Alcohol in the 18th Century: European Expansion

Important events impacted alcohol in the 18th century. European countries expanded their activities establishing colonies around the world during this period. In addition, there were important scientific  discoveries, political revolutions, and social developments.

Alcohol in the 18th Century

  • The popularity of alcohol in Europe as a medicine was very high throughout the century.1
  • Alcoholic beverages played a major role in European diets, especially in providing much needed calories.2
  • Winemaking began in Australia (New South Wales) in the late part of the century.3
  • By the early 1760s, a London publisher was selling a cellar-record book for listing wine purchases and consumption.4


  • Hard cider served as a currency in the North American colonies.5
  • ‘Housewives in the northern colonies [of what is now the US] brewed beer every few days, since their product had a short shelf life.’6

Cir. 1720-Cir. 1750

  • The colony of Georgia attempted the prohibition of spirits. However, it failed failed in the Oglethorpe Experiment of 1733-1742.7
  • The English Parliment actively promoted gin production to utilize surplus grain and to raise revenue. Encouraged by public policy, very cheap spirits flooded the market. It was at a time when drunkenness had little stigma. The growing urban poor in London sought relief from the realities of urban life.8 Thus developed the so-called Gin Epidemic. In 1685, consumption of gin had been slightly over one-half million gallons.9 By 1714, gin production stood at two million gallons.10 In 1727, the official (declared and taxed) production reached five million gallons. Six years later the London area alone produced eleven million gallons of gin.11
          Gin Discouraged
  • Parliament passed legislation in 1736 to discourage consumption. It prohibited the sale of gin in quantities of less than two gallons.  It also raised the tax on it dramatically. However, the peak in consumption was seven years later. At that time, the nation of six and one-half million people drank over 18 million gallons of gin. A small minority of the population in London and other cities drank most of it. People in the countryside largely continued drinking beer, ale and cider.13 After its dramatic peak, gin consumption rapidly declined. From 18 million gallons in 1743, it dropped to just over seven million gallons in 1751. It fell under two million by 1758, and generally declined to the end of the century.14
  • A number of factors appear to have converged to discourage consumption of gin. These include the production of higher quality beer of lower price. Rising corn prices and taxes which eroded the price advantage of gin. Parliament imposed a temporary ban on distilling. Stigmatization of drinking gin developed. Criticism of drunkenness increased.  A rising standard of behavior criticized excess. Coffee consumption rose. Piety increased. And industrialization valued sobriety.15
  • ‘In the late 1700s and th early 1800s, several navigators and explorers [to New Zealand], such as Marion du Fresne (in 1772), noted that the indigenous people, the Maori, were not fond of liquor and reacted in surprise and disgust when they tasted it.’16


By 1700, sparkling Champagne had become very popular. It sold for twice the price of the best still wine from the region.17


Portugal established the oldest appellation system in the world, the Douro Valley.18


By 1714, gin production in England reached two million gallons per year, double that of 1696.19

Cir. 1717

‘The first large-scale vineyard was planted in northern Mexico around 1717, and various prohibitions [against other vineyard plantings] were decreed thereafter in order to secure the Spanish wine monopoly.’20


The profits of vintners in France increased as the demand grew for both inferior and good wines.21

Cir. 1720

Increasing rural prosperity in France enabled peasants for the first time to drink alcohol daily in viticultural areas.22


To control drunkenness, Parliament passed the Gin Control Act of 1729. It raised taxes on alcoholic beverage retailers.23


In London, William Nicholson invented the hydrometer. It measures the alcohol content of beer, wine or spirits.24


alcohol in the 18th centuryThe English navy gave sailors a additional choices. They could take their daily ration of alcohol as a pint of wine or a half-pint of rum. That was instead of the traditional gallon of beer. 25


  • In Holland, the production of gin increased 400% between 1733 and 1792.26
  • Parliament repealed the ineffective Act of 1729.27


Parliament passed a harsh new Gin Act. It increased the taxes on gin greatly. That was to virtually prohibit its purchase by poor people.28


