cidery, or meadery to reproduce the beverage. The History on Tap program has been a great way to show that we have diverse collections and that they are accessible to the public. Instead of a scholar researching an 18th-century manuscript to cite in a book, a brewer or cider-maker is researching an 18th-century recipe to recreate a tasty beverage. We successfully created four collaborations with different partners over the past two years. The following is a recap of some of these historical collaborations.


Jane’s Percimon Beer

Mashing persimmons. Image via Instagram/artdentcraftales.

Persimmons were abundant in the colonial South and found their way into breads and desserts and even alcohol. There are two types of persimmon beer: persimmon Beer using fresh persimmons and persimmon beer using persimmon cakes. We identified a “Fresh Persimmon” beer recipe from Jane Randolph Walkes’s cookbook, which she kept with her mother and other family members. The cookbook included medicinal, food, and alcohol recipes. We took a copy of the recipe to Ardent Craft Ales, and their brewers agreed to reproduce the recipe. They picked 17 pounds of persimmons, mashed them into a pulp that was then boiled, added English hops to the batch, cooled it, and added yeast. About a week later the persimmon concoction had turned into a light peach colored 3% alcoholic beverage, which would have been perfect for drinking throughout the day in the heat of Virginia. It had a slight citrus taste from the hops. We had an exclusive tasting event for this 3.5-gallon batch of history that featured a discussion about Richmond’s beer history by Lee Graves, author of Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City.


The Compleat Cyder

Recipe page from The Compleat Housewife

Cider was a major part of colonial American society and women were the main cider makers, brewers, and distillers. The Compleat Housewife recipe was unique because it included raisins. Blue Bee Cider owner Courtney Mailey had never used raisins in cider, and she believed that they were used more to add nutrients and sugars for the yeast rather than to add flavor. She pressed Albermarle Pippin apples, added nine pounds of raisins to the apple juice, and fermented the liquid in a brandy barrel. After adding yeast, she let the liquid ferment into cider. The resulting product was a 7% dry colonial cider recreation. We had another exclusive tasting event that featured Sarah Meacham, author of Every Home a Distillery, and she spoke about the importance of women as cider makers, brewers, and distillers in colonial America.


The Queen Bee

“Queen Bee” History On Tap event
Meade wine recipe page

We were looking for another beverage to recreate, so we turned to mead, which is fermented honey. Mead recipes were listed throughout these cookbooks, so we took a copy of a mead recipe from a rare copy of the Frugal Housewife Or, Complete Woman Cook to Black Heath MeaderyThe Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter was printed in Philadelphia in 1802 and includes 500 recipes for a variety of food and beverages.  The mead recipe featured several spices from the English colonies, including mace, sweetbriar, thyme, ginger, and cloves. This type of mead metheglin (spiced mead) was said to be a favorite of Queen Victoria, so we named it The Queen Bee. Bill Cavender, the mead maker at Black Heath Meadery, fermented Virginia honey with the spices in a gin barrel, and the resulting beverage was a dry %7 abv spiced mead. We had an exclusive tasting at the VHS that featured a taste of the Queen Bee and a presentation from the State Apiarist, Keith Tignor.


Molasses Wheat Ale
Our fourth collaboration included a recipe from the first American cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. Published in 1777 by Virginian Mary Randolph, this book is still used by many regional chefs today. The Virginia Beer Company found Mary Randolph’s  Molasses Beer recipe to be particularly appealing, and they collaborated with VHS and Frank Clark (of Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways) to reproduce this colonial beverage. Colonists used molasses as a fermentable in many cases because some of beers traditional ingredients were difficult to find. Virginia Beer Co. and Frank Clark brewed this molasses beer with wheat and molasses and let it ferment in a Copper Fox whiskey barrel. The resulting product was a 5% colonial beer with a hint of smoke from the barrel and sweetness from the molasses. We had a tasting event at the Virginia Beer Co. that featured a presentation by Frank Clark on colonial brewing methods and the history of molasses beer and, of course, we all enjoyed a taste of history.

Molasses beer recipe and glass from Virginia Beer Co.


As you can see, Virginia has a rich alcohol history, and many brewers, cider makers, and mead makers are looking back to our nation’s brewing and alcohol roots.  “History on tap” is just one way to bring our great culinary history into today’s society.

History on Tap with Ardent Craft Ales