Inside the Brown Bag: The First Drink

By Peg Brown

Please see author’s note at end of column before proceeding.

I might have been five.

Let me explain. Grandpa Wilson was a bootlegger. Oh, not in the way that we picture those gin mills of prohibition years hidden out in the woods or the larger distilleries run by Al Capone and his gang—but a bootlegger never the less. Grandpa had a still—right there on the second floor of his white barn. It did indeed have vats and coils and copper tubing—and produced a mighty fine product, if Grandpa did say so himself.

Grandpa Wilson was a Scot (first name, Ambrose—Am by nickname)—short of stature, wide of body, with what I call “peasant hands”—short fingers, strong grip, made for hard work—hands that I inherited. His uniform was a long-sleeved cotton shirt, cotton pants with cuffs, no belt, and ever present suspenders. He walked with a slight hitch in his step. I never remember him with anything but a great shock of white hair and a bulbous nose that always had a faint red tinge. In another life and with a beard, he could have been Santa Claus.

Family legend has it that he transported his “home-made” to family members in Canada, driving across a frozen St. Lawrence River, with my blond-haired, blue-eyed older cousin sitting in the passenger’s seat on top of a box, with the look of innocence that would ward off any questions about possible cargo. Grandpa was a construction worker by trade which gave him plenty of time to tinker with his recipe. He also had other secret talents—like playing the fiddle in questionable venues. True story: Grandpa Wilson lived to be 90+. He would only move into the nursing home if he was allowed to take his flask for a daily nip. The nursing home relented!

But back to the drink. Grandpa would have a little shot glass of his special brew each day. As children, we were each assigned a juice glass with different colored characters on them—the kind you got free when you bought a jar of jelly. Mine was blue, my sister’s was yellow and my cousin’s (the decoy) was red. Every time we visited Grandpa we were allowed one juice glass that contained one tablespoon of his moonshine, with Squirt added to fill up the glass. We could never tell the Cordwell side of the family—they were serious English teetotalers. I think Mother always secretly held her breath on holidays when we visited both sides of the family, thinking one of us might mention our special drink that we had at Grandpa Wilson’s.

I’d like to say that Grandpa’s “hooch” allotments were the only alcoholic drinks I had before turning legal—which was 18 in New York State when I was growing up. But I would be lying. I distinctly remember one time when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, visiting a classmate’s grandfather’s house. On that rainy afternoon, we secretly removed a quart bottle of beer from his refrigerator and enjoyed a few pops. Actually, enjoyed was not the right word.

I mentioned the legal drinking age was 18. No one paid attention. Almost everyone I knew drank at one time or another before high school graduation. The worst offenders were probably those so-called “good kids.” When you do okay in school, act responsibly—you know, do the right things at the right time, you really can get away with a lot. And I’ll admit that we did. Not many of my classmates owned cars. When you grew up on the St. Lawrence River the first vehicle you usually owned was a boat. But the few who did own cars were in high demand at party time. I remember in particular a pink and grey Chevy that we fondly called the “The Pink Pig”—the proud possession of our valedictorian and often a designated party vehicle.

The North Country also provided the right hiding places for those impromptu underage parties—we had camps on the river that were closed up for the winter—perhaps not as tightly as our parents thought. There were a few in particular that had fire places that helped keep us warm until the alcohol kicked in. The big problem was that the pipes had been drained. No water equaled no bathroom. We soon learned to pack a bucket with our party supplies.

I didn’t turn 18 until I returned to Ogdensburg after my first year away at college. My birthday is in June so we headed for—you guessed it—camp. There is no way to describe what turned into a very big “bash.” We did have bathroom facilities at that time of year which was a very good thing since more than one of us needed the toilet for a variety of reasons. Someone drove me home that night—I have no idea who.

Of course our parents knew! When I finally struggled to the kitchen the next day, Dad quietly asked, “Did you at least pick up the bottles so your Grandmother doesn’t find them.” “Actually, Dad, there weren’t many bottles—we had a keg.” Like I said, we got away with stuff.

Recreational drugs were just emerging during our early college years, and drinking was by far the more popular pass time. Drinking continued to be a big part of our hometown and college life—and there were some sadly, who started and couldn’t quit. One of the popular hangouts was a bar at one of the few hotels in town. We were legal—so we were ordering the hard stuff—slow gin fizzes! Some of us found out that body chemistry did not change that beautiful pink Pepto Bismol color. I must admit, in comparison to today’s choice of vices, this all seems pretty innocent.

The world of alcohol has changed dramatically. My parents who grew up in the 30s and 40s were “cocktail” drinkers. Actually, that’s not entirely true, Dad had one or two beers (Miller’s High Life), but Mother’s choice was Southern Comfort manhattans with lots of cherries. (There were no Kir Royals, Long Island Iced Teas, or Apple Martinis on many menus in those days.)

And there were certainly very few microbreweries in the US (less than a few hundred in 1960 and less than 1,000 in 1990. Compare that with over 6,000 in the US in 2017 –a growth of over 15 percent in over 2016.) While RI has approximately 17 craft breweries today, it’s no surprise that California leads the US with a total of almost 270. And just as a footnote, in RI that equates to over 26,000 barrels of craft beer produced a year, with an estimated impact of $152 million dollars.

The Good News: (All statistics provided by the US Brewer’s Association)

Alcohol consumption in the US per capital has dropped 23 percent since 1990, ranking the US as 23rd in the world. First in the world? Luxembourg.
Abstention in the US is higher than any other Western country (a statistic led largely by women).
In 1980 93.2 percent of high school seniors had consumed alcohol. In 2014 that number had dropped to 66 percent.
Drinking among college freshman reached an historic low in 2010, dropping from 62 percent in 2006 to 38 percent.
49 percent of American college students today report that they don’t drink alcohol on a regular basis.

Author’s note: This column in no way supports the consumption of alcohol. Our families, like many others, have experienced several tragedies related to drinking. This is however, a true story of one of those perceived “good kids” who grew up in a small rural town, when the drinking age was 18, and the town’s claim to fame was 35 bars and taverns. Near the end of the column, some very encouraging facts about alcohol consumption today in the US.

Disclosure: I must admit, in order to protect the innocent, I left out some stories. But, today, the reality is that I may have one glass of wine (red) every six months.