THE HISTORY OF DRINKING ON BOATS
Before the age of widespread transcontinental sea voyages, seaborne vessels called triremes were one of the primary trade vehicles throughout the Mediterranean. These ships filled with rowers traversed inland seas carrying wine, beer, food, spices, and other goods. And we know this because numerous wrecks have been found containing amphorae – which are those tall clay vessels that greeks and romans loved to draw on.
Ironically, these ancient mariners had it easy compared to the galleons and frigates of the age of exploration because they could generally carry enough food and water to get them from port to port without having to worry about spoiling. Of course, this isn’t to say that ancient sailors didn’t drink on boats, but the two key things to keep in mind are: A.) they didn’t have to, and B.) they didn’t have access to distilled spirits. So in the ancient world, there really wasn’t a whole lot of cocktail cruising going on.
Obviously, this changed with the opening of trans-atlantic and global trade routes in the 15th through 19th centuries. During this several hundred year stretch of history, a lot of work was done in the proto-cocktail space.
The Rise of Punch
You just heard about Grog – initially the simplest of what we might call the great early boat cocktails. But as European influence spread to places like Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, another proto-cocktail became ascendant: punch.
Even though we haven’t given traditional punch its own podcast episode yet, we’ve talked about it a decent amount – so I won’t bore our regular listeners with repetitive stuff. Instead, here are a few key takeaways:
Punch is reportedly a derivative of the Sanskrit pañc – meaning “five.” This corresponds with the five ingredients in a classic punch: water, spirits, citrus, sugar, and spice.
If grog was primarily a utilitarian drink, punch was an epicurean one. In other words, flavor and balance were the keys to a good punch. Recipes cropped up during a 200 year span with ingredients from the four corners of the earth, and everyone had their favorite.
If you’re curious about what Punch has to do with boats – it’s all about access to ingredients. The reason why punch was such a popular drink during this time period is because all of the sudden, Europeans and people in the Americas had access to a profusion of new ingredients in the sugar, spice, and citrus category.
If you want to walk through that math backwards, you take punch, subtract sugar, spice, and citrus, and come out with grog. So the evidence is pretty compelling: as naval technology improved and trade proliferated, drinking on boats (and subsequently on land) got more interesting and complex – heading in the ultimate direction of the cocktail.
Now, let’s fast forward to the gilded age – the mid-late 19th century – contemporaneous with events like Jerry Thomas’s publication of the first bartending guide, the outbreak of the American Civil War, and the development of legendary pre-prohibition cocktails like the Martinez, Manhattan, and Martini.
At this point in time, boats probably don’t seem that important to drinking culture. Yes, they’re bringing a steady stream of immigrants to the United States from around the globe, and yes, Mark Twain is writing about paddle boats on the Mississippi, but besides that – our historical consciousness is pretty much landlocked, at least here in the U.S.
In this moment, I want to zoom in on one of San Francisco’s famous cocktails: the Pisco punch. Because the Panama Canal was still decades away when the city boomed during and after the gold rush, the good people of the Golden State were pretty much relegated to foreign ingredients that could be sourced from the Pacific. And this meant that they had a pretty much exclusive line on Pisco, the Bolivian and/or Peruvian brandy. And so, like New Orleans has the Sazerac, and Cuba has the Daiquri, San Francisco has an exclusive claim to the Pisco Punch.
I bring this up because even during times when it seems like all the cocktail action is taking place on dry land, maritime vessels and the resources they carry still have a massive impact on who’s drinking what.
Rum Runners and Prohibition
And perhaps no time in our drinking history underscores this point more effectively than Prohibition, when rum runners ruled the waves and the imagination. Now, obviously, rum deserve their own episode. They really do. But here are a few facts about how and why certain enterprising individuals became infamous and illegal importers of the strong stuff.
The first thing you should know is that early in the 20th century, 3 nautical miles offshore constituted international waters, so this was where a number of rum runners set up shop to avoid apprehension and prosecution.
The most famous of these rum runners was Bill McCoy – and if you’ve ever heard the term “The Real McCoy” – well, it refers to him. He smuggled rum from the Bahamas up to a zone called “rum row,” where it could be picked up by enterprising ships and float planes.
Bill’s reputation for quality spirits is what earned him his nickname – and to this day it indicates a genuine article – not a knock-off.
Our rum running hero is also partially responsible for the influx of quality European spirits into the U.S., when he pioneered the use of several small islands off the coast of Newfoundland as holding bases from which the whiskey, Champagne, and gin could be smuggled quickly into the U.S.
Needless to say, naval influence played a huge part in the history of the cocktail straight through Prohibition, but when commercial air travel boomed in the mid 20th century, ships and their captains and crew were no longer the stars of the show. They became just another cog in the capitalist machine that continues to move bottles and ingredients across the globe.