Alcohol During the Renaissance: 15th & 16th Centuries

The consumption of alcohol during the Renaissance could be moderate to heavy. However, drunkenness was a sin.

The Renaissance (“rebirth”) refers to the period from about 1300 to about 1600. During that time there was a revival of knowledge, art, architecture and science. It began in Italy and spread throughout the rest of Europe in an uneven pace. 

          This is Part of a Series

Alcohol in Antiquity.

Alcohol among the Greeks and Romans.

The Middle Ages and Alcohol.

Alcohol During the Renaissance.

Alcohol in the 17th Century.

The 18th Century and Alcohol.  

Alcohol in the 19th Century.

Alcohol in the Early 20th Century.

The Mid-20th Century and Alcohol.  

Alcohol 1980-2000.

Alcohol During the Renaissance: 15th Century

  • “Christian Europe emerged from the Dark Ages as a heavy-drinking culture. Alcohol had the reputation of a saint. No medical prescription was complete without it, nor, indeed, was any meal. Mothers brewed ale for their children. Alchemists used spirits in their search for the secrets of how to turn other substances into gold. Priests held wine aloft in chalices and declared it to be the blood of Christ. And drunkenness… was… a natural, indeed blameless, condition.”1
  • From the 1400s to the 1800s, wine was one of the staffs of life for Spaniards. The others were olive oil and bread. People also used wine for cooking, to preserve food, and as a medicine mixed with herbs. It was also often a substitute for unsafe water.2
  • England dominated the wine trade.3
  • “The Spanish found not one but a multitude of drinking cultures in their American possessions. Mesoamerican civilizations were perhaps the most ingenious in history in identifying potential sources of alcohol. They fermented cacti and their fruits, maize and its stalks, the sap of two-dozen species of agave. Honey, sasparilla, the seed pods of the mesquite tree, hog plums, and the fruit and bark of various other trees. The conquitadores remarked upon the ubiquity of alcohol. They observed that they had not found a tribe ‘content to drink only water.”4

          Christopher Columbus

  • On his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane from the Canary Islands. He planted it at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. This laid the foundation for a profitable rum industry.5
  • Many of the native types of alcoholic drink fell out of use after the Spanish conquest. One grew in popularity. It was pulquey. Its the fermented juice of maguey.6
  • Brewers established commercial breweries in Switzerland.7
  • alcohol during the RenaissanceThe Aztecs appear to have had the strictest drinking laws in history outside Islam.”8
  • French cities provided free wine on Catholic feast days and during celebrations.9
  • As early as the middle of the fifteenth century people made some attempts to bring about “Sunday closing” in England. This included not only alcohol but also other sales as well.10
  • As the end of the century approached, drinking brandy recreationally rather than medicinally increased. This was especially the case in Germany.11 In addition, commercial production and sale began to appear.12


Swedes distilled the first alcohol made from beer. The development of distillation was the most important development in alcohol during the Renaissance.13  


The use of alcohol in Nigeria almost certainly began long before Europeans arrived. “Palm wine and home-brewed beer from grains were the indigenous alcoholic beverages of importance.”14


Munich passed a law against the use of any ingredients other than barley, hops and water in brewing.15


Germany’s first brewing guild formed.16


Emperor Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire ordered severe punishment for drunkenness.17


The Navigation Act of 1490 in England stimulated wine imports from Bordeaux.18


The Scottish Parliament prohibited any adulteration of beer or wine on punishment of death.19


The ”brewsters” of London were numerous enough to found their own guild.20


France recommended that the proper ingredients for brewing were grain (the type not specified), hops and water.21

As Magellan prepared to sail around the world in 1519, he spent more money on Sherry than on weapons.22

Alcohol During the Renaissance: 16th Century

  • Protestant leaders did not differ substantially from the teachings of the Catholic Church. God created alcohol for consumption in moderation. It was for pleasure, enjoyment and health. But drunkenness was a sin.23
  • People saw moderate drinking as positive from this period through at least the beginning of the 18th century. But they did express increased concern over the negative effects of drunkenness. They considered it a threat to spiritual salvation and societal well being. Intoxication was also inconsistent with the emerging emphasis on rational control of self and world. And on work and efficiency.24

