Liquor in the 18th century: History of Distilled Spirits.

The popularity of alcohol in Europe as a medicine was very high.1 But the big story of liquor in the 18th century was its dramatic growth as a beverages. This was especially the case for gin.

                                            This is Part of a Series

Liquor in the 20th Century.

Liquor in the 19th Century.

18th Century Liquor Developments.

Liquor in the 17th Century.

16th Century Liquor Developments.

Liquor in the 15th Century.

Earliest History of Liquor.

Liquor in the 18th Century by Date


England and Scotland merged under the Acts of Union, creating Great Britain, Taxes rose sharply. The English Malt Tax of 1725 was almost fatal to whisky distilling. To survive, most Scottish distilleries were forced underground. They started operating at night. Hence the term for untaxed alcohol, “moonshine.”

Cir. 1720-Cir. 1750

• The prohibition of spirits was attempted in the colony of Georgia, but failed (1733-1742).2

• The English Parliament 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 there was little stigma of drunkenness. The growing urban poor in London sought relief from the realities of urban life by drinking the cheap beverage excessively.3  Thus the so-called Gin Epidemic developed.

• In 1685, consumption of gin had been slightly over one-half million gallons.4  By 1714, gin production stood at two million gallons.5 That was twice the production of 1696.6 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.7

     Gin Control Act

•  The negative effects of the gin epidemic may have been exaggerated. But the abuse of in the 18th century was was  a serious problem.8

• To control drunkenness, Parliament passed the Gin Control Act of 1729. It raised taxes on alcohol retailers.9 In 1733, Parliament repealed the ineffective Act of 1729 because it had failed to reduce drinking.10  In 1736, Parliament passed a harsh new Gin Act. It attempted to increase the taxes on gin so high that it would virtually prohibit its purchase by poor people.11  The law also prohibited the sale of gin in quantities of less than two gallons. But the peak in consumption was reached seven years later. This was an important event of liquor in the 18th century.

• In 1743, 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 continued drinking beer, ale and cider.12 After its peak, gin consumption rapidly declined. From 18 million gallons in 1743, it dropped to just over seven million gallons in 1751. It was under two million by 1758, and generally declined to the end of the century.13

     Consumption Dropped

• A number of factors appear to have converged to discourage gin drinking. These include the production of higher quality beer of lower price. Rising corn prices and taxes, which eroded the price advantage of gin. A temporary ban on distilling was imposed. Stigmatization of drinking gin rose. Criticism of drunkenness increased. A rising standard of behavior criticized excess. Coffee consumption rose. Piety increased. And industrialization valued sobriety.14


The hydrometer was invented in London. It is used to measure the alcohol content of spirits and other alcoholic beverages.15


In Holland, the production of gin increased 400% between 1733 and 1792.17


‘The Wilderness Road had whiskey for sale at points along its length. Yet it was little more than a path through the forest.” It’s significant that ”stills were the largest, most complex, and most valuable man-made objects to be carried over the mountains.”18


During American Revolution, whisky was often used as a currency.


“The [US] War of Independence was to have its effect on drinking habits. With the breaking of commercial links with the West Indies, which remained under British jurisdiction, there was demand for substitutes for rum. The new domains to the west of the Appalachians produced whiskey from their growing of maize. Rye whiskey became more popular and a large estate in Kentucky began to make Bourbon.”19


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.”20


Nationalism rose in the post-revolutionary years. This led American drinkers to switch from rum to whiskeys. Rum depended on supplies from Europe’s Caribbean colonies. But whiskeys could be distilled from grains grown in the US.21


Dr. Benjamin Rush published his pamphlet. It was “An Enquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society.” He promoted his ideas that alcoholism is an “odious disease.” His recommended treatments included “whipping the patient severely.”  He also advocated blistering the ankles, bleeding, and purging with toxic substances. Also he promoted his belief that being Black was a result of a curable skin disease. He called it negroidism. Intermarrying, he argued, help spread the disease.22  Dr. Rush was important in the history of liquor in the 18th century.


Rev. Elijah Craig

The first Kentucky whiskey was distilled by the Reverend Elijah Craig. He was a Baptist minister.23  


Parliament made it illegal to pay wages in liquor.24


• A licensing reform allowed grocers in England to retail spirits.25

• A new excise tax was passed to help fund debt from the US Revolutionary War. Import duties were already high, and so an excise tax on domestically produced distilled spirits was imposed. It was the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791.26  It was the first of it’s kind  by the new national government. Although the tax applied to distilled spirits of any kind, whiskey was the most popular, and so the excise became commonly known as the “Whiskey Tax.”27


The resulting conflict between grain  farmers and the US government is known as the “Whiskey Rebellion.” Farmers had been distilling their surplus grains into whiskey. A united  protest arose, particularly in western Pennsylvania. Farmers refused to pay the new tax and intimidated federal tax collectors. The home of a tax inspector was attacked by nearly 600 armed men. President George Washington sent a militia of about 13,000 men to march west and meet any resistance with force. The rebel farmers disbanded before their arrival, key leaders fled to safety, and the mass protests ended.28

liquor in the 18th century
Pierre Ordinaire

Absynthe was first produced in Switzerland by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire.29


Popular Books

1   Porter, R. English Society in the Eighteenth Century, p. 30.

2  Austin, G. Perspectives on the History of Psychoactive Substance Use. 

3   Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin, p. 17. Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800, pp. xxi-xxii.

4  Souria, J. A History of Alcoholism, p. 20.

5  Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization, p. 174.

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

7   Watney, ibid., p. 16.

8  Mathias, P. The Brewing Industry in England, 1700 to 1830, p. xxv. Souria, J., p. 21.

9  French, pp. 285-286.

10   Austin, p. 307.

11   French, pp. 286-288.

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

13  Ashton, ibid.

14  Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine, p. 341.

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

16  Sutherland, D. Raise Your Glasses. London: Macdonald, 1969, p. 16.

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

18  Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, p. 216, p. 17.

19  Sournia, p. 29.

20  From George Washington to John Hancock.

21  Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In: Holt. M. (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Pp. 225-240. P. 227.

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

23  Grimes, W. Straight Up or On the Rocks. A Cultural History of American Drink, pp. 52-53.

24  Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey, p. 76.

25  Magee, ibid.

26   Simon, S. Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Tax.

27 Hoover,  M. The Whiskey Rebellion.  .

28  Hoover, ibid.

29  Gately, p. 334.

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