History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World: Wine, Beer and Spirits (Liquor)

Alcohol has provided a variety of functions for people throughout all history. From the earliest times to the present, alcohol has played an important role in religion and worship. So the history of alcohol and drinking is a fascinating part of our past.

Overview

I. Ancient Period

  • Egyptians
  • Babylonians
  • Chinese
  • Greeks
  • Hebrews
  • Persians
  • Romans

II. Early Christian Period
III. Middle Ages
IV. Early Modern Period

  • 16th Century
  • 17th Century
  • 18th Century

V. Summary

Historically, alcoholic beverages have served as sources of needed nutrients. They have been widely used for their medicinal, antiseptic, and analgesic properties.

The role of such beverages as thirst quenchers is obvious. They also play an important role in enhancing the enjoyment of life. They can be a social lubricant, facilitate relaxation, can provide pharmacological pleasure, and increase the pleasure of eating.

Thus, while alcohol has always been misused by a minority of drinkers, it has been beneficial to most.

I. Ancient Period

No one knows when beverage alcohol was first made. However, it was presumably the result of a fortuitous accident that occurred at least tens of thousands of years ago.

Late Stone Age beer jugs prove that beer was made at least as early as the Neolithic period.1 That was about 10,000 B.C. Anthropologists have suggested that beer may have preceded bread as a staple.2 Wine appeared in Egyptian pictographs around 4,000 B.C.3

The earliest alcoholic beverages may have been made from berries or honey.4  Winemaking may have originated in the wild grape regions of the Middle East. Oral tradition recorded in the Old Testament (Genesis 9:20) asserts that Noah planted a vineyard on Mt. Ararat in what is now eastern Turkey. In Sumeria, beer and wine were used for medicinal purposes as early as 2,000 B.C.5

The Egyptians

history of alcohol and drinking

Osiris

Brewing dates from the beginning of civilization in ancient Egypt6 and alcoholic beverages were very important in that country. Although many gods were local or familial, Osiris, the god of wine, was worshiped throughout the entire country.7

The Egyptians believed that this important god also invented beer.8 The beverage was considered a necessity of life and brewed daily in the home.9

Egyptians deified and offered both beer and wine were to their gods. Cellars and winepresses even had a god whose hieroglyph was a winepress.10  The ancient Egyptians made at least seventeen varieties of beer and at least 24 varieties of wine.11 Alcoholic beverages were used for pleasure, nutrition, medicine, ritual, remuneration12 and funerary purposes. The latter involved storing the beverages in tombs of the dead for their use in the after-life.13

The Babylonians

history of alcohol and drinking

Hammurabi

Beer was the major beverage among the Babylonians. In addition, as early as 2,700 B.C., they worshiped a wine goddess and other wine deities.17 Babylonians regularly used both beer and wine as offerings to their gods.18 Around 1,750 B.C., the famous Code of Hammurabi devoted attention to alcohol.

However, there were no penalties for drunkenness. In fact, it was not even mentioned. The concern was fair commerce in alcohol.19  Nevertheless, although it was not a crime, it would appear that the Babylonians were critical of drunkenness.20

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The Chinese

A variety of alcoholic beverages have been used in China since prehistoric times.21 Alcohol was considered a spiritual (mental) food rather than a material (physical) food. Many documents show the important role it played in their religious life.22

history of alcohol and drinking

Chinese character for alcoholic beverage

“In ancient times people always drank when holding a memorial ceremony, offering sacrifices to gods or their ancestors, pledging resolution before going into battle, celebrating victory, before feuding and official executions, for taking an oath of allegiance, while attending the ceremonies of birth, marriage, reunions, departures, death, and festival banquets.”23

A Chinese imperial edict of about 1,116 B.C. asserted that drinking alcohol in moderation was prescribed by heaven. Whether or not it was prescribed by heaven, it was clearly beneficial to the treasury. Alcohol was one of the treasury’s biggest sources of income.25At the time of Marco Polo (12547-1324?) people drank it daily.24

Alcohol was Pervasive

Alcoholic beverages were widely used in all segments of Chinese society. The were a source of inspiration, important for hospitality, and an antidote for fatigue. Of course, they were sometimes misuse.26 So laws against making wine were enacted and repealed 41 times between 1,100 B.C. and A.D. 1,400.27

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However, a commentator writing around 650 B.C. stated that people “will not do without beer. To prohibit it and secure total abstinence from it is beyond the power even of sages. Hence, therefore, we have warnings on the abuse of it.”28

The Greeks

The art of wine making reached the Hellenic peninsula by about 2,000 B.C.29 But the first alcoholic beverage to obtain widespread popularity in what is now Greece was mead. It’s a fermented beverage made from honey and water.

