Alcohol in the 18th Century: European Expansion

Important events impacted alcohol in the 18th century. European countries established colonies around the world during this time.

Also there were major scientific discoveries, political revolutions, and social developments. For example, temperance thought began emerging during the 1800s.

    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 in Recent Decades.


I.   General: Alcohol in the 18th Century

II.  By Date: Alcohol in the 18th Century

III. Resources

I. General: Alcohol in the 18th Century

  • The use 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. It was 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 GA tried prohibiting spirits. But it failed in the Oglethorpe Experiment of 1733-1742.7
  • The English Parliament promoted gin production to use surplus grain and to raise taxes. As a result, 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 their problems.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 greatly. Yet peak 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 peak, gin consumption quickly declined. From 18 million gallons in 1743, it dropped to just over seven million gallons in 1751. Then it fell under two million by 1758. It generally declined to the end of the century.14
  • A number of factors appear to have converged to discourage gin drinking. These include quality beer at lower price. Rising corn prices and taxes. This reduced 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 explorers in New Zealand wrote indigenous people were not fond of liquor. They reacted in disgust when they tasted it.16

II. By Date: Alcohol in the 18th Century


By 1700, sparkling Champagne had become very popular. In fact, 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. The government imposed prohibitions against other vineyards. That was to secure a Spanish wine monopoly.20


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

Cir. 1720

Rising rural prosperity in France enabled peasants for the first time to drink alcohol daily in grape-growing areas.22


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


In London, William Nicholson invented the hydrometer. It measures the alcohol content of beer, wine, and 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, gin production 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 discourage poor people from buying it.28


A group of drinkers in Bern, Switzerland, formed the Golden 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


John Wesley included a prohibition against drunkenness in the 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 bases for temperance societies.32


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


There were about 700 inns that served alcohol 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. That’s because he wanted to increase brewing. And the reason?  He got much revenue from it.37


Catherine the Great (1762-1796) of Russia established a system of alcohol monopoly franchises (otkupa). The goal was to increase taxes to the state.3


Wine growing came into CA from Mexico. Wine making became its oldest industry.3


The Wilderness Road was the northern route over the mountains from VA. 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. KY 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. This 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 domestic 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.

Rush’s idea was that alcoholism is an “odious disease.” His recommendations were  “whipping the patient severely.” He suggested also blistering the ankles, bleeding, and purging with toxic substances.

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 Rev. Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, distilled the first bourbon 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 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.5
  • 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 alcohol.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.


III. Resources

Popular Readings


1 Porter, R. English Society in the Eighteenth Century, p. 30. Lucia, S. A History of Wine as Therapy, p.8;

2 Aymard, M. Toward the History of Nutrition. In: Forster, R., and Orest, R., (Eds.) Food and Drink in History. Pp. 1-16.

3 Lukacs, P. Inventing Wine, p. 162.

4 ______  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. Pp. 225-240. P. 227. Good coverage of alcohol in the 18th century.

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

8 Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin, p. 17. Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society, pp. xxi-xxii.

9 Souria, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism, p. 20.

10 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization, p. 174. Good source on alcohol in the 18th century.

11 French, H. Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England, p. 271. Samuelson, J. The History of Drink, pp. 160-161. Watney, J., ibid., p. 16.

12 Mathias, P. The Brewing Industry in England, 1700 – 1830, p. xxv. Souria, J.,  ibid., p. 21;

13 Watney, J., ibid.  Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking, pp. 98-100.

14 Ashton, T. An Economic History of England, p. 243.

15 King, F. Beer Has a History, p. 117. Covers alcohol in the 18th century. Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine, p. 341.

16 Park, J. New Zealand. In: Heath, D. (Ed.) Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Pp. 201-212. P. 203.

17 Seward, D. Monks and Wine, 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, pp. 356-359.

22 Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society, p. 310. Good for facts on alcohol in the 18th century.

23 French, H. Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England, pp. 285-286.

24 Murphy, B. The World Book of Whiskey, p. 172.

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

26 Forbes, R.  Short History of the Art of Distillation, p. 190.

27 Austin, 1985, p. 307.

28 French, 1884, pp. 286-288.

29 Jellinek, E. Jellinek Working Papers. Popham, R. (Ed.), p. 83.

30 Kellenbenz, H. The Organization of Industrial Production. In: Rich, E., and Wilson, C., (Eds.)  The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe. Pp. 462-548. P. 537.

31 Austin., 1979, ibid.

32 White, W. Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.

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. 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, p. xxvii.

37 Ukers, W. All About Coffee, p. 42.

38 Cherrington, E. (Ed.) Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Vol. 5, p. 2331. Good treatment of alcohol in the 18th century and earlier

39 Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits, 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, 2013.

46 Ford, ibid.

47 Blocker, 2006, ibid.

48 Katcher, B. Benjamin Rush’s educational campaign against hard drinking. Am J Pub Health, 8(2), 273-281.

49 Gately, p. 331.

50 Grimes, W. Straight Up or On the Rocks, pp. 52-53. Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America, p. 33.

51 Taber, G. Judgment of Paris, 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, p. 76.

55 Magee, ibid..

56 Simon, S. Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Tax. TTB site.

57 Gately,  pp. 204-205.

58 ______, 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. Pp.203-223. P. 212.

62 Baker, P. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe, p. 7.

63 Burns, E. The Spirits of America, p. 182.


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