A Spirited History of Sipping

Get a taste of Mobile’s longstanding appreciation of libations, from olden vino to modern-day malts.

The old Mobile Brewery, which stood at Water and Adams streets. Photo courtesy the Historic Mobile Preservation Society

It can be said that when four Mobilians are gathered together, there will be a fifth, and in liquid form.

A nip in the afternoon or evening hours is a time-honored tradition in Alabama’s oldest city. Partaking is a unifying current within Mobile’s diverse, historical epochs. The tale is a spirited one.

Colonial Times: Fine Wine and Grogs
Liquor was a universal language that all the colonial powers that reigned over Mobile spoke. Archaeological excavations at Fort Louis de la Louisiane, the first settlement of Mobile, have revealed countless bottles. While life up at 27-Mile Bluff was far from a junket to a good hunting camp, at least there was imported wine. The water likely had bacteria in it. Those early Gallic guys took their fondness for fermented grapes with them to relocate to the present-day site of Mobile. The British carried on the tradition of the occasional sip. Sailors will be sailors, regardless of nationality. There might have been a tea party or two going on in the 13 Atlantic colonies, but Mobile had a stronger punch — Jamaican rum. The Spaniards partook of wine and rum.

Antebellum Age: Dancing Juice
It was only when Mobile became part of the U.S. that she realized her economic and cultural potential. The bar menu got better, too. During the early antebellum period, though, Mobile was still a frontier town. One observer noted that there were “more men than manners.” These entrepreneurs of their day worked and played hard in equal measure.

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As the antebellum era progressed, the    “Paris of the South” and the “Cotton City,” as Mobile was both known, prospered. A Gulf and river port, the city reaped the benefits of agricultural capitalism. Residents, along with return visitors and new arrivals, enjoyed fruits, bitters and barleys. Whiskey was on the rocks and in punches, especially milk punch.

During the winter social season, with the New Year and Mardi Gras as the high points, Mobile’s greatest living tradition of Carnival played its part in the city’s spirited history. The early mystic societies established the standard of refined behavior. A little fun does not hurt all the same. Tradition holds that the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, America’s first mystic body, had a pronounced fondness for Champagne. Surviving menus show that the bubbles were only a part of the picture, for they were a pairing with multiple courses requiring civilized interchanges.

The Strikers, the oldest active mystic society, has as its emblem a rampant goat atop a beer barrel. It should come as no surprise since Mobile was the site of Alabama’s first brewery (above). Wholesale whiskey dealerships occupied space in the warehouse district about Water and Commerce streets. Fine wines and potent punches were likewise served in Downtown townhouses and suburban villas.

Reconstruction: Return to Fun
The economic repercussions of the Civil War brought Mobile to her knees. A resilient people, Mobilians rebounded. Mardi Gras was among the first traditions to do so. Joe Cain had to take a sip of something to conceive and don his now mythic guise. The sauce served to do more than heal wounds and abet merriment, for it was during the postbellum era that the economy diversified to better embrace naval stores, expand railways and introduce bananas. Toasts were raised.

The population became even more varied. Immigrants from all parts of Europe, and latterly the larger Mediterranean rim, added an air of exoticism to a city that would, by the turn of the century, be known as a “Southern Buenos Aires,” on account of the balance of Old World and New World, not to mention being hotter than the hinges of Hades for most of the year. As trade with Cuba increased, alongside Cuban enrollment at Spring Hill College, rum with varying mixers was more widely consumed. Meanwhile, the Athelstan Club featured the popular rathskeller, or basement bar. The rathskeller was lined with more than 300 antique beer steins and served as a popular haunt for members and guests, especially before and after downtown events.

Not-Quite Prohibition: Drinks Underground
Turn-of-the-century Mobile was not unlike today in that the city had a glorious past to take pride in and a bright future to anticipate. Being a port town and having limited police enforcement, the party went on, but prohibition was a dark cloud all the same. Washington, D.C., took note. In November of 1923, federal agents laid siege to Mobile. All told, over $100,000 in alcohol was seized. A federal grand jury indicted 21 Mobilians, including a congressman, the sheriff and others.

World War II: Jazz Age
World War II catapulted Mobile into a new era. Arms and affiliated manufactures brought jobs that more than doubled the population. Many a ship was christened in harbor with a bursting of a Champagne bottle against a hull. After World War II, National Geographic dubbed Mobile, the birthplace of container shipping, as Alabama’s “City in Motion.” A familiar motion was the downing of a glass. The options were seemingly inexhaustible.

With breweries opening across Downtown and wine bars spreading into the suburbs, Mobile’s liquid capital is at an all-time high. Retro chic cocktails of Jazz and Mad Men eras have made comebacks. Mixology-attuned establishments, such as The Haberdasher, have become at once popular with locals and visitors. The Port City certainly has much to celebrate. The glass is neither half full nor half empty — it’s just right.

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