A group of drinkers in Bern, Switzerland, formedGolden Louse society. Its member vowed to becoming intoxicated every day of the week.29


In Holland, there were 100 brewers employing 1,200 people.30

alcohol in the 18th century

John Wesley


John Wesley included a prohibition against drunkenness in the general rules of the Methodist church.31

1750 to Early 1800s

Various Native American tribes formed sobriety circles or alcoholic mutual aid groups. Some circles later become the basis for temperance societies.32


In most French boarding schools, wine provided the third largest source of calories.33


Native Americans formed the first sobriety circle. These circles sometimes later became the nuclei for temperance organizations.34


There were about 700 inns that served alcoholic beverages in Stockholm. This meant one inn per 88 residents. Today there’s about one restaurant per 700 residents35


Arthur Guinness established the Guinness brewery in Dublin.36


Frederick II, king of Prussia, imposed a high tax on coffee. He wanted to increase brewing, from which he derived substantial revenue.37

alcohol in the 18th century

Catherine the Great


Catherine the Great (1762-1796) of Russia, established a system of alcohol monopoly franchises (otkupa). They were to increase profits to the state.3


Wine cultivation came into California from Mexico and wine making became its oldest industry.39


The Wilderness Road was the northern route over the Alleghenies from Virginia. It had whiskey for sale at strategic points along its length. ‘[S]tills were the largest, most complex, and most valuable man-made objects to be carried over the mountains.’40


The U.S. War of Independence effected drinking behaviors. Trade with the West Indies, which remained British, ceased. So there was a demand for rum substitutes. The areas west of the Appalachians produced whiskey from corn they grew. Rye whiskey became more popular and Kentucky began to make Bourbon.41


In Basil, Switzerland, a commission investigated the damage caused by abusive drinking.42


George Washington wrote to John Hancock. The ‘benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed.’43

George Washington was his new nation’s first large distiller.44 His wife, Martha, enjoyed daily toddys. In the 1790s, “happy hour” began at 3:00 p.m. and cocktails continued until dinner.45


Vintners first used corks as a common stopper, which made wine bottle aging possible.46


Rising nationalism in the post-revolutionary years led American drinkers to switch alcoholic beverages. Rum depended on supplies from Europe’s Caribbean colonies. So they switched to whiskeys distilled from domestically produced grains.’47


alcohol in the 18th century

Dr. Benjamin Rush

Dr. Benjamin Rush published his pamphlet. An Enquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society. His idea was that alcoholism is an ‘odious disease.’ His recommendations were  ‘whipping the patient severely,’ blistering the ankles, bleeding, and purging with toxic substances. Parenthetically, he also promoted his belief that being black was a result of a curable skin disease. Rush called it negroidism. Intermarrying, he argued, helped spread the disease.48


The first convict fleet carried grape vines to the New South Wales colony.’49


alcohol in the 18th century

Reverend Elijah Craig

  • The Reverend Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, distilled the first Kentucky whiskey.50
  • After the French Revolution, the government confiscated the vineyards of the churches, abbeys and nobles. It  divided them into small plots and for many owners. French law divides property equally among heirs. This additionally subdivided vineyard property into ever smaller parcels of ownership. In Burgundy this led to the the rise of negociants or wine brokers. They buy wine from many owners, blend it, and then market it under their own names.51
  • The fourth president of the U.S., James Madison, proposed a law on beer. It was to encourage ‘the manufacture of beer in every State in the Union.’52

Folk hero Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) began wandering the northeastern U.S. planting seeds from apples. Being sour, The apples were sour and not for eating but for producing hard cider.53


Parliament made it illegal to pay wages in liquor.54


  • A licensing reform allowed grocers in England to retail spirits.55
  • The Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791 (the Whiskey Tax) imposed a tax on all distilled spirits produced in the US.56  


