Alcoholic beverages played an important role in Colonial America from the very beginning. The Puritans brought more beer than water on the Mayflower as they departed for the New World. While this may seem strange for Puritans viewed from the modern context, it should be understood that drinking wine and beer at that time was safer than water - which was usually taken from sources used to dispose of sewerage and garbage. Their experience showed them that it was safer to drink alcohol than the typically polluted water in Europe. Alcohol was also an effective analgesic, provided energy necessary for hard work, and generally enhanced the quality of life.
For hundreds of years their English ancestors had consumed beer and ale. Both in England and in the New World, people of both sexes and all ages typically drank beer with their meals. Because importing a continuing supply of beer was expensive, the early settlers brewed their own. However, it was difficult to make the beer they were accustomed to because wild yeasts caused problems in fermentation and resulted in a bitter, unappetizing brew. Although wild hops grew in New England, hop seeds were ordered from England in order to cultivate an adequate supply for traditional beer. In the meantime, the colonists improvised a beer made from red and black spruce twigs boiled in water, as well as a ginger beer.
In a Depression-era bar in Melrose, Louisiana beer was designated X, XX, or XXX according to its alcohol content. The colonists also learned to make a wide variety of wine from fruits. They additionally made wine from such products as flowers, herbs, and even oak leaves. Early on, French vine-growers were brought to the New World to teach settlers how to cultivate grapes.
In J.W. Swarts Saloon in Charleston, Arizona in 1885 colonists adhered to the traditional belief that distilled spirits were aqua vitae, or water of life. However, rum was not commonly available until after 1650, when it was imported from the Caribbean. The cost of rum dropped after the colonists began importing molasses and cane sugar directly and distilled their own. By 1657, a rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful and within a generation the production of rum became colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry.
Almost every important town from Massachusetts to the Carolinas had a rum distillery to meet the local demand, which had increased dramatically. Rum was often enjoyed in mixed drinks, including flip. This was a popular winter beverage made of rum and beer sweetened with sugar and warmed by plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into the serving mug. Alcohol was viewed positively while its abuse was condemned. Increase Mather (d. 1723) expressed the common view in a sermon against drunkenness: "Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil."
In 1857, a distillery was founded in Waterloo, Ontario. Joseph E. Seagram became a partner in 1869 and sole owner in 1883, and the company became known as Joseph E. Seagram & Sons. Many decades later, Samuel Bronfman founded Distillers Corporation Limited, in Montreal, which enjoyed substantial growth in the 1920s, in part due to Prohibition in the United States.
In 1928, a few years after the death of Joseph E. Seagram (1919), the Distillers Corporation acquired Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, and took over the Seagram name. The company was well prepared for the end of Prohibition in 1933 with an ample stock of aged whiskeys ready to sell to the newly opened American market, and it prospered accordingly. Thus despite its earlier Waterloo history, the Seagram name is most closely associated with the Bronfman family. However, it is not correct to say, as is often done, that Samuel Bronfman founded Seagram, since the Seagram name itself pre-dated the company he founded.
Original Seagram Distillery buildings in Waterloo, now converted to residential condominiums
After the death of Samuel Bronfman in 1971, Edgar M. Bronfman was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) until June 1994 when his son, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., was appointed CEO.