However, by 1,700 B.C., wine making was commonplace. During the next thousand years wine drinking assumed the same function so commonly found around the world. It was incorporated into religious rituals, became important in hospitality, was used medicinally, and became a part of daily meals. As a beverage, it was drunk in many ways. It could be warm or chilled, pure or mixed with water, plain or spiced.30

Contemporary writers observed that the Greeks were among the most temperate of ancient peoples. Their rules stressed moderate drinking, they praised temperance, and they avoided excess in general.31

history of alcohol and drinking

Dionysus

Dionysus

An exception to this ideal of moderation was the cult of Dionysus. Followers believed that intoxication brought them closer to their deity.32

While habitual drunkenness was rare, intoxication at banquets and festivals was not unusual.33  The symposium was a gathering of men for an evening of conversation, entertainment and drinking. It typically ended in intoxication.34  There are no references in ancient Greek literature to mass drunkenness among the Greeks. However, there are references to it among foreign peoples.35  By 425 B.C., warnings against intemperance, especially at symposia, appear to become more frequent.36

 Moderation Praised

Xenophon (431-351 B.C.) and Plato (429-347 B.C.) both praised the moderate use of wine as beneficial to health and happiness. But both were critical of drunkenness, which appears to have become a problem.

history of alcohol and drinking

Hippocrates

Hippocrates (cir. 460-370 B.C.) identified numerous medicinal properties of wine, which had long been used for its therapeutic value (Lucia, 1963a, pp. 36-40). Later, both Aristode (384-322 B.C.) and Zeno (cir. 336-264 B.C.) were very critical of drunkenness.37

Among Greeks, the Macedonians viewed intemperance as a sign of masculinity and were well known for their drunkenness. Their king, Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), whose mother adhered to the Dionysian cult, developed a reputation for inebriety.38

The Hebrews

The Hebrews were reportedly introduced to wine during their captivity in Egypt. Moses led them to Canaan (Palestine) around 1,200 B.C. At that time they expressed regret leaving behind the wines of Egypt (Numbers 20:5). However, they found vineyards to be plentiful in their new land.39 Around 850 B.C., the Rechabites and Nazarites criticized the use of wine. They were two conservative nomadic groups who practiced abstinence from alcohol.40

In 586 B.C., the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians and deported to Babylon. However, in 539 B.C., the Persians captured the city and released the Hebrews from their Exile (Daniel 5:1-4).

Judaism
history of alcohol and drinking

The Talmud

Following the Exile, the Hebrews developed Judaism as it is now known. At that point they became Jews. During the next 200 years, sobriety increased and pockets of antagonism to wine disappeared. It became a common beverage for all classes and ages, including the very young. Wine was many things.

  • An important source of nourishment.
  • A prominent part in the festivities of the people.
  • An essential provision for any fortress; and an important commodity.
  • A widely appreciated medicine.

In short, wine came to be seen as a necessary element in the life of the Hebrews.41

While there was still opposition to excessive drinking, it was no longer assumed that drinking inevitably led to drunkenness. Wine came to be seen as a blessing from God and a symbol of joy (Psalms 104; Zachariah 10:7).

history of alcohol and drinkingThese changes in beliefs and behaviors appear to be related to a rejection of belief in pagan gods. To a new emphasis on individual morality. And the integration of secular drinking behaviors into religious ceremonies.42 The Kiddush is the pronouncement of the Sabbath. Around 525 B.C., it was ruled that the Kiddush should be recited over a blessed cup of wine. This established the regular drinking of wine in Jewish ceremonies outside the Temple.43

The Persians

history of alcohol and drinking

King Cyrus of Persia

King Cyrus of Persia frequently praised the virtue of the moderate consumption of alcohol (cir. 525 B.C.). However, ritual intoxication appears to have been used as an adjunct to decision making. After the death of Cyrus, drunkenness was not uncommon.44

The Romans

Historians agree that the Romans practiced great moderation in drinking between the founding of Rome and  the third century B.C.45

