Unsure what to pour at Thanksgiving? Here's what they might have been drinking at the First Thanksgiving — or would have if they could have.

By Carl Hanson
Updated November 12, 2020
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Photo by Meredith

Before picking a wine for Thanksgiving dinner, you might consider things from the Pilgrims' perspective. Turns out, the Pilgrims were not the puritanical teetotalers of myth. They partook freely in beer, booze, and, when they could get it, wine.

By way of research, I've been revisiting Andrew Barr's award-winning book about American boozing habits, Drink: A Social History of America. Among other things, Barr drops some fascinating facts about the Pilgrims' arrival in the New World.

For instance, did you know the working sailors on the Mayflower booted their guests off the boat prematurely in order to protect their dwindling supply of beer? Barr suggests that had the sailors' suds held out, the Pilgrims would have been delivered further south. But alas, the poor Pilgrim's were punted at Plymouth. And forced to drink (gasp!) water.

Meanwhile, in Iain Gately's similarly titled book Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, we learn that the Pilgrims were put down in Cape Cod primarily because of bad weather. But just the same, the sailors were supremely stingy with their beer. Gately quotes William Bradford: "The passengers...were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have the more beer." A bit later, Bradford writes that when he was sick and asking for a small bit of beer, "it was answered that if he was their own father he should have none."

For beer lovers wearied by the tyranny of wine on Thanksgiving tables, that's news you can use. Go ahead, break open a beer or two. And raise a glass for Bradford and the other poor beer-deprived Pilgrims. You know they would have if they could have.

These days, there are plenty of elegant beers in fancy bottles that will look celebratory on the table. Try brown beers or a malty Oktoberfest style that will complement the roasty flavors of the meal. As a match for gravy-slathered potatoes and turkey, you can't miss with a refreshing, slightly bitter IPA.

Pregame like a Pilgrim. Sort of. | Photo by Meredith

But there's still a place at the Pilgrim's table for wine, of course. I did a little further digging in Barr's book and uncovered another interesting tidbit. It turns out the Mayflower, before being commissioned by English Separatists, was used to ship wine from Bordeaux to England.

In which case, by way of paying tribute to the Mayflower's early career as a workhorse carting clarets to London, you might drink a selection of Bordeaux. Bordeaux-style reds are food-friendly blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. They can be quite tasty with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Look for lighter styles, preferably low on the alcohol side and not too tannic.

Or go with the best of both worlds, consider an American-style Bordeaux blend from California or Washington -- or even a single varietal: a soft, fruity Merlot, for example.

For more Thanksgiving wine-pairing tips, check out The Right Wine to Pair with Every Thanksgiving Course.