  • The new South Wales Corps began exerting control over the importation and distribution of alcohol in Australia. By 1795, they had a monopoly. And by that time alcohol had become the  medium of exchange. People could buy labor only with spirits.”57
  • Swiss Dr. Pierre Ordinaire  produced the first absynthe.58


During the Whiskey Rebellion, federal troops established the U.S. government’s ability and willingness to impose its power. It arresting those who refused to pay taxes on their products.59


England passed the Sale of Beer Act. It prohibited anyone convicted twice for selling without a license from ever holding a license to sell alcohol.60

Every signer of the American Declaration of Independence, without exception, drank alcoholic beverages.63

Late Eighteenth Century

‘Alcohol was virtually unknown in Australia until Europeans began arriving in the late eighteenth century.’61

End of the Eightenth Century

Absinthe began as a tonic in Switzerland at the close of the 18th century.62


We’ve looked at alcohol in the 18th century. Now it’s time to see what happened to alcohol in the 19th century.


Resources about Alcohol in the 18th Century

Brennan, T. Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth Century Paris. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 2014.

Brown, P., and Schwartz, M. Come Drink the Bowl Dry. Alcoholic Liquors and their Place in 18th Century Society. York, Eng: York Civic Trust, 1996.

Dodd, A., and Moss, P. Gloucester Alehouses. A Light Hearted Look at the Inns & Taverns of 18th Century Gloucester. Gloucester, Eng: Trio, 1985

Kellner, E. Moonshine. Its History and Folklore. NY: Weathervane, 1971.

Meacham, S. Every Home a Distillery. Alcohol, Gender and Technology in Colonial Chesapeake. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 2013.

Salinger, S. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 2004.

Sambrook, P. Country House Brewing in England, 1500-1900. London: Hambledon, 1996.

Stewart, B. Moonshiners and Prohibitionists. The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia. Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 2011.

Schmid, S., and Schmidt-Haberkamp, B. Drink in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. London: Routledge, 2016.

Taylor, A. Bacchus in Romantic England. Writers and Drink, 1780-1830. NY: St. Martin’s, 1999.