The Roman conquered the Italian peninsula and the rest of the Mediterranean basin between 509 and 133 B.C. After that, the traditional Roman values of temperance, frugality and simplicity declined. They were gradually replaced by heavy drinking, ambition, degeneracy and corruption.46 The Dionysian rites (Bacchanalia, in Latin) spread to Italy during this period and were subsequently outlawed by the Senate.47

Excessive Drinking

Some practices encouraged excessive drinking. They included drinking  on an empty stomach, vomiting to permit drinking more wine, and drinking games. The latter included, for example, rapidly consuming as many cups as indicated by a throw of the dice.48

history of alcohol and drinking

Cato the Elder

By the second and first centuries B.C., intoxication was no longer a rarity. Consequently most prominent men of affairs were praised for their moderation in drinking. They included Cato the Elder and Julius Caesar.

This would appear to be in response to growing misuse of alcohol in society. That’s because before that time temperance was not singled out for praise as exemplary behavior. As the republic continued to decay, excessive drinking spread. Some, such as Marc Antony (d. 30 B.C.), even took pride in their destructive drinking behavior.49

II. Early Christian Period

Christianity gradulally began displacing the previously dominant religions. As this occurred. European drinking attitudes and behaviors of Europe began to change. The New Testament was influencing people.50 

The earliest biblical writings after the death of Jesus (cir. A.D. 30) contain few references to alcohol. This may be because drunkenness was largely an upper-status vice with which Jesus had little contact.51 Jesus used wine (Matthew 15:11; Luke 7:33-35) and approved of its moderate consumption (Matthew 15:11).

history of alcohol and drinkingOn the other hand, Jesus severely attacked drunkenness (Luke 21:34,12:42; Matthew 24:45-51).

The later writings of St. Paul (d. 64?) deal with alcohol in detail. He considered wine to be a creation of God and therefore inherently good (1 Timothy 4:4). St. Paul also recommended its use for medicinal purposes (1 Timothy 5:23). But he consistently condemned drunkenness (1 Corinthians 3:16-17,5:11,6:10; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 13:3) and recommended abstinence for those who could not control their drinking.

Heretical Sects

However, late in the second century, several heretical sects rejected alcohol and called for abstinence. By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the Church responded. It asserted that wine was an inherently good gift of God to be used and enjoyed. While individuals may choose not to drink, to despise wine was heresy. The Church advocated its moderate use but rejected excessive or abusive use as a sin. Those individuals who could not drink in moderation were urged to abstain.52  

Wine or Only Grape Juice?

Both the Old and New Testaments are clear and consistent in their condemnation of drunkenness. However, some Christians today argue that whenever “wine” was used by Jesus or praised, it was grape juice. Only when it caused drunkenness was it wine. Thus, they interpret the Bible as asserting that grape juice is good and that drinking it is acceptable to God. But they think that wine is bad and that drinking it is unacceptable.

This reasoning appears to be incorrect for at least two reasons. First, neither the Hebrew nor Biblical Greek word for wine can be translated or interpreted as referring to grape juice. Second, grape juice would quickly ferment into wine in the warm climate of the Mediterranean region.53

history of alcohol and drinking

St. Martin of Tours

The spread of Christianity and of viticulture in Western Europe occurred simultaneously.54 Interestingly, St. Martin of Tours (316-397) was actively engaged in both spreading the Gospel and planting vineyards.55

Jewish Reaction to Christianity

Christianity was converting many Jews and threatening traditional Jewish culture.56 To counter this threat, detailed rules about the use of wine were incorporated into the Talmud. Wine was integrated into many religious ceremonies in limited quantity.57

Moderation

Many accounts of the period stressed the importance of moderation, and these norms were both secular and religious.14 Egyptians did not generally appear to define inebriety as a problem. But they warned against taverns (which were often houses of prostitution) and excessive drinking.15

Analysis

The historian Darby reviewed the extensive evidence about drinking. Then he made a most important observation. All these accounts are warped by a simple fact. The moderate users “were overshadowed by their more boisterous counterparts who added ‘color’ to history.”16 

Thus, the intemperate use of alcohol throughout history receives a disproportionate amount of attention. Those who abuse alcohol cause problems, draw attention to themselves, are highly visible and cause legislation to be enacted. The vast majority of drinkers, who neither experience nor cause difficulties, are not noteworthy. Consequently, observers and writers largely ignore moderation.

