Today’s installment in Good. Food. Stories.’ ongoing series of Hamilton-inspired cocktails is a powerful one in many senses: a strong Southern drink that pays homage to the man in charge. Sip with care—you might need a right-hand man for this outing.
Find more Hamilton-inspired gifts, including enamel pins, stickers, and greeting cards at the The Casey BarberSHOP.
Among the many myths and legends associated with the life of George Washington is the story of Chatham Artillery Punch. As told by the Savannah River House restaurant, the Colonial recipe and Southern cocktail staple has been around more or less as long as the Chatham Artillery—which formed in Georgia in 1786. When Washington visited the city in 1791 during his Presidential tour, he gifted the Artillery with two cannons his troops had captured during the decisive Battle of Yorktown, and in return, they feted him with dinners and toasts that involved this potent punch.*
Like the innumerable portraits and statues of Washington that pop up everywhere throughout the United States, there are infinite versions of Chatham Artillery Punch circulating in recipe files throughout the American South. Some feature Catawba wine, some Benedictine, some gin, some pineapple, some orange juice—essentially, there are as many variations as there are American citizens. I’ve had versions at both Southern Efficiency in Washington, DC, and at Revival in Decatur, GA, and both have been distinctly different.
And like the long, complicated tale of Washington’s life, it’s difficult to distill such an opus into a single gulp. But I’ll try to use the venerable Chatham Artillery Punch as a metaphor. Both with the punch and with the story I’m about to tell, I’ve tried to simplify things and focus on a few salient, meaningful details. Washington was not a man of effusive speech, but he did appreciate fine detail, order, and organization.
We start by making lemonade out of lemons. Born in 1732 to Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary, George had a contingent of siblings, half-siblings, and relatives by marriage(s) surrounding him during his rural Virginia upbringing. Despite the initial profusion of family members, as happens in the age of smallpox (and poor hygiene and no central heating and no, uh, government-subsidized healthcare), Washington’s relatives kept dying young. “Tho’ I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a short-lived family,” he lamented.
This unfortunate but frequent happenstance of death had a fortunate upside: it meant that Washington kept inheriting land–like lucking into possession of Mount Vernon—and directly contributed to his social standing and reputation. Lemon oleo saccharum, an ingredient that sounds downright medieval, is nothing more than long-macerated lemons and sugar. Mixing peels with sugar until they give up their fragrant oils, then combining that with lemon juice, makes a sweet lemonade concentrate that is worth the long “hardship” endured through the process.
This ability to succeed by outlasting everyone around him was a pattern repeated throughout Washington’s life. As Commander of the Continental Army, it’s true that Washington lost more battles than he won during the Revolutionary War. But his sheer force of will in keeping his ragtag volunteer army together throughout years of horrific conditions and desperate situations led to eventual victory. Longevity prevailed.
During Washington’s second term, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans began circulating rumors that the President was going senile, and that the Federalist conspirators led by Washington’s sinister Treasury Secretary (some guy we might be familiar with named Alexander Hamilton) were using him as a mouthpiece for their own nefarious plans.
Washington, though feeling the effects of life taking its toll at this point, was by no means losing his marbles. He’d had enough of the partisan fighting and after performing his civic duty for more than four decades, decided to go out on his own terms and finally retire at Mount Vernon. Green tea, which has more antioxidants than black or oolong varieties to protect the body against mental degeneration, would have been a good thing for Washington to keep in his office coffee mug as he defended himself against these rumors.
By Colonial standards, Washington wasn’t a big tippler. He publicly railed against drunkenness, being constantly disappointed by what he considered boorish behavior by his troops. After the famous Delaware River crossing at Trenton, American soldiers discovered a cache of 40 hogsheads of rum. Washington wanted the alcohol to be spilled on the ground, but to his dismay, the victorious troops got blitzed on the spoils of war anyway.
However, because Washington also wasn’t fond of public speaking at the innumerable dinners and functions at which his presence was required, he did need some social lubrication every now and then. (I mean, we all need a little something before we cha cha real smooth, amirite?) One of his boozy indulgences was Madeira, the Portuguese fortified wine also enjoyed by his frenemy Jefferson. As Ron Chernow recounts in Washington: A Life, at his dinners, “Washington usually downed a pint of beer and two or three glasses of wine, and his demeanor grew livelier once he had consumed them.”
Instead of Catawba wine, let’s indulge Washington and add some sweet Madeira to the punch instead. Don’t splurge on one of the bottles that’s still around from when he was alive; an introductory Madeira like Blandy’s Bual or Malmsey will do. (Though if you are interested in sipping some Madeira solo, any option from the Rare Wine Company’s Historic Series like the Savannah Verdelho, a drier varietal, or the sweeter Boston Bual would be fantastic choices.)
Though Washington brewed and partook of his own beer at Mount Vernon, he barely got to reap the benefits of one of the last agricultural innovations at the estate: a distillery set up by his Scottish estate manager James Anderson in 1797. Producing both rye and corn whiskey, it was churning out 11,000 gallons yearly by the time Washington died in December 1799, making him the largest whiskey producer in America. As Chernow says, “For Washington, always rabid on the subject of alcoholism, it was an ironic turn of events.” The other source of irony in Washington’s final turn as a whiskey baron was that only a few short years ago, he was quashing the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em….
Rum, the last component of the punch base, represents an essential but painful element of Washington’s life: his public evasiveness and reticence in abolishing slavery. It’s something many Americans have difficulty reconciling in the portrait of a man who was otherwise an Olympian hero. Though his young protégés Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette were all staunch abolitionists, Washington shamefully would not take a public stand on this issue in his lifetime, leaving it to his will to emancipate Mount Vernon’s slaves upon his and Martha’s deaths.
Now that all these high-potency ingredients have been stirred together, the blend needs time to coalesce. The disparate parts need to become one–much like Washington’s vision for America’s future. As he prepared for his exit from the Presidency and the public stage, Washington collaborated with Hamilton on what’s now famously known as his Farewell Address: a letter to the American people. In it, he urged them to overcome their divisive regional politics (Virginians vs. New Yorkers, Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans) and to instead see themselves as part of one defining body working toward a common cause. E pluribus unum; out of many, one.
Once the blend has rested for a day or two, it’s time to serve. Mixing the punch with sparkling wine is the appropriate finale for the man and the drink. Everyone loves a little bubbly; it’s universally enjoyed. And Washington was always singularly and unanimously the choice to lead throughout his lifetime—as Joseph Ellis writes in the book Founding Brothers, “He was the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsodies in flesh and blood, America’s one and only indispensable character.”
*Another non-Washington-related tale of Chatham Artillery Punch dates its origins to the early 1800s, but since we’re wading deep into the mists of history here, let’s use the Washington story.