Some thoughts on weights and measures, part one

Originally posted 20 April 2012

One of the challenges in writing this book was a problem faced by culinary historians and historical recreationists everywhere – when you see a common measurement, is it really what you think it is? For instance, when you see the word “Gallon” in an old British or Colonial American manuscript, it might be one of three different measures. There was a dry gallon, used for wheat and other grains, and two wet gallons, the wine gallon (3.75 liters) and the ale gallon (4.62 liters). There were also standardized measures for larger containers – the wine barrel contained 31.5 gallons, the beer barrel 36 gallons. When the question arose of which gallon was used for rum, I contacted historian Steve Bashore, who is restoring George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon. Steve contacted the cooper at Colonial Williamsburg, who confirmed that since spirits were usually aged in old wine barrels, when a gallon of rum is mentioned in a recipe, it is probably a wine gallon.

Handily for Americans who are recreating old rum recipes, the modern American gallon is based on the wine gallon, while the British Imperial Gallon is based on the old beer gallon. (In case you are interested, the two countries standardized their respective gallons in 1824.) Americans and others who use US measurements, your standard measuring cups and jugs may be your guide. For the rest of you, there are conversion tables aplenty on the web…