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.
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 attached to 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
• 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 It raised taxes on alcoholic beverage retailers.9 In 1733, Parliament repealed the ineffective Act of 1729 because it had failed to reduce drinking.10 In 1736, Parliament passed a harsh new Gin Act.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. However, the peak in consumption was reached seven years later.
• 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
• 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. A temporary ban on distilling was imposed. 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.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, the northern route over the Alleghenies from Virginia, had whiskey for sale at strategic points along its length when 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 [U.S.] 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 that the ‘benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed.’20
The ”¦rising nationalism in the post-revolutionary years led American drinkers to switch from rum, a product dependent on supplies from Europe’s Caribbean colonies, to whiskeys distilled from domestically produced grains.’21
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.’ He promoted his ideas that alcoholism is an ‘odious disease.’ His recommended treatments included ‘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, which he called negroidism. Intermarrying, he argued, help spread the disease.22
The first Kentucky whiskey was distilled by the Reverend Elijah Craig, 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 was introduced to help fund debt from the U.S. 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 U.S. 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
Absynthe was first produced in Switzerland by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire.29
Resources on Liquor in the 18th Century.
Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC ‘“ Clio, 1985
Baker, P. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe. Cambs, U.K.: Dedalus, 2001.
Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In: Holt. M. (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp. 225-240. Good coverage of liquor in the 18th century.
Burns, E. The Spirit of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple U Press, 2004.
Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948. Excellent coverage of liquor in the 18th century.
Forster, R., and Orest, R., (Eds.) Food and Drink in History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1979.
French, H. Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England. London: Nat Temp Pub Depot, 1890.
Katcher, B. Benjamin Rush’s educational campaign against hard drinking. Am J Pub Health, 1993, 8(2), 273-281.
Murphy, B. The World Book of Whiskey. Chicago: Rand McNall, 1979.
Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin. London: Peter Owen, 1976.
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 Austin, G. Perspectives on the History of Psychoactive Substance Use. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1979.
3 Watney, J. Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin. London: Peter Owen, 1976, p. 17. Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC’“Clio, 1985, pp. xxi-xxii.
4 Souria, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 20.
5 Roueche, B. Alcohol in Human Culture. In: Lucia, S. (Ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963, p. 174.
6 Ashton, T. An Economic History of England. London: Methuen, 1955, p. 243.
7 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, ibid., p. 16.
8 Mathias, P. The Brewing Industry in England, 1700 ‘“ 1830. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1959, p. xxv. Souria, J.-C., 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. NY: Drake, 1971, pp. 98-100.
13 Ashton, ibid.
14 King, F. Beer Has a History. London: Hutchinson’s, 1947, p. 117. Younger, W. Gods, Men, and Wine. Michael Joseph, 1966, p. 341.
15 Murphy, B. The World Book of Whiskey. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1979, p. 172.
16 Sutherland, D. Raise Your Glasses. London: Macdonald, 1969, p. 16.
17 Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948, p. 190.
18 Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008, p. 216, p. 17.
19 Sournia, p. 29.
20 From George Washington to John Hancock, August 16, 1777. National Archives.
21 Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In: Holt. M. (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp. 225-240. P. 227.
22 Katcher, B. Benjamin Rush’s educational campaign against hard drinking. Am J Pub Health, 1993, 8(2), 273-281.
23 Grimes, W. Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993, pp. 52-53. Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America. NY: Free Press, 1982, p. 33.
24 Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey. Dublin: O’Brien, 1980, p. 76.
25 Magee, ibid.
26 Simon, S. Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Tax. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) website.
27 Hoover, M. The Whiskey Rebellion. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) website. .
28 Hoover, ibid.
29 Gately, p. 334.