A brief history of booze and the origins of other alcoholic terms

Despite being busy carving a new world out of the American wilderness, early colonists still had time for a drink. The Scotch-Irish settlers of central and western Pennsylvania considered whiskey a household necessity and cure-all.

Many pioneers made their own mash by distilling barley and rye. Tending the family still was as routine a chore as milking and grinding corn.

Colonial country still. Image by Patrick M. Reynolds
A family attending their colonial country still. Image by Patrick M. Reynolds.

As with other American pastimes, alcohol and related activities developed colorful terms, each with fascinating etymologies.


When the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company began trading with the Indians, they soon discovered they could purchase more furs by including liquor in the transaction. It wasn’t long until the traders started diluting the whiskey with water to acquire more furs.

North American Traders And Indians.jpg

Eventually, the Indians learned that good whiskey poured on fire would cause it to flame up. Watered down whiskey had the opposite effect. It was by this simple experiment that the term firewater became a common word among Indians.

Another version of the term’s etymology comes from the frequent inclusion of red pepper by traders to hide the taste of cheap, doctored alcohol. These men often added other low-grade ingredients such as tobacco juice or molasses, adding to the general distinctive “burn” of ingesting high-proof alcohol.



By the early 1800s, commercial distilleries began to spring up from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. One Philadelphia distiller in the mid-1800s had distinctive log cabin shaped bottles made to hold his whiskey. He even had his name—E.G. Booz—molded onto the containers.

This marketing tactic forever etched Edmund’s last name as slang for liquor.

Edmund G. Booz Old Cabin Whiskey Bottle
E.G. Booz’s Old Cabin Whiskey Bottle


While the point of origin varies depending on the source, at least one author says the term bootlegger originated in the Fort Pitt area.

Cartoon drawing of a bootlegger selling liquor to two Native Americans.
image by Patrick M. Reynolds

The term bootlegger was born when the selling of intoxicating beverages to Native Americans was made illegal. Shady traders who continued to sell booze to local Indians would hide a bottle of liquor at the top of his boot and then cover it with a pants leg until it was time to sell it.

prohibition era bootlegger
Literal prohibition era bootlegger


One thought on “A brief history of booze and the origins of other alcoholic terms

  1. Interesting article. I love knowing the origin of terms like this. (FYI, Pittsburgh is misspelled in the section about Booze.)

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