Alcohol in the 17th Century: Age of Discovery

Alcohol in the 17th century had great change. It was the Age of Discovery. European countries were rapidly expanding their exploration of the world. They made not only geographic discoveries, but material discoveries as well.

         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.


I.   General: Alcohol in the 17th Century

II.  By Date: Alcohol in the 17th Century

III. Resources

I. General: Alcohol in the 17th Century

  • “From the end of the sixteenth century, distilled drinks existed throughout the West.”1
  • The Dutch came to dominate the wine trade.2
  • Vintners began producing sparkling wine. This was a major event in the history of alcohol in the 17th century. It first occurred in England with still wine from Champagne stored in cellars over the winter. There it underwent a secondary fermentation. The English referred to it as “brisk champagne” in 1664. The French intensely disliked  bubbles in wine and tried to prevent them.3 But the English preferred them. Contrary to popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wine. Around 1668, he used strong bottles, invented a stronger enclosure, and began blending the contents. Yet another century passed before vintners solved the problem, especially bursting bottles, and sparkling Champagne was popular.4    
          Native North Americans
  • Except for several tribes in the Southwest, Native North Americans did not have alcohol beverages before the Europeans. Apaches and Zuni made alcoholic beverages for secular consumption. The Pima and Papago produced alcohol for religious ceremonial use. The Papago limited their heavy consumption to a single peaceable annual ceremony. Drinking among other groups was also infrequent and there were no drinking problems.5  
  • People began growing hops in Massachusetts. In MD laws encouraged both brewing and distilling.6
  • Rum was in demand because sub-Saharan Africans were drinkers.7
  • Franciscus Sylvius (Franz de la Boe), a professor of medicine at the University of Leyden, distilled spirits from grain.8
          “Triangle Trade”
  • alcohol in the 17th century
    The “Triangle Trade”

    In the “Triangle Trade,” people traded rum for West African slaves. They then traded slaves to the West Indians for more molasses. Distillers then  made the molasses into more rum. This three point trading arrangement became a part of colonial commercial life and prosperity.9

  • Almost every important town from MA to the Carolinas had a rum distillery. They met the local demand, which had increased greatly. People often often enjoyed rum in mixed drinks, including flip. They made this popular winter beverage of rum and beer sweetened with sugar. Plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into the serving mug warmed it.10
  • The VA colonists continued their traditional belief that alcoholic beverages are a natural food. And that they’re good in moderation. Beer arrived with the first colonists, who considered beer essential to their well being.11
  • Colonial CT required each town to ensure that a place was available for the purchase of beer and ale.12
  • Tavern owners in the American colonies monitored the behavior of their customers.13
          Tavern Owners
  • Tavern owners in the American colonies typically enjoyed high status in the community. The early records of Harvard show this. The records listed the names of students according to the social position of their fathers. Tavern owner’s sons preceded those of the clergy.14
  • “Beer brewing was one of the earliest industries in colonial America.”15
  • Distilling grew in the mid-to-late seventeenth century. The expansion of sugar production in the Caribbean greatly helped distilling. It provided the molasses needed for local distillers as well as those in Europe and North America.16
  • The Dutch promoted major improvements in wine making. This included fortifying wine, using sulphur for sanitizing, and late harvesting of grapes.17

II. By Date: Alcohol in the 17th Century


Germans founded a temperance society in Hesse. Its members pledged not to drink more than seven glasses of wine at a meal. And not to do so more than two times per day. They also pledged to refrain from “full guzzling” for two years after joining.19


alcohol in the 17th century
Dr. Alexander Nowell
  • In England, Dr. Alexander Nowell showed that ale stored in cork-sealed, glass bottles lasts longer.20
  • In Europe “There was a severe freeze, a cold April, a hailstorm in the summer. The wine was scarce and of poor quality.” That year a plague raged in the Palatinate, through Saxony and Prussia.21  People may have resorted to drinking less sanitary liquids due to the scarcity of wine.


