In urban areas in the early nineteenth century, many drank beer, cider, and other alcoholic beverages as alternates to water sources that were unreliable, dirty, or harbored disease. Most of these refreshments were homemade, produced by women. In 1825, the year after the publication of Randolph’s recipes, the estimated annual per capita consumption of alcohol in the United States was 5.0 gallons of ninety-proof spirits and 15 gallons of twenty-proof cider per person. Further, many alcoholic beverages were inexpensive. The settlement of fertile lands in the Midwest produced a grain glut that brought whiskey’s price to $.25 a gallon, far cheaper than many other beverages. Pervasive apple orchards in the northeast allowed families to mill and store cider for their own use. Finally, Americans consumed prodigious amounts of intoxicating beverages because they enjoyed the effect. Over the course of the next one hundred years, the Temperance Movement would strive to transform American attitudes about drinking and alcohol.
Wine consumption remained low throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many hoped to establish a thriving and profitable wine-making industry in the early days of English colonization. Reports from early explorers, such a this one recorded by historian Robert Beverly buoyed hopes of thriving vineyards in the American south:
“There they also found Grapes so prodigiously large, that they seem’d more like Bullace than Grapes.”Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (London: R. Parker, 1705), 64.
In Virginia, efforts to establish a winemaking industry were particularly fierce. The Virginia Company, sponsor of the earliest settlements, sought experienced winegrowers to help tame the region’s native grapes. A 1619 law required every householder to
“Yearly plant and maintain ten vines until they have attained to the art and experience of dressing a vineyard either by their own industry or by the instruction of some vigneron.”S. M. Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London (Washington, D.C., 1906-35) 3: 166.
However, would-be vintners soon discovered the wine produced from native grapes was an acquired taste, to put it kindly. Beverly, a proponent of New World wine-making, kindly described the flavor as “curious” in his account. Gov. De La Warr frankly described wine produced in early Virginia as “sour.” Despite the profusion of native grapes, imported European grapes (V. vinifera) mysteriously would not grow. For two centuries, Americans, including such notable names as Governor William Bradford, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, attempted and failed to establish vineyards. Unbeknownst to the cultivators, New World pests and diseases were lethal to European grape varieties. Not until the early nineteenth century would accidental hybrids of American and European grape varieties allow wine-making to flourish and spread in the United States. Virginia’s present flourish wine industry traces its roots to these discoveries.
Consequently, during Mary Randolph’s day, most wines were imported and expensive. Wine imported from Europe was a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Housewives produced homemade wines from dandelions, blackberries, currants, persimmons, and wild and cultivated grapes. Based on her recipes, Randolph favored cordials produced by steeping fruits and other flavorings in brandy. However, she also provides recipes for fruit-based wines, shrubs, mead, and beer – allowing her readers to supply guests with various bracing beverages. Randolph includes two variations of homemade wines created from ginger and currants.
During Randolph’s time, women practiced home fermentation as a preservation technique to ensure safe refreshments for their families, for extra income, as home remedies, and to serve at social occasions. It is likely Randolph served this wine medicinally. Ginger, available as a powder and root is early America, had an established reputation as a digestive aid. However, Randolph’s Ginger Wine would certainly lubricate a social gathering. It is sweet with just a hint of ginger, effervescent, and strong.
Thoughts on the Recipe
I was lucky to have my partner, a seasoned homebrewer, assist with this recipe. Fortunately, Randolph provides descriptive instructions (not always the case!) to produce this recipe. Race ginger, refers to ginger root, readily available in most grocery stores. The lemons and sugar are also easily obtained, but the yeast will need to be purchased from a homebrew shop or order online.
My partner has been brewing beer and I’ve been enjoying the results for about ten years, this was our first foray into wine. Being familiar with the at-home wine-making process, we appreciated the nearly instant gratification this recipe provides: 2.5 weeks from boil to ready to drink is lightning fast in the homebrew world!
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 170.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 1 ½ gallons water
- 1 ½ pounds sugar
- 2 oz fresh ginger root
- 2 small lemons
- 1 packet of ale yeast
1. Over medium-high heat, combine the water and sugar in a large pot.
2. Peel the ginger and add it to the pot when it reaches a boil.
3. Boil for one hour.
4. When the hour is up, cover the pot and let it sit until it reaches 90-95 degrees.
5. Strain the liquid into a glass carboy or other clear vessel that can be tightly sealed. Add the lemon slices and yeast.
6. Tightly seal the container and leave at room temperature (68-74 degrees) to ferment for one week.
7. After one week, prepare to bottle the wine. Sanitize 6-7 one-pint, glass bottles that can be securely closed (I recommend a flip-top bottle, but any securely fastened glass container, such as a mason jar, will work).
8. Carefully remove your wine from the fermentation container. Since you don’t want the sediment at the bottom of the fermentation container in your final product, you cannot simply pour your wine into the bottles. If you know someone with homebrew equipment, a siphon works quickly and easily. Otherwise, you could carefully ladle the wine from the fermentation container into the bottles.
9. Tightly seal your bottles and leave them in a cool, dry place to condition for at least ten days.
Yield: 6-7 pints
The final product is alcoholic. Enjoy responsibly.
 W.J. Rorabaugh, “Estimated U.S. alcoholic beverage consumption, 1790-1860,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol (March 1976), 357-364.
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 80-81; 69.
Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 110, 267.
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 628, 259.
Susan Williams, Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), 46, 203.