Social and political upheavals rose as the fall of Rome approached in the fifth century. Concern grew among rabbis that Judaism and its culture were in increasing danger. (4)

Consequently, more Talmudic rules were laid down concerning the use of wine. These included the amount of wine that could be drunk on the Sabbath. Also the way it was to be drunk. The rules addressed the legal status of wine in any way connected with idolatry. They also specified the extent of personal responsibility for behavior while intoxicated.58

Abuse of Alcohol

Roman abuse of alcohol appears to have peaked around mid-first century.59 Wine had become the most popular beverage. As Rome attracted a large influx ofdisplaced persons, it was distributed free or at cost.60 This led to occasional excesses at festivals, victory triumphs and other celebrations, as described by contemporaries.

The four emperors who ruled from A.D. 37 to A.D. 69 were all abusive drinkers. However, the emperors who followed werevery temperant. Literary sources suggest that problem drinking decreased substantially in the Empire. There continued to be some criticisms of abusive drinking over the next several hundred years. Yet most evidence indicates a decline of such behavior.61 The fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire occurred in 476.62

Around A.D. 230, the Greek scholar Athenaeus wrote extensively on drinking and advocated moderation. The extensive attention to drinking, famous drinks, and drinking cups reflected the importance of wine.63

III. Middle Ages

The Middle Ages lasted about one thousand years. It existed between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the High Renaissance (cir. 1500). It saw numerous developments in life in general and in drinking in particular.

In the early Middle Ages, mead, rustic beers, and wild fruit wines became increasingly popular. This was especially among Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and Scandinavians. However, wines remained the beverage of preference in the Romance countries (what is now Italy, Spain and France).64

Monasteries

history of alcohol and drinkingWith the collapse of the Roman Empire, monasteries became the repositories of the brewing and winemaking techniques.65  Production of rustic beers continued in homes. But the art of brewing essentially became the province of monks, who carefully guarded their knowledge.66

Monks brewed virtually all beer of good quality until the twelfth century. Around the thirteenth century, hops (which both flavors and preserves) became a common ingredient in some beers. This was especially the casein northern Europe.67   Hops both flavors and preserves the beverage. Ale, often a thick and nutritious soupy beverage, soured quickly and was made for local consumption.68

Viticulture

Not surprisingly, the monasteries also maintained viticulture. Importantly, they had the resources, security, and stability in that often-turbulent time. This enabled them to improve the quality of their vines slowly over time.69 The monks also had the education and time necessary to enhance their viticultural skills.70

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Throughout the Middle Ages, the best vineyards were owned and tended by the monasteries. Not surprisingly, vinum theologium was considered superior to others.71

Monasteries made wine necessary to celebrate the mass. But they also produced large quantities to support the monastic movement.72 Most wine was made and consumed locally. But some wine trade did continue in spite of the deteriorating roads.73

By the millennium, the most popular form of festivities in England were “ales.” Both ale and beer were at the top of lists of products to be given to lords for rent. In twelfth-century Germany, towns were granted the privilege of brewing and selling beer in their localities. A flourishing artisan brewing industry developed in many towns, about which there was strong civic pride.74

Distillation

The most important development regarding alcohol throughout the Middle Ages was probably that of distillation.

history of lalcohol and drinking

Albertus Magnus

Interestingly, considerable disagreement exists concerning who discovered distillation and when the discovery was made. However, it was Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) who first clearly described the process.75

Knowledge of the process began to spread slowly among monks, physicians and alchemists. They were largely interested in distilled alcohol as a cure for ailments. At that time it was called aqua vitae, “water of life,” but was later known as brandy. The latter term was derived from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt (or distilled) wine.76

The Black Death

The Black Death and subsequent plagues began in the mid-fourteenth century. They dramatically changed people’s perception of their lives and place in the cosmos.

history of alcohol and drinking

Flagellants

People had no understanding or control of the plagues. The diseases killed as many as 82% of the people in some villages. People became desperate. Thus, “processions of flagellants mobbed city and village streets, hoping, by the pains they inflicted on themselves and each other, to take the edge off the plagues they attributed to God’s wrath over human folly.”77

Alternatively, some dramatically increased their consumption of alcohol in the belief that this might protect them from the mysterious disease. Still others thought that through moderation in all things, including alcohol, they could be saved.

