Metro Weekly

American Spirit: Alcohol’s influence on American history

Derek Brown and The National Archives toast alcohol's key role in American history

American Spirit punch Photo by Todd Franson
American Spirit punch
Photo by Todd Franson

Sherry has something of a bad reputation in the alcohol world. Too often maligned as the elderly woman’s drink of choice, it seems an unusual variety for any fledgling bar to focus on.

Not so for Derek Brown. Two years ago, he was inspired to open Mockingbird Hill, specifically because of his love of sherry. Inspired by similar places in the sherry-originating region of southern Spain, the small, narrow establishment in Shaw serves a regularly changing menu of snacks and small plates, from nuts to specialty hams and cheeses, all of which are meant to be paired with the bar’s vast selection of sherries.

“Most people are like, ‘Why do you care about sherry at all? That’s what my grandmother drank, or that’s what Niles and Frasier Crane drank,'” says Brown. Well sure, but not all sherry is sweet, nor do the dry and complex varieties appeal only to the Cranes of this world. In fact, sherry was apparently the first wine brought to the Americas. “Christopher Columbus had it on his voyage” — something we know to be true coming from Brown, the “Chief Spirits Advisor” to the National Archives Foundation.

If you didn’t know the National Archives had such a position, that’s because it was announced earlier this week at a reception for Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History. This nearly yearlong exhibit examines the production, consumption and especially federal regulation of booze — a complicated history that’s equal parts silly, solemn and sordid. In addition to tours led by Bruce I. Bustard, the exhibit’s curator, Brown was also on hand at the reception to talk more specifically about the types of spirits consumed throughout America’s history, from cocktails — “a uniquely American invention,” dating to the early 1800s — to punch.

And just as sherry is often misunderstood, even maligned, in America today, so it is with punch. It’s not just the too-sweet, non-alcoholic swill you might remember from your childhood, nor is it the Gatorade-flavored alcoholic dump that may have been served from a trashcan at your college fraternity. Brown has developed a special punch based on the more refined, classic style regularly imbibed by early American settlers, including our Founding Fathers — or “Founding Drinkers,” as Brown calls them.

It turns out this punch is just the first of nearly 20 such Spirited Republic-tied concoctions that Brown is developing to appear on the drink menus at local restaurants and bars. Although the details are still being finalized, key establishments set to participate include Bourbon Steak, Daikaya, Farmers Fishers Bakers, Rose’s Luxury, Slipstream, Tryst, and Brown’s three side-by-side Shaw establishments — Mockingbird Hill, the whiskey-themed Southern Efficiency and the oyster bar Eat The Rich.

As the Archives’ first spirits advisor, Brown is also set to lead an upcoming seminar series focused on the history and culture of spirits, as well as the link between alcohol and food. Brown’s expertise on the subject is increasingly gaining recognition: He’s a semifinalist for a 2015 James Beard Award for Mockingbird Hill, and was picked as the 2015 “Bartender of the Year” by the national Imbibe magazine.

This Thursday, March 12, the Archives hosts an early panel discussion related to the exhibit. American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites is based on a book by Libby O’Connell of the History Channel and A&E networks and will also feature The Atlantic‘s Corby Kummer as well as Jim Hewes, chief mixologist and cocktail historian at the historic Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

Spirited Republic builds on an earlier Archives exhibit, 2011’s What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet. It helps highlight a topic that isn’t as well-appreciated as it should be: The fact that alcohol has been as integral to American history as food. And fundamentally speaking, alcoholic concoctions are as American as apple pie.

“I could not imagine our country without punch,” says Brown, who asserts that the drink helped fortify the founding fathers to think and do things that most of us can’t even imagine — such as fight the superpower of the time. How did such “a small ragtag bunch of rebels” do it? “They were drinking punch!”

Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History is on exhibit through Jan. 10, 2016, at the National Archives, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th Streets NW. Call 202-357-5000 or visit spiritedrepublic.org.

Spirited Republic Punch

Created by Derek Brown

Rye Whiskey, Rum, Peach Liqueur and Hickory-Smoked Cola Syrup

  • 1 Bottle Catoctin Creek Rendezvous Rye Whiskey
  • 1 Bottle Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
  • 6 oz. Rothman & Winter Orchard Peach Liqueur
  • 9 oz. Lime Juice
  • Oleo Saccharum*
  • 6 oz. Hickory-Smoked Cola Syrup
  • Apollinaris Sparkling Water (to taste)
  • Grated Nutmeg
  • Lemons and limes

Muddle lemon peels with fine sugar to create the lemon/sugar paste or oil known as oleo saccharum.* Add the fresh-squeezed lime juice** and hickory-smoked syrup. Combine all with spirits and top with sparkling water to taste. Serve from a punch bowl over large ice cubes and garnish with lemon and lime wheels and grated nutmeg.

*To make oleo saccharum, it takes approximately six lemons and one cup of fine sugar — muddled together, set aside for 30 minutes, then strained to extract the oil — though the exact amount may vary depending on individual tastes.

**Brown notes: “Without fresh lime juice, you’re not going to get that zippy characteristic; you’re not going to get a balance out of the drink.”

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

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