English Parliament passed “The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness.”22


Bushmills, the oldest whisky currently distilled in the world, began in Ireland.23

The early American colonists made alcohol beverages from, among other things, carrots, tomatoes, onions and beets. Also celery, squash, corn silk, dandelions, and goldenrod.18


  • “[T]o stem the tide of mortality, the governor and the council of VA advertised for two brewers.”24
  • England passed a statute to punish “the inordinate and extreme vice of excessive drinking and drunkenness.”25


For the first time, England imposed a levy on malt.26


The wine trade was the most profitable industry in Rotterdam.27


France imposed state control of distilling.28


alcohol in the 17th centuryPeople drank widely and heavily during the first century and a half of the American colonies. This was typical of alcohol in the 17th century. People viewed alcohol positively but condemed its abuse. “In 1673, [Puritan minister] Increase Mather praised alcohol, saying that ‘Drink is in itself a creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness.'”29


  • The Puritans loaded more beer than water onto the Mayflower before casting off for the New World.30
  • The Pilgrims may have landed at Plymouth rather than sailing on because they were running out of beer.31

A brewery was one of Harvard College’s first construction projects. That was to ensure a steady supply of beer for the student dining hall.32


Anyone operating an ale-house without a license was subject to a fine and whipping.33


The New Netherlands began hop growing.34


The first attempt to impose prohibition in the New World occurred. Governor John Winthrop of MA attempted to outlaw all alcoholic beverages in Boston.35


Holland ordered the closing of all inns and taverns during worship hours and after 9:00 at night.36

Cir. 1633

alcohol in the 17th century
Sir Kenelm Digby

The modern wine bottle was an English invention. Its creator was Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665).  “[F]or the first time since the fall of Rome, Europe had the technology to age wine.”37

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, hand blown bottles largely replaced ceramic vessels for alcohol.38


Ireland began licensing the retailers of alcoholic beverages.39


The West India Company built a brewery on a lane that became known as ‘Brouwers Straet.’  It’s in what is now Manhattan in New York City.40


A traveller in Poland described heavy drinking there as a national failure.41


MA General Court attempted to maintain moderate drinking. It focused on the role of tavern keepers.  They wern’t to let anyone “drink excessively, or continue tippling above the space of half an hour.”42


VA began growing hop.43


The importation of rum into New England from the West Indies began. It became especially popular among poor people because of its low price.44


  • “The first mention of [rum] is contained in a description of Barbados, dating to 1651….”45
  • Tsar Alexis (1645-1676) of Russia abolished the kabak concession system. He renamed the concessions and tried to regulate them to increase his revenue.46


The North American colonies established their first distillery on what is now Staten Island in New York State.47


South Africa planted its first vineyard.48


A rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful. Within a generation the production of rum would become colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry.49

The British Navy issued its sailors a daily ration of rum from 1655 until 1970.63


Claret (i.e., red Bordeaux wine) was the most popular wine in Scotland and England at the beginning of the Restoration.50


MD passed a law to promote the establishment of inns. Each had a monopoloy on alcohol sales within a specific geographic area. The goal was to promote innkeeping, brewing, distilling, travel and commerce.51,


  • Russia reinstituted the alcohol concession system after the reforms of Tsar Alexis. This resulted in a significant decline in revenue to the state.52
  • Amsterdam had over 400 small distilleries.53
  • The first brand-name wine (wine sold as the product of a specific estate in France) was produced since ancient Egypt.54


In Germany, Saxony-Gotha enacted an ordinance outlawing public drunkenness and specified a fine as punishment for any violation.55


  • Dublin had about 4,000 families. It also had 1,180 ale-houses and 91 public houses.’56
  • A MA law prohibiting payment of wages in the form of alcohol resulted in a labor strike.57


A group of citizens petitioned Parliament for legislation to prohibit brandy, coffee, rum, tea and chocolate. It was because  ‘these greatly hinder the consumption of Barley, Malt, and Wheat, the product of our land.” Parliament did not take action.58


MA established the office of tithingman to report alcohol violations in homes.59


The Portuguese began adding brandy to wine before the end of fermentation to stop it. That leaves some of the natural sugar in the wine.60


Beer was the major drink of the English. Consumption rose throughout the decade to 104 gallons per capita for the entire population.61


William Penn, who founded PA, operated a commercial brewery in Philadelphia.62


War broke out between Britain and France and King Charles II banned the importation of French wine.64


The first true cafe (Cafe de Procope) opened in Paris.65


  • England passed “An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn.” Within four years the annual production of distilled spirits reached nearly one million gallons. Most of it was gin.66
  • Organizers formed the Bank of England to help the country fund wars. The bank’s shareholders lent the government money. They knew the government could guarantee returns based on the potential revenue from taxes on alcohol.67


  • In MA, Puritan minister Cotton Mather wrote “Wo to Drunkards.” The next year he blamed growing irreligiosty on excess drinking.68
  • William and Mary enacted heavy duties to discourage French wine trade and light duties to encourage Portuguese wine trade.69


“In 1697 Emperor Peter I [of Russia] ordered the Moscow patrarch ‘to forbid priests to go to the pubs [so as] not to tempt ordinary people.”’70


We’ve seen something of alcohol in the 17th century. Now let’s explore what happened to alcohol in the 18th century.


