Robert F. Moss is a food and drinks writer and culinary historian living in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living and the Southern Food Correspondent for Serious Eats. His latest book, from which this material was adapted, is Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South, with Recipes.
When you ask people to name a classic Southern spirit today, bourbon is almost certainly the first thing that springs from their tongues. Press further about a cocktail, and it’s bound to be a mint julep (made with bourbon, of course). But this vision of Southern drinking has more to do with with liquor-conglomerate marketing campaigns than the real history of the region.
Sure, there will be plenty of people sipping bourbon-based juleps at the Kentucky Derby this weekend, but that tradition dates back only as far as the post-Prohibition '30s. Peach brandy, rum, fine Cognac, rye whiskey, and cold lager—all of these beverages were at one time or another the favorites of Southern drinkers, but they have been largely forgotten as specialties of the region.
Unfortunately, our conception of the first three centuries of Southern drinking has been greatly distorted by post-Prohibition myth-making in movies, novels, and glossy liquor ads, which played up scenes of genteel planters sipping mint juleps on their white-columned verandas. Such moonlights-and-magnolias nostalgia helped move a lot of booze in the mid-20th century, but it created a popular image of a drinking South that never was. The historical reality is far more telling of what life was like for saloon-dwellers and social tipplers—and far tastier, too.
To find out about the real roots of Southern boozing, here’s the inside scoop on five classic Southern beverages, separating the fact from fiction.