Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stone Fences - II

   My post yesterday has generated some discussion as to just how potent a drink the "Stone Fence" was in colonial America.

   The rum so widely consumed throughout colonial America was a cheap dark rum made from poor quality molasses, not to be confused with the "refined" rums one encounters today. In 1770, there were approximately 140 rum distilleries throughout the thirteen colonies producing about 4.8 million gallons of rum annually. Another 3.78 million gallons were being imported from the Caribbean. One curious fact about the rum produced in the Caribbean is that because of the high temperatures, rum ages at approximately three times the rate of Scotch. Thus a seven year Caribbean rum is aged to the same state as a 21 year old Scotch.The Caribbean imported rum was considered to be of a higher quality than a domestic distilled rum.

   There can be no certainty as to the "proof" or alcohol content of Caribbean and colonial rum such as that consumed by the Green Mountain Boys but it was  most likely close to 90% alcohol or higher. Hard cider, such as that fermented by colonial New Englanders, contained approximately  5 to 7% alcohol so "cutting" the rum with it didn't dilute the alcohol content by much. As a comparison, my favorite 12 year old Macallan has 40% alcohol. I don't think I could keep up with the Green Mountain Boys for very long.

   There are some claims that New England distilleries produced a "high quality" rum and several micro distilleries have opened in New England claiming to duplicating  colonial era rum. I have serious reservations about their claims and doubt that a modern distillery could sell its product to a discerning modern public without using much higher quality ingredients than those available to New England distillers.

   I have visited the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, VA which makes, among other products, a colonial era dark Caribbean rum; however, this rum is distilled in the Caribbean and bottled in Virginia. The distiller insists that is distilled, aged, and blended much as it was in the colonial era.

  George Washington was a great fan of Barbados rum and agreed with the common belief at the time that Barbados rum was richer and more complex than all the other rums.

 Washington, at the time of his death, was a very successful rye whiskey distiller. In 1797, Washington's Scots farm manager, James Anderson, encouraged him to build a whiskey distillery adjacent to his gristmill. The distillery was the largest in America, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799, making it one of the most successful economic enterprises at Mount Vernon.

  Recently Mount Vernon reconstructed Washington's distillery and it is available for touring. I went on the tour when it opened several years ago and, quite frankly, was underwhelmed.

  On November 28th, and for one day only, Mount Vernon is selling  bottles of a limited edition "George Washington Unaged Rye Whiskey" made at Mount Vernon's reconstructed distillery from the original recipe at $95 a bottle.

Mount Vernon Distillery


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Stone Fences

   Recently I was doing some reading in a Civil War magazine and came across a letter to the editor taking an author to task for asserting that Confederate General Jubal Early created and named the rum and hard cider drink called the "Stonewall". The writer stated that, in fact, both the name and the recipe for the drink date back at least to the American Revolution. He related an anecdote about Benedict Arnold, prior to the taking of Fort Ticonderoga, encountering a contingent of Green Mountain Boys in a "smoky taproom" at Castleton some twenty miles from Ticonderoga who were "flushed with that Green Mountain concoction of rum and rock-hard cider called a 'stonewall.'"

   The "stonewall" or, as more commonly referred to in the colonial period, the "stone fence" was indeed a favorite drink of the Green Mountain Boys and other colonials. Benedict Arnold, on his way to Fort Ticonderoga,  did encounter a contingent of Green Mountain Boys, and some Connecticut militia, in a tavern in Castleton, New York where he attempted to assert his authority over them. (See my posts on the Arnold/Church confrontation for a discussion of Arnold at Ticonderoga.) The drunken Green Mountain Boys, well lubricated from their "stone fences", scoffed at Arnold who, affronted, stormed out of the tavern in search of Ethan Allen who was several miles further north on Lake Champlain. The Green Mountain Boys probably quaffed quite a few "stonefences" the night before they "stormed" Ticonderoga.

  Rum was the distilled beverage of choice during colonial times. Almost every American household had a cider barrel outside which would ferment and freeze over in the long New England winter, turning into hard cider. The original Stone Fence, during Colonial times, would have been rum cut with a bit of hard cider to take the edge off of the harshness of the rum. It was a very potent drink, for hard drinkers.

  The "Stone Fence" was enjoyed throughout the Northeast during the Revolution. But by the early 1800's, rye had replaced rum—much harder to get in the post-Revolutionary period—in the drink. The inevitable presence of both apple trees and alcoholic cider across the Northeast and the Midwest kept the drink accessible and popular. As westward expansion began and settlers began to move into the Ohio Valley, German and Scottish settlers brought their knowledge of distilling with them and began to experiment with distilling corn. These early distillations were the precursors of what we now know as bourbon whiskey. By the time Jerry Thomas’ wrote the first cocktails guide in 1862, “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion,” the Stone Fence had evolved with the times into good corn whiskey and non-alcoholic apple cider. This was an extremely popular drink in America during the Civil War era and  it remained so through the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. One of the most famous Stone Fence aficionados was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (he preferred it with a twist of lemon.) After the Temperance Movement and Prohibition did its damage to America, the drink was virtually forgotten, but has made somewhat of a comeback recently.

  Here are two recipes for a "stonefence' - one colonial and one modern:

  Here's a colonial one from Esquire Magazine:

            -2 ounces dark rum
           - hard cider
          -  pint glass

  Pour the rum into a pint glass, add 1 or 2 ice cubes, and fill with hard cider. This drink, otherwise known as a Stone Wall, can also be made with, in order of authenticity, applejack, rye whiskey, or anything else in place of the rum. The name "Stone Fence" alludes to the effect produced by getting outside too many of these, which is not unlike that produced by running downhill into one.
  Here's a modern one:
  • 2 oz Eagle Rare bourbon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 4 oz good quality non-alcoholic apple cider
       In a double rocks glass (also called a bucket) add first two ingredients.

           Fill glass with ice.
           Add cider to top.
           Stir briefly to incorporate flavors.

 I am not sure as to why the drink was named "Stone Fence" in colonial America, but the most plausible explanation, to me, was that it was named so because imbibing it made it so much easier to build those stone walls that dotted the New England countryside.