Alcohol as a factor in ocean exploration?


I was interested – and amused – to learn that apple cider (the “hard” version, containing alcohol, rather than the “soft” version most Americans know) was a staple of early ocean exploration in one part of the world.  The BBC reports:

As chateaux vineyards are to Bordeaux and single malt distilleries are to Speyside, sagardotegi – family-run cider houses – are to the Basque Country.

. . .

What makes the cider story especially intriguing is how the industry grew in tandem with the Basque desire to conquer the seas. Historically, the kings of Castilla, the ancient region of north-eastern Spain, passed through the Basque Country en route to France, bringing money, merchants and trade in their wake. For the Basque city of San Sebastián and its nearby port Pasaia, this accelerated economic growth, and the construction of wooden frigates and brigantines sparked the coast into life.

The Basques were master mariners and were among the first to sail around the world – even accompanying Christopher Columbus to the New World. Their skills became in high demand when the world monetised whaling, as global demand for oil – for candles, lamps and soap – spiked. For much of this time – when flotillas of Basque vessels were bound, mostly, for Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada – the whalers drank cider, with cargo holds loaded to the gunwales with untapped kupelas (barrels) of fermented apple cider. Water soured quickly during long periods at sea. Wine was far more expensive to produce. More agreeably, apples were everywhere. And cheap.

The first whalers from the Basque Country took off in the 15th Century, and – thanks to the local cider and its high doses of Vitamin C – the sailors were rarely affected by the ravages of scurvy. By the 16th Century, the whalers had become renowned throughout the world for their stamina, giving the Basques an almost secret advantage over other seafaring nations and regions. It was a magical time for the apple farmers, with more cider needed than ever before and more cider houses built. San Sebastián, in effect, was built off the profits. In homage to this history, Alboala, a museum in Pasaia, is currently building a full-scale replica of the San Juan, a whaler’s ship that sank off the coast of Labrador in 1565.

“Nothing lasts forever,” said Arratibel, as we reflected on the past. “Just as there was a boom, the whaling industry crashed, and the cider industry was in financial turmoil. Cider houses and pressing machines were closed, apple trees were cut down and other crops were introduced.” At the end of 19th Century, at the peak, there were 100 cider houses in the city of San Sebastián alone. Now none of them remain. Across the Basque Country, many cider houses were forced to close, and shifting tastes saw cider house culture eviscerated before the region’s now world-famous Rioja wineries entered the scene.

There’s more at the link.

I’ve tasted Basque apple cider, and enjoyed it;  but I had no idea it had fueled Europe’s early expansion across the Atlantic Ocean into the Americas.  Next time, I’ll drink it with more respect!



  1. I've read that apple cider is alcoholic everywhere in the world but the US, prohibition did that.

    I didn't know that the Basque were know as a sea faring people.

  2. And in England the West Country (home to Plymouth and Bristol both of which were major oceanic ports) is also renowned for its cider. They still make a lot of it and it seems to be undergoing a craft beer inspired renaissance

  3. There is a version of hard cider known as Scrumpy in the UK. Cheap way to get plastered but hell on the eyes.

  4. Back when, the less than desirable apples went to the hard cider and vinegar presses. Don't know about now.

  5. I also didn't associate Basque with seafaring. Here in Idaho, the Basque are associated with sheep herding.

  6. @Timbotoo

    Depends on what went into the scrumpy along with the apples. Since Scrumpy is often homebrewed you can never be too sure. But I've had some very good non-hangover etc. inducing scrumpy

  7. Enjoy your cider, but watch out lest you drink Johnny Jump Up! (cider "accidentally" mixed with whiskey) Good Irish song.

  8. It's well-known that alcohol helped one chef on the Titanic to survive. He got himself thoroughly inebriated before jumping into the water and the alcohol in his bloodstream helped him survive.

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