  • 1 Porter, R. English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin, 1982, p. 30. Lucia, S. A History of Wine as Therapy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963, p.8;
  • 2 Aymard, M. Toward the History of Nutrition. In: Forster, R., and Orest, R., (Eds.) Food and Drink in History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1979. Pp. 1-16.
  • 3 Lukacs, P. Inventing Wine. NY: Norton, 2012, p. 162.
  • 4 Lukacs,  p. 110.
  • 5 Cohen, N. The Comeback of a Colonial Beverage. The Allegheny Front/NPR, Nov 10,
  • 6 Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In: Holt. M. (Ed.) Alcohol. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp. 225-240. P. 227. Good coverage of alcohol in the 18th century.
  • 7 Austin, G. Perspectves on the History of Psychoactive Substance Use. Rockville, MD: NIDA, 1979.
  • 8 Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin. London: Peter Owen, 1976, p. 17. Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC – Clio, 1985, pp. xxi-xxii.
  • 9 Souria, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 20.
  • 10 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963, p. 174.
  • 11 French, H. Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England. London: Nat Temp Pub Depot, 1890, p. 271. Samuelson, J. The History of Drink. London: Trubner, 1878, pp. 160-161. Watney, J., ibid., p. 16.
  • 12 Mathias, P. The Brewing Industry in England, 1700 – 1830. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1959, p. xxv. Souria, J.-C.,  ibid., p. 21;
  • 13 Watney, J., ibid.  Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking. NY: Drake, 1971, pp. 98-100.
  • 14 Ashton, T. An Economic History of England. London: Methuen, 1955, p. 243.
  • 15 King, F. Beer Has a History. London: Hutchinson’s, 1947, p. 117. Covers alcohol in the 18th century. Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine.  Michael Joseph, 1966, p. 341.
  • 16 Park, J. New Zealand. In: Heath, D. (Ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Pp. 201-212. P. 203.
  • 17 Seward, D. Monks and Wine. London: Mitchell Beazley, 1979, p. 142.
  • 18 Portuguese Wine. Corks and Forks website.
  • 19 Ashton, ibid.
  • 20 Rey, G. Mexico. In: Heath. Pp.179-189. P. 180.
  • 21 Duby, G., and Mandrou, R. A History of French Civilization.  NY: Random House, 1964, pp. 356-359.
  • 22 Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985, p. 310.
  • 23 French, H. Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England. London: Longmans, 1884, pp. 285-286.
  • 24 Murphy, B. The World Book of Whiskey. Chicago: Rand McNall, 1979, p. 172.
  • 25 Sutherland, D. Raise Your Glasses. London: Macdonald, 1969, p. 16.
  • 26 Forbes, R.  Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948, p. 190.
  • 27 Austin, 1985, p. 307.
  • 28 French, 1884,pp. 286-288.
  • 29 Jellinek, E. Jellinek Working Papers. Popham, R. (Ed.) Toronto: Addict Res Found, 1976, p. 83.
  • 30 Kellenbenz, H. The Organization of Industrial Production. In: Rich, E., and Wilson, C., (Eds.)  The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1977. Pp. 462-548. P. 537.
  • 31 Austin., 1979, ibid.
  • 32 White, W. Slaying the Dragon: The history of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Bloomington, IL: Chesnut Health, 1998.
  • 33 Frijhoff, W., and Julia, D. The Diet of Boarding Schools at the End of the Ancien Regime. In: Forster, R., and Ranum, O, (Eds.). Food and Drink in History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1979. Pp. 73-85. P. 79.
  • 34 White, ibid.
  • 35 Nyberg, K., and Allebeck, P. Sweden. In: Heath. Pp. 280-288. P. 281.
  • 36 Mansfield, S. The Search for God and Guinness. Nashville: Nelson, 2009, p. xxvii.
  • 37 Ukers, W. All About Coffee. NY: Tea and Coffee Trade J Co., 1935, p. 42.
  • 38 Cherrington, E. (Ed.) Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Westerville, OH: Am Issue Pub, 1930. Vol. 5, p. 2331. Good treatment of alcohol in the 18th century and earlier
  • 39 Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits.  Seattle: Ford, 1996, p. 17.
  • 40 Gately, p. 216, p. 17.
  • 41 Sournia, p. 29.
  • 42 Jellinek,  p. 82.
  • 43 From George Washington to John Hancock, August 16, 1777. Nat Archives. Founders Online.
  • 44 George Washington: His New Nation’s Larest Whiskey Distiller. .
  • 45 Haught, R. Distilling the truth about George. Oklahoman, Feb 20, 2003.
  • 46 Ford, ibid.
  • 47 Blocker, 2006, ibid.
  • 48 Katcher, B. Benjamin Rush’s educational campaign against hard drinking. Am J Pub Health, 1993, 8(2), 273-281.
  • 49 Gately, p. 331.
  • 50 Grimes, W. Straight Up or On the Rocks. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993, pp. 52-53. Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America. NY: Free Press, 1982, p. 33.
  • 51 Taber, G. Judgment of Paris. NY: Scribner, 2005, pp. 26-27.
  • 52 Beer History website.
  • 53 NPR.  Johnny Appleseed Planted Stories of Myth, Adventure. April 17, 2011.
  • 54 Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey. Dublin: O’Brien, 1980, p. 76.
  • 55 Magee, ibid..
  • 56 Simon, S. Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Tax. TTB website.
  • 57 Gately,  pp. 204-205.
  • 58 Gately, p. 334.
  • 59 Hoover, M. The Whiskey Rebellion. TTB website.
  • 60 King,  p. 119.
  • 61 Kirkby, D. Drinking ‘The Good Life’ Australia c. 1880-1980. In: Holt, M. (Ed.) Alcohol. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp.203-223. P. 212.
  • 62 Baker, P. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe. Cambs, U.K.: Dedalus, p. 7.
  • 63 Burns, E. The Spirit of America. Philadelphia: Temple U Press, 2004, p. 182.