           Consumption Often High

  • The consumption of alcohol was often high. In the 16th century, alcohol drinking reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain. Polish peasants drank up to three liters of beer per day.25 In Coventry, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was about 17 pints per person per week. That compares to about three pints today.26 Nationwide, consumption was about one pint per day per capita. Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modern Sweden. English sailors received a ration of a gallon of beer per day and soldiers received two-thirds of a gallon. In Denmark, the usual consumption of beer appears to have been a gallon per day for adult laborers and sailors.27
  • “Gin conquered England in the sixteenth century.”29
  • “Alcohol production emerged in nearly every corner of the colonial world from the earliest days of European expansion.”30
  • The introduction of large quantities of alcohol into an environment dominated by colonial powers disrupted traditional indigenous social structures. This was the case even in areas with long traditions of drinking alcohol.31
  • The production and distribution of spirits spread slowly. Spirit drinking was still largely for medicinal purposes throughout most of the sixteenth century. This was said of distilled spirits. “[T]he sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth century consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it.”32
  • The Irish appear to have made the original grain spirit, whiskey. Its exact origins are unknown.33  Yet there’s evidence that by the 16th century people widely consumed it in some parts of Scotland.34


Vasili III

Tsar Vasily III (1505-1532) of Russia permitted his courtiers to consume as much alcohol as they wanted. But they had to live in a certain section of Moscow. This was so as not to corrupt the “lower classes” of people.35

Cir. 1510

Benedictine monks in France first produced the liqueur Benedictine.36


The German Beer Purity Law went into effect. It made it illegal to brew beer from anything other than barley, hops, yeast, and water.37

Cir. 1519-1521

alcohol during the Renaissance“The Maya produced an alcoholic beverage called balche before the Spanish conquest. They used honey, water, and the bark of a tree.”38 (The Spanish conquest of Mexico occurred 1519-1521.)

  • Tequila and mescal are considered national beverages of Mexico. They made appeared only after the Conquest. That’s when Spaniards brought knowledge of distillation processes they had learned from the Moors.39


  • Farmers first grew hops in England on a large scale.40
  • In Ireland, the proportion of spices and aromatics it contained determined the quality of distilled spirits.41


  • Hernan Cortes planted the first grape vines in the Americas. He did so in Mexico.42
  • Denmark established minimum requirements for commercial breweries to increase their size. This was to limit fire danger and simplify tax collection.43


In the wine producing areas of southern France, wine was a basic food. It was not elsewhere in the country.44


In England it was illegal for brewers to make their own barrels. This was to protect the livlihood of coopers.45

 In Japan during the sixteenth century, it was an insult to a host to remain sober. So guests who couldn’t drink would pretend to be intoxicated and then hungover. They would send thank you notes deliberately late and written in shaky characters.28  

Cir. 1532-1539

Brazil first distilled cachaça. Currently the third most popular distilled beverage in the world is cachaça. Distillers make it from fermented sugarcane juice, rather than molasses (as is rum). The exact date of its first production is unknown. Estimates range betwen 1532 and 1539.46


In Brazil, “The Portuguese planted grapes around Sao Paulo in 1532.”47


Brandenberg prohibited illicit brewing to protect the municipal economy. It relied on beer revenues.48


Brandenberg prohibited both brewing and serving alcohol on Sundays and high holy days.50


London passed a law regulating tavers. It regulated prices and required them to have licenses.51


Chile produced wine as early as 1555.52


  • Father Juan Cedran planted the first vineyard in Argentina.53
  • The Irish Parliament required licenses for distillers .54


The council of Nuremberg complained about the injuries caused daily by drunkenness. The city was also picking up drunken people lying in the streets.55


“Women of all conditions appear to have enjoyed a reasonable freedom to consume alcohol in Elizabethan times.”56


Distilling had become so active in Bordeaux that it was banned as a fire hazard.57


Beer was first available in glass bottles in Germany.58


Spaniards in Florida used wild grapes to make wine.59


In England, a court made a major decision about intoxication. “If a person that is drunk kills another, this shall be felony and he shall be hanged for it. And yet he did it through ignorance, for when he was drunk he had no understanding nor memory. But in as much as that ignorance was occasioned by his own act and folly, and he might have avoided it, he shall not be privileged thereby.”60


Lucius Bols established a distillery near Amsterdam. He was probably the first to produce gin commercially.61 It’s the oldest distillery in the Netherlands and one of the oldest in the world.62


The first official census in England and Wales was completed. There were about 19,759 retail alcohol outlets. That was about one for every 187 people.63 That compares to about one for every 657 people today.64


With the spread of Puritanism, attacks on intoxication and ale-houses increased.65


Bolivia produced its first wine.66


The first beer brewed in the New World was in 1587 at Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in Virginia. Brewers made it from Indian corn or maize.67


Henry III (1574-1589) of France permitted wine sellers and both tavern and cabaret owners to form a guild.68


Each man in the English navy had a daily ration of a gallon of beer.69


A professor at Tubingen in Germany criticized the drinking of toasts. He argued that the practice resulted in problems such as fighting duels.70


We’ve seen something of the history of alcohol during the Renaissance. Now it’s time to explore alcohol following that long period. On to the 17th Century.



Popular Readings

Crofton, I. A Curious History of Food and Drink.

Albala, K. Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe.

