Ask Rufus: From Cordials to Kool-Aid


Portable liquor case that was used by the Billups family in Columbus during the 1850s.

Portable liquor case that was used by the Billups family in Columbus during the 1850s.
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Rufus Ward



As warm weather arrives people in the South turn their thoughts to their favorite beverages. Be it bourbon on the rocks or a refreshing lemonade, everyone has a favorite summertime drink. That was even more true in the days before air-conditioning made summer in the South so much more tolerable. 


A review of 19th century recipes from Columbus provides an interesting insight into people's taste. The oldest cookbook used in Columbus that I have seen is an 1825 copy of "The Virginia Housewife." Most of the drinks in that cookbook are listed in a chapter called "Cordials, & etc." In the 1800s, a cordial was a sweet drink, that may or may not have contained alcohol, served warm, generally after a meal. 


In 1825, favorite drinks included: Ginger Wine, Orgeat (a milk, cinnamon and almond drink,) Cherry Brandy, Rose Brandy (made from fragrant rose,) Raspberry Cordial, Mint Cordials, Peach Cordial (made with fresh peaches sliced and aged 4 to 6 weeks in peach brandy and brown sugar,) and Ginger Beer. 


In the golden age of steamboats, steamers were leaving Columbus on an almost daily basis for Mobile. With many boats to pick from, people often selected the boat they would travel on based on the steamer's cook or bartender. One New York writer traveling on an Alabama steamboat in 1858 described the boat's food and drink as comparable to that of a Paris restaurant. The list of supplies for the Steamboat Tropic in the Columbus to Mobile area in 1837 includes the following beverages on board: coffee, tea, French cordial, and whiskey. 


The popular beverages of the mid-1800s are provided in Sally Govan Billups' 1866 cookbook "Southern Cookery." Beverages are included in two chapters. One chapter is titled; "Wines and Cordials." The other beverages are listed in a chapter titled simply "Miscell- aneous." The list of wine recipes include: muscadine, blackberry and port wine Sangaree. Cordials were blackberry and strawberry. Other drinks were peach brandy, grape brandy, corn beer, hop beer, ginger beer, persimmon beer, egg nogg, mint julep, milk punch and lemonade. 


The cookbook also contained a drink called "instantaneous ginger beer" Instructions were: "Fill a bottle with pure cold water; have a cork ready to fit it, also a string to tie it down with, and a mallet to drive the cork in, so that no time may be lost. Now put into the bottle sugar to your taste and a teaspoon of good ginger. Shake it well; then add the sixth part of an ounce of soda, cork rapidly, and tie it down. Shake the bottle well, cut the string, the cork will fly out, and you may then drink the beer." Beer often referred to a beverage that was carbonated but not necessarily fermented. 


After the Civil War, the beverage market began to change with the bottling of ready-to-drink products. Anheuser-Busch first produced beer in glass bottles in 1876 and Coca-Cola began bottling Cokes in 1894. 


By the time "The New Dixie Receipt Book" came out in 1902, the Southern taste was becoming more modern. Root beer was no longer made from scratch. The recipe, rather than giving ingredients, stated: "A cooling, non-intoxicating and healthful drink for summer is Hire's Root-Beer. Procure a bottle of Hire's root-beer extract of your grocer and follow directions for making." Even the recipe for "a summer drink," which was ginger beer, called for using Hire's and adding ginger to the mix. 


A new beverage also appeared on the Columbus scene, the milk shake. To make a milk shake "fill a glass 2/3 full of milk, sweeten to taste with any fruit syrup or with sugar and then flavor with vanilla or orange water. Fill up glass with cracked ice and shake together until well mixed." 


It was the beginning of the 1900s that saw the increasing popularity of iced drinks such as flavored teas and the wide spread sales of bottled sodas and beer. The beverage taste of the South had entered a new century.  


And to answer the question that started me on this topic: that children's drink of choice, Kool-Aid, was invented in 1927 by Edwin Perkins as a drink called "Fruit Smack." He changed the name to Kool-Aid, and in 1953, sold it to General Foods. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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