By Kevin R. Kosar
Whiskey, as any enlistee will tell you, is popular among America’s fighting forces. Military installations’ drinks shops (“Class 6” stores) are stocked with a galaxy of intoxicating drinks — beer, spirits, wines — but whiskey is especially popular. And it isn’t just any whiskey — it’s the American-made bourbons, ryes and Tennessee whiskeys that really move off the shelves.
Certainly, the popularity of whiskey among soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can be explained partly as a reflection of American taste in general. Americans purchased more than 30 million cases of American whiskey last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
But for military men and women, whiskey holds an additional appeal beyond its glorious amber color, robust flavor and mood-alleviating powers — it may even be more American than apple pie (which seems to have been invented in England). Whiskey has been with the America’s armed forces since the earliest days of the republic.
“[T]he liquor ration,” wrote historian Robert Hunt, “was an absolute necessity. No military commander of the 18th century would have thought of leading his troops on any mission without planning for this need.” This was an age-old practice in Europe. Drink lifted morale and suppressed fear, and alcohol was widely viewed as medicinal.
Indeed, medical experts had been recommending alcoholic beverages as a cure for mental and physical afflictions since the 15th century. Irish alchemist Richard Stanhurst (1547-1618) extolledwhiskey’s curative properties: “Beying moderatelie taken, it sloweth age; it strengtheneth youthe; it cutteth flueme; it abadoneth melancholie; it relisheth the harte; it lighteneth the mind; it quickeneth the spirites” He recommended it for curing dropsy, resolving kidney stones, intestinal gas cramps, and declared whiskey good for the circulatory system and bones. Alcoholic beverages were thought, often rightly, to be safer than the water available.
These beliefs about drink came with those Europeans who settled America. Whiskey initially was not the most popular drink of the day. Beer, hard apple cider and brandy were more commonly consumed. Rum, meanwhile, was king. There were 140 distilleries belching potent spirits made from molasses harvested in the Caribbean islands.
Come 1800, however, whiskey had ascended as the spirit of choice among troops and much of America. The rise of whiskey was due in great part to the fall of rum as the distilled spirit of choice. The Revolutionary War severely disrupted the importation of the molasses and the production of rum. Prices skyrocketed. Americans also began to disdain rum for being an English and “Olde World” spirit.
Whiskey production, meanwhile, was growing rapidly, and it was a native invention. Settlers had been drinking it since at least 1620, when Virginia farmer George Sloan wrote in a letter, “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drink good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that.” Old World whiskeys mostly were made from barley and wheat. American whiskeys were distilled from rye and corn, the latter of which was particularly abundant. Due to the glut of corn being harvested, whiskey often was fantastically cheap. A farm laborer could buy a gallon of it for a day’s pay….