Abala, K, et al. A Cultural History of Food in the Renaissance.

Unger, R. Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.


1 Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, p. 76.

2 Gamella, J. Spain. In: Heath, D., (Ed.) Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Pp. 254-269. P. 257.

3 Esteicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century, 66.

4 Gately, pp. 95-96.

5 Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits, p. 17.

6 Gately, p. 97.

7 Jellinek, E. Jellinek Working Papers. Popham, R., (Ed.) Toronto: Addict Res Found, p. 76-77.

8 Gately, p. 98.

9 Dion, R. Histoire de las Vigne et du Vin, p. 61.

10 Bickerdyke, J. Ale and Beer, p 115.

11 Braudel, F. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, p. 171.

12 Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation, p. 97. Distilling alcohol during the Renaissance.

13 Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism, p. 17.

14 Oshodin, O. Nigeria. In: Heath. Pp. 213-223. P. 216.

15 Cherrington, E. (Ed.) Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. 1925-30. Vol. 1, p. 406. Good coverage of alcohol during the Renaissance.

16 Beer History.

17 Samuelson, J. The History of Drink, p. 105.

18 James, M. Studies in Medieval Wine Trade, p. 53.

19 Cherrington, p. 406.

20 Gately, p. 111.

21 Claudian, J. History of the Usage of Alcohol. In: Tremoiliers, J. (Ed.) Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Vol. 1. Pp. 3-26. P. 11.

22 History of Drinking: Uncorking the Past. The Econ, Dec 22, 2001, p. 31.

23 Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800, p. 194. Good for alcohol during the Renaissance.

24 ______, pp. 129-130.

25 Braudel, ibid. and (TED) Case Studies.

26 Monckton, H. English Ale and Beer, p. 95.

27 ______, pp. 170, 186, 192.

28 Austin, G. Perspectves on the History of Psychoactive Substance Use.

29 Sournia, p. 20.

30 Smith, F. The Archeology of Alcohol and Drinking, p. 38.

31 ______, p. 51.

32 Braudel, p. 170.

33 Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey, p. 7.

34 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S., (Ed). Alcohol and Civilization. Pp. 167-182. pp. 175-176. Alcohol during the Renaissance covered well.

35 Johnson, W. The Liquor Problem in Russia, p. 135.

36 Seward, D. Monks and Wine, p. 152.

37 Eden, K. History of German brewing. Zymurgy, 1993, 16(4).  German Beer Purity Law. NPR.

38 Adams, W. Guatemala. In: Heath. Pp. 99-109. P. 99.

39 Rey, G. Mexico. In: Heath, D. Pp. 179-189. P. 179.

40 Monckton, p. 193.

41 Morewood, S. Inventions and Customs of Ancient and Modern Nations, p. 618.

42 Esteicher, p. 103.

43 Glamann, K. Beer and brewing in pre-industrial Denmark. Scan Econ Hist Rev, 1962, 10, 128-140. P. 135.

44 Le Roy Ladurie, E. The Peasants of Languedoc, pp. 43 and 102.

45 Bickerdyke, p. 111.

46 Morgan, B. Brazilian Cachaca. TED Case Study #721.

47 Veseth, M. The BRICs: Misunderstanding Brazilian wine.

48 Dorwalt, R. The Prussian Welfare State Before 1740, p. 63.

49 Brennan, T. Cabarets and Laboring Class Communities in Eighteenth Century France. Ph.D. diss. Johns Hopkins U, 1981, pp. 221-222.

50 Dorwalt, ibid.

51 Wilson, G. Alcohol and the Nation: 1800 to 1935, p. 95.

52 Cardenas, A. Chile. In: Heath. Pp. 31-41. P. 32.

53 History of Wine in Argentina. TryVino website.

54 Morewood, p. 619.

55 Janssen, J. History of the German People. Vol. 15, p. 409.

56 Gately, p. 114.

57 Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine, p. 326. Covers alcohol during the Renaissance.

58 Ford, p. 16.

59 Stevenson, T. Sotheby’s Wine, p. 521.

60 Quoted in Holdsworth, W. A History of English Law. Vol. 8, p. 441.

61 Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking, p. 98.

62 Lucas Bols

63 Monckton, pp. 101-104.

64 ______, pp. 39-40.

65 Wrightson, K. Alehouses, Order and Reformation in Rural England, 1590-1660. In: Yeo, E., and Yeo, S., (Eds.) Popular Culture. Pp. 1-27. Pp. 16-18.

66 Early Wine Production in Bolivia.

67 Hellstrom, O. The Brewing Industry in Reading, Until 1880. Hist Soc Berks County website.

68 Austin, p. 182.

69 Sutherland, D. Raise Your Glasses, p. 16.

70 Janssen,  Vol. 15, pp. 393-396.