history of alcohol and drinking

Consumption High

It would appear that, on balance, consumption of alcohol was high. For example, in Bavaria, beer consumption was probably about 300 liters per capita a year. That comparet to 150 liters today. In Florence wine consumption was about ten barrels per capita a year. Understandably, the consumption of distilled spirits, which was exclusively for medicinal purposes, increased in popularity.78 As the end of the Middle Ages approached, the popularity of beer spread to England, France and Scotland.79  Beer brewers were recognized officially as a guild in England.80 And the adulteration of beer or wine became punishable by death in Scotland.81 Importantly, the consumption of spirits as a beverage began to occur.82

IV. Early Modern Period

The early modern period was characterized by increasing prosperity and wealth. Towns and cities grew in size and number, foreign lands were discovered and colonized, and trade expanded.

Perhaps more important, there developed a new view of the world. The medieval period emphasized other-worldliness. This is the belief that life in this world is only a preparation for heaven. That view slowly declined, especially among the wealthy and well educated. It was largely replaced by an interest in life here and now.83

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation and rise of national states destroyed the ideal of a universal Church. Of one that oversaw a Holy Roman Empire. Rationality, individualism, and science greatly increased. On the other hand, motional idealism, communalism, and traditional religion declined.84

history of alcohol and drinking

Martin Luther

However, beliefs of Protestant leaders such as Luther and Calvin did not differ substantially from those of the Catholic Church. They considered alcohol to be a gift of God. It was created to be used in moderation for pleasure, enjoyment and health. But drunkenness was a sin.85

People expressed increaseing concern over the negative effects of drunkenness. Self-indulgence was considered the cause of intoxication. And drunkenness was seen as a threat to spiritual salvation and societal well being.

Intoxication was inconsistent with the emerging emphasis on rational mastery of self and world. It was alsoinconsistent with work and efficiency.86

16th Century

However, consumption of alcohol was often high. In the sixteenth century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain. Polish peasants consumed up to three liters of beer per day.87 In Coventry, England, the average person had about 17 pints of beer and ale per week. Today, it’s about three pints.88

Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modem Sweden. English sailors received a ration of a gallon of beer per day, while soldiers received two-thirds of a gallon. In Denmark, the usual consumption of beer was a gallon per day for adult laborers and sailors.89

However, the production and distribution of spirits spread slowly. Spirit drinking was still largely for medicinal purposes throughout most of the sixteenth century. It has been said of distilled alcohol that “the sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth century consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it.”90

17th Century

The Virginia colonists continued their traditional beliefs about alcoholic beverages. They considered them  natural foods and good when used in moderation. In fact, beer arrived with the first colonists, who considered it essential to their well being.91

history of alcohol and drinking

Puritan leader Increase Mather

The Puritan minister Increase Mather preached in favor of alcohol but against its abuse. “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”92

During that century the first distillery was established in the colonies on what is now Staten Island.93 In addition, the cultivation of hops began in Massachusetts, and both brewing and distilling were legislatively encouraged in Maryland.94

Champagne

A beverage that clearly made its debut during the seventeenth century was sparkling champagne.

England produced the first sparkling wine. Still wine was imported from the Champagne region and stored in cellars over the winter. There a secondary fermentation occurred.

history of alcohol and drinkingThe English enjoyed the effervescence and called the product ‘brisk champagne.’  The English preferred bubbles in their wine. However, the French considered them to be an undesirable defect to be prevented.95

Dom Perignon

In spite of the popular myth, Dom Perignon didn’t invent sparkling wine. That false belief has been traced to ads published around the beginning of the 20th century for a Champagne company. That company produces, what else, Dom Perignon.

However, to take advantage of its popularity, Dom Perignon began to improve sparkling wine. He used strong bottles and developed a strong closure system. This helped contain the powerful buildup of pressure within the bottles. He also experimented with blending the contents. However, it took another century of work by others to solve problems, especially that of bursting bottles.96

The pressure in a bottle of Champagne is as high 90 pounds per square inch. That’s about three times the pressure in automobile tires.

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Whisky

The original grain spirit, whisky, appears to have first been distilled in Ireland. Its specific origins are unknown.97  However, by the sixteenth century it was widely consumed in some parts of Scotland.98 It was also during the seventeenth century that Franciscus Sylvius (Franz de la Boe) distilled spirits from grain.

