The False Hope of Corn Stalk Rum during the American Revolution

“Intoxicating Revolution” Roundtable – Post #2

By Jordan Smith

What do you do when the most crucial resource for your business suddenly becomes unavailable? Over one hundred rum distillers operating in colonial North America confronted this very problem as the American Revolution began to unfold in the mid-1770s. One correspondent noted in 1775 that the “ports of New-jersies, Philadelphia, Maryland, the Carolina’s & Virginia are all to be blocked up in the same manner Boston is,” making it impossible for colonial entrepreneurs to acquire molasses.[1] Without a consistent supply of the sweet, syrupy byproduct of Caribbean sugar production, producers such as Daniel Roberdeau in Alexandria, Virginia felt “obliged to shut up the Distillery.”[2] Despite Roberdeau’s initial impulse, however, rum producers pursued several creative strategies to stay open.

The most straightforward adjustment involved substituting grains or fruits for molasses. Indeed, many distillers used rye, barley, and apples to distill a variety of makeshift beverages. But there were costs to these ingredient substitutions. Grains or fruits fermented and distilled could not be eaten. Faced with wartime food shortages, many state governments outlawed the use of grains in distilleries.[3] Such laws limited—but did not entirely stop—the production of grain-based substitutes for rum. Daniel Roberdeau, for instance, offered two Maryland merchants “whiskey from time to time” on a clandestine basis.[4] Nonetheless, rum producers could not legally or reliably transition to whiskey production as a long-term solution to their supply shortages.

Facing both legal restrictions to distilling grains and consumers who continued to prefer rum over whiskey, distillers made every effort to find a way to produce rum without Caribbean molasses. In 1777, the New Haven distillers Jacobs & Israel offered their services to local farmers endeavoring to convert the juice extracted from corn stalks into “rum.”[5] The following year, an unnamed author explained in greater detail the method that Connecticut distillers were using to substitute corn stalk juice for molasses. Using a mill designed “after the model of the sugar-cane mills in the West Indies,” a dozen or more Connecticut alcohol producers harvested green corn stalks and squeezed the juice from them. Then they boiled the juice repeatedly until syrup as thick as molasses remained. By passing the fermented syrup through a still two or three times, one Middletown producer named Thomas Goodwin claimed to have “distilled 1435 gallons of good proof rum in 1777,” which could not be distinguished “either by the flavour or taste from new West India rum.”[6]

Unsurprisingly, the possibility of turning a waste product like corn stalks into rum excited many readers. A colonel in the Continental Army named Jedediah Huntington encountered the recipe while reading a newspaper in White Plains, New York. Intrigued by the possibility of using this innovation to overcome the colonies’ foreign molasses dependence, Huntington shared the new recipe for corn-based rum with at least two other military officials: the commissary general of the Continental Army, Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, and George Washington. Washington reportedly sent the recipe back to Virginia.[7] Knowledge of corn stalk-derived rum also reached Massachusetts.[8]

Unfortunately, we do not know what happened next. It is likely that at least some desperate distillers attempted to adapt this innovation for their own use. They probably also learned that there is simply not enough sucrose in corn stalks to make alcohol production worthwhile. In turn, making rum from this vegetable matter could not save a struggling distilling industry during the American Revolution. Unable to fill their stills with a molasses wash, many North American rum distilleries closed, and those that survived rarely prospered during the war.

However, this curious attempt at ingredient substitution demonstrates the endurance of American producers’ preferences and consumers’ tastes for rum in the same years that they seceded from Britain. Americans remained steadfast in preferring to make and drink the familiar beverage even as their access to Caribbean markets faltered. Indeed, when asked in 1783 whether citizens of the United States would finally disavow their tastes for molasses spirits and start drinking whiskey, a former colonial official and committed loyalist named Thomas Irving declared that rum would remain preeminent. He hypothesized that the grains being grown were too important for feeding Americans, and thus costly, to be distilled en masse. Irving also acknowledged that consumer preferences would play a role in the conservatism of American tastes. After all, he wrote, “Rum in America is as much a necessary of life as malt liquor is” in England.[9]

Irving’s prognostication was more prescient than we often give him credit for. Americans’ taste for rum did not end with independence. And ardent patriots certainly did not change their aesthetic preferences or alcohol production techniques in the confederation era out of any sort of nationalist sense of duty. Instead, they opened new distilleries and continued to drink rum at an incredible pace through the 1780s and 1790s. In 1792, rum producers in the United States paid taxes on the production of 4.2 million gallons of the spirit.[10] Though the legal production of these distilleries lagged slightly behind estimates from 1770, rum production in the young United States continued to thrive.

Jordan Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in Atlantic History at Georgetown University. His dissertation, entitled “The Invention of Rum,” investigates the creation and production of rum in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. He would like to thank the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium and the Institute of Historical Research for supporting research trips that were crucial for this blog post. You can reach him at 

Title image“Eli Barnum & Benjamin Brooks Still” Patented July 13, 1808

Endnotes:

[1] Alexander Boumer To Colin Drummond, 22 April 1775, Jeremiah Wadsworth Papers, Connecticut Historical Society, MS Wadsworth 1/2.

[2] Daniel Roberdeau to David Jackson, 1 April 1776, Daniel Roberdeau Letterbook,  Library of Congress [hereafter LOC], MSS81542.

[3] “An Act to Prevent distilling grain into spirit,” Laws of Maryland, made and passed at a session of Assembly, begun and held at the city of Annapolis, on Monday the eighth of November, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine (Annapolis, 1780), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 16827  (filmed) ; An act to prohibit for a limited time the making of whiskey and other spirits from wheat, rye, or any other sort of grain, or from any meal or flour (Philadelphia, 1778), Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 43528  (filmed) .

[4] As Roberdeau explained, “A late law in this state makes prudence and secrecy necessary for all spirits are liable to seizure;” Roberdeau to Robert Peter, 24 July 1780 and 2 August 1780; Roberdeau to William Sydebotham, 30 December 1780 and 10 July 1781; Roberdeau to Joseph Donaldson, 4 July 1781, Daniel Roberdeau Papers, LOC, MSS81542.

[5] “Any Gentleman Farmers,” The Connecticut Journal, 24 September 1777.

[6] “Mr Green, I am requested by a Gentleman at a Distance to publish the Improvements made in this State, in the Manufacture of RUM, SUGAR and MOLASSES from the Juice of CORN STALKS,” 5 June 1778, Connecticut Gazette.

[7] Jed Huntington to Colonel Wadsworth, 30 August 1778, Wadsworth Family Papers, CHS, MS 101921/1.

[8] Matt Townsend to Jeremiah Wadsworth, 15 March 1778, Jeremiah Wadsworth Papers, CHS, MS Wadsworth 4/3.

[9] “Mr. Irving formerly Inspector General of the Imports and Exports of North America and Register of Shipping Called In,” 1783, British Library, add ms 38345/136-151.

[10] “General State of the Revenue on Stills, and on Spirits Distilled in the United States, from Foreign and Domestic,” 1792, American State Papers: Finance 1:250-251.

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