Writer Rich Grant went drinking with George Washington. Well, sort of. Enjoy Rich’s two-part series about the thrills of drinking where George Washington drank, just in time for Presidents Day.
George Washington liked to drink. And dance. His wife Martha was no dancer, but George loved to dance and could go for three hours without a break. He also liked the company of ladies. A woman meeting him during the Revolution wrote, when “General Washington throws off the hero and takes on the chatty, agreeable companion, he can be downright impudent sometimes – such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like.”
And George did like to drink, frequently doing as many as 13 toasts to honor the 13 colonies. His favorite drink was Madeira wine, a thick sweet fortified wine popular at the time coming from the Portuguese island of Madeira. But he also drank rum, beer, hard cider, punch, champagne, brandy and whiskey. In fact, he made barrels of beer and hard cider at his plantation Mount Vernon and in 1799, he was the largest distiller of whiskey in the United States. Three of his dogs were called Tipsy, Tippler and Drunkard.
Unfortunately, much of what we think we know about George comes from his portrait on the dollar bill, which was done when he was an old man, near death, and in terrible pain from teeth problems. As a young man and general, George was striking. He was a head taller than almost all of his contemporaries and a great athlete. Thomas Jefferson thought he was the best horseman in America, and many referred to him as “god-like.”
So what could be more fun than having a drink with the real George Washington? Fortunately, there are still many places where you can tread the same wood floorboards he once knew (or authentic reproductions) and heft a drink — or 13 — in honor of the father of our country. Here are a few taverns George knew and loved.
George’s first political position was as a representative of Virginia in the then state capital of Williamsburg. He lost his first election, but learned a lesson. In the second election in 1758, he bought 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer for the voters and won in a landslide. Living in Williamsburg, he would have known all the taverns there.
Today, Williamsburg is the largest living history center on the planet, with 80 authentic buildings dating to the 18th century and 400 more carefully reconstructed to original plans. There are 90 working craftsmen making everything from guns to, well, whiskey barrels, but also creating furniture, silverwork, printing and clothes just as they would have. More important, there are four operating colonial taverns.
George was a regular at the Raleigh Tavern that is now operated as a museum to show what a real colonial tavern looked like. If you want a drink, hop on a horse-drawn carriage and ride down the street to George’s favorite watering hole, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern. He dined here 10 times in a two-month period. It’s a grand Old World setting, with wooden floors and tables, dining by flickering candlelight with roving balladeers, and a menu of Southern seafood of crab, shrimp, fish and scallops made from scratch from 18th century recipes. This was reputedly George’s favorite place for seafood, which was a common dish in his day.
Philadelphia’s City Tavern. Located just two blocks behind Independence Hall is the place John Adams called “the most genteel tavern in America.” Besides serving food and drink, colonial taverns during the Revolution were the nerve centers of the city. A “subscription room” in City Tavern had all the newspapers of the country and men gathered here in a room filled with tobacco smoke, gambling, gossip and politics. Paul Revere rode to City Tavern all the way from Boston to bring the news of fighting at Lexington and Concord. During the Second Continental Congress, George Washington took a table at City Tavern and dined here nightly.
What did he eat? Wealthy people in Colonial Philadelphia ate very similar food to us, though it was much more difficult to prepare. Beef, chicken, hams, baked oysters, lamb, game and all varieties of fish. Banquets could offer up to 140 different courses and dining was considered an experience more than just a meal. Liquor, coffee, tea and ice cream were available at the tavern at all times. George was a big fan of ice cream.
A recipe for porter beer found in George’s desk at his home in Mount Vernon is now served at City Tavern, along with a pale ale made from a recipe by Thomas Jefferson. The first City Tavern was torn down in 1854, but working from the original plans, the National Park Service built an exact replica in 1975. The Tavern now serves lunch and dinner with a colonial inspired menu. Waiters dress in 18th century costumes and the dining rooms are lit by candlelight. Try the West Indies pepper pot soup or the Martha Washington-style Colonial turkey pot pie.
Continue the journey in Part 2 of Drinking with George…
IF YOU GO:
There are 171 surviving taverns from the American Revolution, though George did not visit them all. For a complete guide, seek out Taverns of the American Revolution by Adrian Covert, at www.Amazon.com.