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The Colonial Booze Trade

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We all need things to read other than articles where liberals and the left yell at each other over the election, depressing election post-mortems, and pieces describing the horrors to come. So how about some good reading on the colonial booze trade?

In 1713, because of the lobbying of the powerful brandy producers frantic at having lost the British market during the War of Spanish Succession, a law was passed in France making it illegal to either produce or import distilled alcohol made from anything but wine, a law that stayed in effect for most of the eighteenth century. While English rum was making its way into the Royal Navy, onto fishing vessels headed for Newfoundland and slaving vessels headed for West Africa, and English molasses into the kitchens of both England and New England, the French metropolitan restrictions on rum production and exchange ran both broad and deep, in the first instance dramatically decreasing the value of both French rum and French molasses. Rum produced on the French islands remained the drink of slaves and expanded to some degree throughout the Americas, most often as return cargo for shipments of provisions coming from both French and British northern colonies.

Distilled alcohol was certainly making its way into France’s northern colonies of Louisiana, Acadia, and Canada in the seventeenth century. It was consumed in the towns of Montreal, Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Port-Royal (and New Orleans in the eighteenth) and traded with Amerindians in the fur trade, but it was not derived from sugar cane syrup. Instead it was almost exclusively French brandy, shipped in the seventeenth century from La Rochelle, and later from the other major Atlantic ports such as Nantes and Bordeaux, as well. Although there are no records establishing exactly when brandy was first introduced to New France as a trade good, it was almost certainly in the first third of the seventeenth century, well before sugar cane plantations and refineries were established on the French-occupied islands of the Caribbean.

Despite this early date, it is likely that the Dutch or the English were, in fact, the first to trade some kind of brandy with Amerindians at Orange in the early seventeenth century. There is evidence that English fur traders in what is now Maine were trading aqua vitae for furs in 1633, and that the Dutch were trading their own brandy for furs in the same decade. Somewhat ironically, there are strong possibilities that the Dutch brandy being traded had as its base material sugar syrups from the French Caribbean islands. The same transatlantic trade in French sugar syrups that produced the spice breads that Du Tertre noted in the 1660s delivered the base material to Dutch distillers in their own country.

Getting thirsty here.

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