II. Resources

Popular Books

Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society.

Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.

Phillips, R. Alcohol: a History.


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

Esteicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century, p. 70.

Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, pp. 137-138.

Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine, pp.345-346. Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking, p. 5. Seward, D. Monks and Wine, pp. 139-143.

5 MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton, R. Drunken Comportment.

6 Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800, pp. 230 and 249. Good coverage of alcohol in the 17th century

7 Gately, p. 147.

8 Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse, p. 10.

9 Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use and Abuse, pp. 8-9.

10 Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America.

11 Baron, S. Brewed in America, pp. 3-8.

12 Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition, p. 7.

13 Aaron, P., and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D., (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Pp. 127-181. pp.132-133.

14 Krout, p. 44.

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

16 Smith, p. 38.

17 Esteicher, pp. 69-71.

18 Mendelson, J., and Mello, N., ibid.

19 Austin,  p. 203.

20 Churton, R. The Life of Alexander Nowell.

21 Esteicher,  p. 8.

22 Evans, W. Collection of Statutes connected with the General Administration of the Law. Vol. 3.

23 Tuohy, W. “Even in the bad times are good” at Old Bushmills. LA Times, Jan 4, 1981, part I, p. 7.

24 Gately, p. 120.

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

26 Monckton, H. A History of English Ale and Beer, p. 114.

27 Zumthor, P. Daily Life in Rembrandt’s Holland, p.174.

28 Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation, p. 102. Good for alcohol in the 17th century.

29 Mendelson and Mello, p. 10. Rorabaugh, Wi. The Alcoholic Republic, p. 30.

30 Royce, J. Alcohol Problems and Alcoholism, p. 38. Mansfield, S. The Search for God and Guinness, p. 6.

31 Eames, A. Secret Life of Beer, p. 17.

32 Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum, p. 20.

33 Bickerdyke, p. 115.

34 ______, p. 87.

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

36 Zumthor, p. 10.

37 Gately, p. 137.

38 Smith,  p. 16.

39 McGuire, E. Irish Whiskey, pp. 96-97.

40 Gately, p. 128.

41 Mundy, P. The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe, Asia, 1608-1667. Vol. 1. Travels in Europe, 1639-1647, p. 196.

42 Gately, p. 151.

43 Bickerdyke,  p. 87.

44 Austin, p. 240.

45 Gately, p. 142.

46 Effron, V. The tavern and saloon in Russia. Q J Stud Alco, 16, 484-503. Pp. 498-499.

47 Rouche,  B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.)  Alcohol and Civilization, p. 178

48 Esteicher, p. 116-117.

49 Roueche, p. 178.

50 Lundigan, C. “To the King o’er the Water” Scotland and Claret, c. 1660-1763. In: Holt, M., (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Pp. 163-184, p. 164.

51 Krout, p. 6.

52 Cherrington, E., (Ed.) Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Vol. 5, p. 2332.

53 Kellenbenz, H. The Rise of the European Economy, p. 538.

54 Esteicher, p. 67.

55 Austin, p. 236.

56 O’Brien, G. The Economic History of Ireland in the Seventeenth Century, pp. 139-196.

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

58 Bickerdyke, p. 118.

59 Austin, G., 1979.

60 Esteicher, 82.

61 Spring, J., and Buss, D. Three centuries of alcohol in the British diet. Nature, 270, 567-572. P. 567.

62 Raley. Beer History. Beer History website.

63 Royal Navy Rum – Issued to Sailors 1655 to 1970. History and Traditions of england website.

64 Charters, S. Wine and Society, p. 288. Good treatment of alcohol in the 17th century.

65 Leclant, J. Coffee and Cafes in Paris: 1664-1693. In: Forster, R., and Ranum, O., (Eds). Food and Drink in History. Pp. 86-97. P. 90.

66 Roueche, p. 174.

67 The History of Alcohol. History. website.

68 Austin, 1979.

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

70 Sidorov, P. Russia. In: Heath, D., (Ed.) Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Pp. 237-253. P. 238.