During the 1840 presidential election, opponents of William Henry Harrison portrayed him as a hard-drinking bumpkin. In a savvy act of political jujitsu, Harrison embraced the charge, branding his campaign paraphernalia with a portrait of pure Americana: a log cabin and a barrel of cider. Harrison rode the image to a 234-60 Electoral College victory over incumbent Martin Van Buren.
Shortly after the Harrison landslide, Americans would begin to drift away from his beloved libation. (He was spared the pain of witnessing its decline, succumbing to pneumonia only a month into his presidency.) A century later, cider would be almost completely forgotten. Most Americans now consider cider—if they consider it at all—to be in the same category as wine coolers or those enigmatic clear malt beverages: chemically suspect, effeminate alternatives to beer. And who can blame them? America's mass-market ciders are comically weak and inexplicably fizzy. Many are made not from cider apples but from the concentrated juice of eating apples, which is a bit like making wine from seedless table grapes.
This is a sad state of affairs, given that hard cider was the favored beverage of America's founding generation. Beer makers may adorn their bottles with ale-swilling patriots, and aristocrats like Thomas Jefferson may have enjoyed imported wine. But cider was the drink of the people, from farmers to fighting men, and deservedly so. Good cider is light but not boring, complex but not dominating, satisfying but not sating. Let's get back to our roots.
A thirsty American colonist had limited beverage options. For everyone but the lucky few who lived near a natural spring or fast-running stream, water was often contaminated, sometimes deadly, and always unpalatable. Milk in those days was seen merely as a precursor to cream, cheese, and butter. Alcohol wasn't an indulgence; it was what we drank. It was hygienic: Even at relatively low concentrations, alcohol kills most pathogens. And, according to the prevailing view at the time, it fortified the body against illness and the backbreaking labor of subduing a wild country.
But the colonists had trouble procuring alcohol. English barley and hops—a crucial beer preservative—didn't grow well in their new environment. Vineyards failed from New England to Georgia, and native grapes made terrible wine. Importing heavy casks from Europe was expensive. Distilled spirits, particularly rum and whiskey, would eventually catch on, but much of the population feared their potency.
Some colonists employed their famous ingenuity in an effort to develop more sustainable alternatives. George Washington brewed with inexpensive imported molasses, and Benjamin Franklin tried spruce. Others attempted pumpkin-, parsnip-, and corn-based beers. None of these alternatives satisfied. (Ironically, America's current beer behemoths use quite a bit of cheap and flavorless corn to brew their insipid tea. Our forefathers knew a failed experiment when they tasted it.)
During the 18th century, Americans realized that the prolific, hardy apple tree—which arrived from England in 1623—offered a solution to their drinking dilemma. In 1767, the average Massachusetts resident drank 35 gallons of cider. (That includes children, who sipped a slightly weaker version called ciderkin.) John Adams drank a tankard of cider nearly every morning of his life. Cider was supplied to our nascent army and is credited with helping our soldiers defeat the British (hooray!) and conquer the Indians (oops). By the end of the century, apple orchards blanketed the American landscape.