Gin
history of alcohol and drinking

Juniper berries

Juniper berries generally flavored distilled spirit. The resulting beverage was known as junever, the Dutch word for “juniper.” The French changed the name to genievre. Then the English changed it to “geneva.” Finally the the English modified it to “gin.”99

Gin was originally used for medicinal purposes. Its use as a social drink did not grow rapidly at first.100 However, in 1690, England passed a law to promote distilled spirits. Within four years the annual production of distilled spirits reached nearly one million gallons. Most of it was gin.101

Rum

Rum is produced by distilling fermented molasses, which is the residue left after sugar has been made from sugar cane. No one knows when rum was first produced or by what individual. The first European settlers in the West Indies presumably invented it. But by 1657, a rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful. Within a generation rum production became colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry.102

18th Century

history of alcohol and drinkingThe dawn of the eighteenth century saw Parliament pass legislation designed to encourage the use of grain for distilling spirits. In 1685, consumption of gin had been slightly over one-half million gallons.103 By 1714, gin production stood at two million gallons.104 In 1727, official (declared and taxed) production reached five million gallons. Six years later the London area alone produced eleven million gallons of gin.105

Gin Consumption Increased

The English government actively promoted gin production to utilize surplus grain and to raise revenue. As a result, very cheap spirits flooded the market. There was little stigma attached to drunkenness. And the growing poor in London sought relief from the harsh realities of urban life.106 Thus developed the so-called Gin Epidemic.

While the negative effects of that phenomenon may have been exaggerated.107 Parliament passed legislation in 1736 to discourage consumption. It prohibited the sale of gin in quantities of less than two gallons and raised the tax on it dramatically.

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However, the peak in consumption was reached seven years later. At that time the nation of six and one-half million people drank over 18 million gallons of gin. And most was consumed by the small minority of the population then living in London and other cities; people in the countryside largely remained loyal to beer, ale and cider.108

Gin Consumption Decreased

After its dramatic peak, gin consumption rapidly declined. From 18 million gallons in 1743, it dropped to just over seven million gallons in 1751. Then to less than two million by 1758. It generally declined to the end of the century.109

A number of factors appear to have converged to discourage consumption of gin. They include these.

  • Production of higher quality beer of lower prices.
  • Rising corn prices and taxes which eroded the price advantage of gin.
  • A temporary ban on distilling.
  • Stigmatization of drinking gin.
  • Increasing criticism of drunkenness.
  • Newer norms criticized coarseness and excess.
  • Increased tea and coffee consumption.
  • An increase in piety.
  • Increasing industrialization and need for sobriety and labor efficiency.110

Drunkenness was still an accepted part of life in the eighteenth century.111 But the nineteenth century would bring a change in attitudes. This was caused by increased industrialization and the need for a reliable and punctual work force.112 Self-discipline was needed in place of self-expression, and task orientation had to replace relaxed conviviality. Drunkenness would come to be defined as a threat to industrial efficiency and growth.

Many Problems Blamed on Alcohol

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People blamed problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality rates on alcohol. However,  “it is likely that gross overcrowding and unemployment had much to do with these problems.”113

Over time, people blamed more and more personal, social and religious/moral problems on alcohol. Preventing drunkenness was not enough. Any consumption of alcohol became unacceptable. Groups began by promoting temperance – the moderate use of alcohol. But they later became abolitionist. They then pressed for the complete and total prohibition of the production and distribution of beverage alcohol.

Unfortunately, this would not eliminate social problems but would compound the situation by creating additional problems.

V. Summary: History of Alcohol and Drinking

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Peoples throughout history have valued and continuously used alcohol. Reflecting its vital role, consumption of alcohol in moderation has rarely been questioned throughout most of recorded time. To the contrary. “Fermented dietary beverage… was so common an element in the various cultures that it was taken for granted as one of the basic elements of survival and self-preservation.”114 Indicative of its value is the fact that people have frequently used it as a medium of exchange. For example, in Medieval England, people often used ale to pay tolls, rent or debts.115

From the earliest times alcohol has played an important role in religion. Religious rejection of alcohol appears to be a rare phenomenon. When it does occur, such rejection may be unrelated to alcohol per se but reflect other considerations.

