Colonial History of Craft “Cocktails”


If you remember your American history classes or have ever been on a guided tour of Boston, you probably know that the tavern was central to colonial culture. Selling alcohol may have been a tavern’s primary function, but it also served as a hub of daily life. Business was conducted there, news was disseminated and politics discussed, and taverns occasionally served as makeshift courtrooms. They also provided lodging for travelers and stabling for their horses.

Perhaps most famously, taverns are where budding revolutionaries met to commiserate about the pressures of British rule and formulate plans for change. It’s fascinating to think about Paul Revere, John Hancock, and their cohorts huddled around a candlelit table plotting against their oppressors.

But what many history books tend to overlook is the fact that these daring plans were being hatched in a bar – and their architects may well have been a little buzzed at the time.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you’re having drinks with Brooke Barbier. Brooke is the owner of Ye Olde Tavern Tours, which takes guests on a walking tour of Boston oldest taverns and historic sites. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more qualified guide – Brooke earned a PhD in American history from Boston College, has a passion for colonial tavern culture, and enjoys a good beer.

Brooke has a particular interest in the role that alcohol played in fomenting revolution. I mean, think about it: doesn’t sneaking onto a British ship in the middle of the night, cloaked in Native American garb, and dumping chests of tea into Boston Harbor sound like the kind of harebrained scheme someone might come up with after downing a few rum drinks? And that’s to say nothing of the “liquid courage” that might have fueled such a raid.

A couple of weeks back, Brooke teamed up with Mike Boughton, corporate beverage director for Boston Nightlife Ventures (Wink & Nod, Tap Trailhouse), for a double shot of historical education.

A dozen or so guests congregated at the Tap Trailhouse to hear Brooke talk about colonial tavern life while Mike gave a lesson in making colonial cocktails. One doesn’t tend to associate “cocktails” with the colonists; the term itself didn’t even come into vogue until the early 19th century. But our forefathers were drinking more than just beer, cider, and rum. And under Mike’s guidance, contemporary versions of colonial-era mixed drinks have come to highlight the Tap Trailhouse’s beverage program.

As Brooke passed around sketches of now-vanished taverns like the Green Dragon (the original one) and the Bunch of Grapes, we sipped glasses of Mary Washington’s Shrub. In the days before refrigeration, making a shrub was a good way to preserve fruit. Sugar was used to extract syrup from fresh fruit, which was later mixed with vinegar or a spirit.

Despite being named for the mother of the first American president, there’s no real evidence that Mary ever made this fruity libation (plus, the recipe predates her by a century or so). But since it’s adapted from a handwritten cookbook that she inherited from her first mother in law, George’s mom gets the credit. Made with cognac, white wine, water, and lemon zest, the shrub sits for 24 hours before being strained. The final product is almost sangria-like, and it made for good sipping while Brooke described the bar culture of our forebears.

The shrub had been prepared in advance, but after that, it was time to start mixing our own drinks. I’ve attended to some pretty passive cocktail-making classes, but this was a true lesson focused on building a proper cocktail and honing techniques.

First up was a punch. Dating back to 1732, the Fish House Punch is one of the oldest punch recipes on record. Its name derives from an exclusive gentlemen’s club colloquially known as the “Fish House” on account of its members’ proclivity for the rod and reel. They were into drinking, too, and the Fish House Punch came to be the house drink. The Tap Trailhouse’s version of this nearly three-century-old recipe follows:

  • 1.5 oz Goslings Black Seal Rum
  • 0.5 oz cognac
  • 0.5 oz peach liqueur
  • 0.5 oz lemon juice
  • 0.5 oz lime juice
  • 0.25 oz simple syrup
  • 1 nutmeg (for grating)

Shake it all up, except for the nutmeg; strain into a double rocks glass over one large ice cube; garnish with grated nutmeg (and if you don’t own a microplane grater, you should get one; it’s life-changing).

To paraphrase my tablemate Rebecca, the Fish House Punch is almost a tiki-like drink, owing to the rum, citrus, and spice. The peach flavor is prominent, further giving it a somewhat breezy feel.

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Next up was a more recognizable classic. The Grog was first enjoyed in 1740 by the British navy, whose crewmembers received a generous daily ration of rum. So generous, in fact, that captains eventually thought it wise to tone things down a bit by adding water. Of course, rum and water weren’t very exciting in combination, but lemon or lime juice contributed a little flavor, as did sugar. The result? A seaworthy cocktail, primitive but palatable, and even healthy – the citrus helped ward off scurvy. Not constrained by the finite resources of an 18th century naval vessel, Mike manages to dress this one up a bit.

  • 1.5 oz Privateer silver rum
  • 0.75 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 0.75 oz cinnamon syrup
  • 4 oz strong black tea
  • 1 slice lemon

Shake the rum, lemon, and cinnamon syrup with ice; strain over fresh ice in tall glass; top with tea; garnish with the lemon slice.

Far more satisfying than what British sailors were guzzling, this is an exceptional cocktail. The combination of cinnamon and tea gives the Flip an unexpected nutty flavor, and the result is a cocktail that drink that offers complexity while honoring its humble roots.

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Ordering a Flip back in 17th century Boston would have been a riveting if somewhat unsanitary affair. This combination of ale, rum, molasses, and eggs was traditionally mixed in a pitcher and heated over an open flame, all a prelude to the grand finale – the plunging of a red-hot poker into the mix, causing the contents to froth over. Mike wasn’t letting us anywhere near a flaming tool (and I don’t think there’s a fireplace at Tap Trailhouse, so the point is probably moot), but he did walk us through an updated version of this fortifying drink.

  • 1.5 oz Bully Boy white rum
  • 0.75 oz molasses syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 whole egg
  • 6 oz brown or porter ale
  • 1 nutmeg (for grating)

Add the beer to a large mug or – even better – a serious metal tankard; combine the rum, molasses, bitters, and egg in a shaker and shake without ice for about 30 seconds (the egg should be frothy, even without the benefit of a red-hot poker); pour it over the beer and garnish with grated nutmeg.

This drink originated across the Pond but seems tailor-made for a winter’s night in New England. Sweet but robust, it’s a fortifying drink with a creamy texture and a touch of spice.

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I’ve always been enthralled by colonial tavern culture, and having grown up in Massachusetts, I’ve learned plenty about it over the years. But I’ve never heard tavern life described in such remarkable detail as I did on this particular evening. Brooke’s knowledge is exhaustive, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Her descriptions of Boston’s early taverns are vivid and tangible, from the type of food that they served to the experience of spending the night in one (spoiler alert: it wasn’t exactly the Ritz). I’ve never been on her tour, but it strikes me as the rare “touristy thing” that would have genuine appeal for locals as well.

The cocktails are pretty easy to make, especially when Mike lays out all the tools and ingredients for you, patiently walks you through every step in the process, and tidies up after you’re done. But if you want to summon your inner colonist, the recipes above should help.

Watch for a full write-up on the Tap Trailhouse in this space within the next month or so. If you’re interested in taking a tavern tour with Brooke, click here.

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