Colonial libations bring history to (night)life at Sussex Tavern

February 24, 2023

If you haven’t yet attended a First Friday event at the Lewes Historical Society, you may want to mark your calendar for the next one, set for March 3. Each month, historic interpreters in period attire operate the Sussex Tavern from 4 until 7 p.m. The space inside the Rabbits Ferry House on the LHS campus has been transformed to resemble a Colonial-era tavern with a cage bar in the corner, and mismatched tables and chairs, all illuminated by candlelight.

Weather permitting, fire tenders keep the embers aflame near the outdoor bar, while musicians enliven the atmosphere inside. When you review the menu, some of the drink names may not be familiar to today’s ears, as the list features typical cocktails from the period. How do we know? One of the items in the LHS Archives is a late 18th century ledger maintained by tavern-keeper Simon Marriner.

In it, you will see familiar Lewes names such as David Hazzard, Jonathan Gordon, Stephen Warrington and Daniel Rodney. African Americans frequented the tavern as well, including Jacob Learmouth, Charles Dingee, Mingo Jacobs and Jack Maull. All of these men drank grog, milk toddy, slings, porter and wine. And, the ledger shows them paying with corn, salt, shoes, wood, potatoes, and articles of clothing.

To keep the operation of Sussex Tavern consistent with what was known about the drinking habits of the period, historical interpreters at LHS developed recipes for the various libations on offer, beginning with the most popular – grog. This is not unlike what seamen would have drunk while aboard their ships: a mixture of rum, sugar and lime juice (to help prevent scurvy).

The bittered sling combines whiskey, lemon juice, sugar, bitters and a dash of grated nutmeg, so perhaps it’s the ancestor of the current-day old fashioned. Another cocktail served at the Sussex Tavern is called sangaree. This tastes a bit like sangria, but is a bit more potent, made with Madeira or Port, brandy and orange liqueur. A rattleskull adds a bottle of porter to two fingers of rum and is best consumed in moderation.

Mary Rockett’s milk punch is the cocktail that generates the most questions and takes the most time to prepare, starting a few days in advance of the tavern opening. With origins in Great Britain, milk punch was very popular here during the 18th century. And, although milk is one of the ingredients, the cocktail is neither milky in flavor nor cloudy in appearance.

The key feature of milk punch is the clarifying step. Once you add milk to the mixture of citrus-infused brandy and fruit juice, you can watch the casein (milk protein) coagulate, forming a raft of curds. Once these are strained, the remaining liquid will be crystal clear with a hint of amber color and a rich flavor, similar to the body you’ll find in a wine that has aged for a long while.

With all the pouring and imbibing of alcoholic drinks on First Fridays, you will be reassured to know the requirements LHS has imposed on those working at the tavern. In addition to wearing correct period attire (not a costume, but hand-sewn pieces in the styles and fabrics worn at the time) everyone has to complete training and testing to earn ServSafe bartender certification.

If First Friday does’t fit your schedule, LHS offers private Tavern Nights by reservation to groups of at least 25 people. Several local homeowners associations have already enjoyed happy hour at the Sussex Tavern. And, if you’d like to try creating Colonial cocktails at home, I’ve included recipes here, all adapted from the Sussex Tavern.


2 oz rum
1/2 oz lime juice
1 t sugar
twist of lime

Combine rum, lime juice and sugar in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a short glass and garnish with lime twist. Yield: 1 serving.

Bittered Sling

2 oz whiskey
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
3 dashes bitters
twist of lemon
grated nutmeg

Combine whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a glass; garnish with lemon twist and a few gratings of nutmeg. Yield: 1 serving.


3 oz Madeira or red wine
1 oz brandy
1 oz triple sec
1/4 oz simple syrup
orange slice

Combine wine, brandy, triple sec and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a glass; garnish with orange slice. Yield: 1 serving.


2 1/2 oz rum
11 oz bottle of porter or stout

Pour rum into a 16-oz glass. Add porter or stout. Yield: 1 serving.

Milk Punch

2 C brandy
zested strips of 1 lemon
zested strips of 1 orange
2 C water
1/2 C sugar
5 T lemon juice
1/4 C orange juice
1 C whole milk

Combine brandy and zest strips in a covered container. Allow to steep at room temperature for at least 24 hours. Discard citrus strips and decant brandy into a bowl. Whisk in water, sugar, lemon juice and orange juice, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour milk into brandy mixture and gently stir curds. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes. Skim off curds on the surface. Line a fine-mesh strainer with a coffee filter and set over a pitcher. Pour mixture into the strainer; discard curds and coffee filter. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Yield: 1 quart.

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