By Patrick Evans-Hylton 

There’s always been a place where Virginians could gather and enjoy a drink or two. But in our 400-plus year history, the bar (if you will pardon the pun) has been raised.

Taverns were well established in England prior to colonists coming to Virginia, so it makes sense that they would become part of the landscape here, as well.

Early Beginnings

Tavern is a term that grew in favor in the late 17th century to describe a place to grab a bite to eat and a drink. As the colony, and later towns like Williamsburg and Norfolk, grew, taverns multiplied – oftentimes popping up next to courthouses, where folks would come from all over to conduct business. 

Some taverns offered overnight accommodations, but increasingly the word “inn” was used to differentiate between a waypoint for eats and drinks and one for lodging. Another early term for taverns was “ordinary,” and the two were generally used interchangeably.

A feature of many taverns was a cage, used as a barrier between the tavern keeper and consumer, where orders were placed and prepared, as opposed to the long bar that is familiar today. Many folks frequented taverns, including women and children.

The bill of fare was largely dependent on what was available to the establishment owner. They may make their own beer, cider or wine. If they were lucky, they could get a hold of rum, maybe even from a Virginia distillery. 

Early cocktails comprised rum by the drink or in punches, or wine turned into sangrias or sangarees. What is known largely comes from advertisements, court records such as legal actions and licensing, and diaries. 

At the time, the prices of beverages were regulated by the county court. According to Norfolk County records, patrons would have enjoyed:

  • Rum, priced at 6 shillings per gallon
  • Punch, “if made good,” at 16 pence per quart
  • Cider, 12 pence per gallon
  • Small beer (a lower alcohol brew), 7-1/2 pence per gallon
  • Madeira, 22-1/2 pence per quart
  • Milk Punch, 7-1/2 pence per quart
  • Claret, 3 shillings, 3-1/2 pence per quart

By the early part of the 19th century, true restaurants would emerge, and taverns and ordinaries would begin to more closely resemble the types of Virginia bars and other watering holes enjoyed today.

The Rise of the Bar

While the terms tavern, inn and ordinary are still sometimes in use, often in relation to an establishment that has some age to it, a new term rose to popularity in the 18th century. Bars, sometimes called a saloon or pub, emerged as a place to spend leisure time, particularly enjoying alcoholic beverages. 

The etymology of the word bar is pretty simple. As the design of drinking establishments shifted to include a long barrier, or bar, between the patrons and persons serving the drink, the name stuck. Folks no longer ordered their drinks and walked them back to tables; they sat at the bar on stools and engaged the person making the drink, or the bartender.

Saloon was another word that grew in popularity as well, the Anglicized version of the French word salon. These weren’t the saloons you think of in the western frontier. Saloons in the east were often larger than bars and more often found in hotels. 

Taverns Today

While Virginia bars and restaurants are certainly more commonplace today, there are still plenty of historic taverns serving up period dishes and drinks in charming, reconstructed 18th century buildings. Here are some of my favorites:

Red Fox Tavern in Middleburg, VA

Photo: Red Fox Tavern

The Recipes


The English had a tradition of mixing alcohol with milk, such as with the posset and syllabub. Another offering was milk punch, a highly spirited mixture of milk, sugar, vanilla extract and a spirit, be it brandy, rum or whiskey. Milk Punch was on John Redwood’s tavern’s bill of fare in Norfolk in 1693.

Simple Syrup Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

Cocktail Ingredients

  • 3 ounces milk
  • 1-1/2 ounces spiced rum
  • 3/4-ounce prepared simple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • Cinnamon stick


Make the simple syrup by adding the sugar and water to a small saucepan over medium-high heat and bringing to a boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Add to a sealable glass jar and refrigerate until use, up to 1 month.

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add milk, spiced rum, simple syrup and vanilla extract and shake vigorously until the drink is chilled. Strain into a Collins or martini glass and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and a cinnamon stick.

Makes one (1) cocktail. 


Like so many imbibes in colonial Virginia, sangaree is a type of punch. The name comes from the Spanish word sangre, meaning blood, for its blood-red hue. It’s a precursor to the more commonly known sangria.  

My version enhances the drink with a spirit like gin or rum; we like gin with this drink as a nod to the “London gin craze” of the era.

Cocktail Ingredients

  • 1 lemon wedge
  • 1/4-ounce simple syrup or 1/2 teaspoon confectioners’ sugar
  • 1-1/2 ounces Virginia red wine, preferably port style
  • 1 ounce gin or rum
  • 1 lemon slice
  • Freshly grated nutmeg


In a cocktail shaker, squeeze the lemon wedge and toss in. Add the syrup/sugar, wine, gin or rum and ice. Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon slice and a dusting of nugget.

Makes one (1) cocktail. 


Patrick Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales-trained chef, food historian and award-winning food journalist covering tasty trends in broadcast, electronic and print media since 1995. He is the author of Virginia Distilled: Four Centuries of Drinking in the Old Dominion. Read his work at