Rejection of Wine

For example, the nomadic Rechabites rejected wine because they associated it with an unacceptable agricultural life style. Nazarites abstained only during the period of their probation, after which they returned to drinking.116 Among other reasons, Mohammed may have forbidden alcohol in order further to distinguish his followers.117

Alcoholic beverages have also been an important source of nutrients and calories.118 In ancient Egypt, the phrase “bread and beer” stood for all food and was also a common greeting. Many alcoholic beverages, such as Egyptian bouza and Sudanese merissa, contain high levels of protein, fat and carbohydrates. This fact helps explain the frequent lack of nutritional deficiencies in some populations whose diets are generally poor. Importantly, the levels of amino acids and vitamins increase during fermentation.119 Modern food technology uses enrichment or fortification to improve the nutrition of foods. Yet nutritional enrichment occurs naturally through fermentation.120

Safe Beverages

Alcoholic beverages have long served as thirst quenchers. Water pollution is far from new. To the contrary, supplies have generally been either unhealthful or questionable at best. Ancient writers rarely wrote about water, except as a warning.121

Travelers crossing present-day Zaire in 1648 had to drink water resembling horse urine. In the late eighteenth century most Parisians drank water from a very polluted Seine.122

Alcohol served as a safe beverage. Coffee and tea are also safe to drink because they use boiled water. However, they didn’t come into Europe until the mid-seventeenth century. In addition, it was another hundred or more years before people  consumed them on a daily basis.123

Supports Good Health

Another important function of alcohol has been therapeutic or medicinal. Current research shows that the moderate consumption of alcohol is preferable to abstinence. It appears to reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis , among many other diseases and conditions, and to increase longevity. It has clearly been a major analgesic, and one widely available to people in pain. Relatedly, it has provided relief from the fatigue of hard labor.

Alcohol has served in enhancing the enjoyment and quality of life. It can serve as a social lubricant, can provide entertainment, and can facilitate relaxation. In addition, it can provide pharmacological pleasure and can enhance the flavors of food.124

A minority of drinkers have always misused alcohol. However, it has clearly beneffited most. The founding Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism studied the matter. He said “… alcohol has existed longer than all human memory. It has outlived generations, nations, epochs and ages. It is a part of us, and that is fortunate indeed. For although alcohol will always be the master of some, for most of us it will continue to be the servant of man.”125

Adapted from Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control. Wesport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Resources on  History of Alcohol and Drinking

General

Alcohol: A History. Phillips, R. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.

Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. Gately, I. NY: Gotham, 2008.

Alcohol in World History. Hames, G. NY: Routledge, 2012.

Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Holt, M. NY: Berg, 2006.

Alcoholica Esoterica : A Collection of Useful and Useless Information as it Relates to the History and Consumption of all Manner of Booze. Lendler, I. NY: Penguin, 2005.

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. McGovern, P. Berkeley: U California Press, 2009.

A History of the World in Six Glasses. Standage, T. and Runnette, S. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor, 2011.

Alcohol and its Role in the Evolution of Human Society.
Hornsey, I.Cambridge, UK : Royal Soc Chem, 2012.

Specific Beverages

Beer

Beer is Best: A History of Beer. Watney, J. London: Owen, 1974.

The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer. Bostwick, W. NY: Norton, 2014.

Beer: A Global History. Smith, G. London: Reaktion, 2014.

Wine

Dionysus: A Social History of the Wine Vine. Hyams, E. NY: Macmillan, 1965.

Wine: A Global History. Millon, M. London: Reaktion, 2013.

Wine: A Cultural History. Varriano, J. London: Reaktion, 2010.

Spirits

Water of Life: A History of Wine-distilling and Spirits. Wilson, C. Totnes: Prospect, 2006.

Whiskey: A Global History. Kosar, K. London: Reaktion, 2010.

Rum: A Social and Sociable History. Williams, I. NY: Nation, 2005.

Rum: A Global History. Foss, R. London : Reaktion, 2012.

And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. Curtis, W. NY: Crown, 2006.

Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History. Zapata, A. and Nabhan, G. Tucson: U Arizona Press, 2003.

Tequila: A Global History. Williams, I. London: Reaktion, 2015.

Vodka: A Global History. Herlihy, P. London: Reaktion, 2012.

Gin: A Global History. Solmonson, L. London: Reaktion, 2012.

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