Liquor in the 19th Century: History of Distilled Spirits.

The major event impacting liquor in the 19th century was the growth of a very powerful temperance movement. It began by calling for moderation in consumption. In general, that meant drinking less.

beginnings of temperance
Standard drinks have equal alcohol.

But the temperance movement was victim to a myth that continues. Its supporters failed to understand that a standard drink of spirits, wine or beer contains the same amount of alcohol. That is, six-tenths of one ounce of pure alcohol.

Being naive to this fact, temperance activists called upon people to abstain from spirit beverages. Consumers were encouraged to replace spirits with beer or wine.

With the passage of time, activists came to believe that all forms of alcoholic beverages were bad, even evil. Activists began calling upon people to abstain from any and all alcohol. The activists became increasingly frustrated that many people chose to continue drinking.

So instead of encouraging people to abstain, activists began demanding that they do so. This, of course, required the police power of the state. That meant prohibition.

What began as a temperance (moderation) movement had become an immoderate prohibition movement. But the movement continued (and continues) to be called a temperance movement.

But there were other developments associated with liquor during the 19th century.

  • In Australia, ‘Spirits drinking dominated the colonial period in the absence of a native brewing or distilling industry and because of technical difficulties in importing any alcohol other than spirits. The emergence of a local brewing industry and improvements in the transportation of beer in the late 1800s encouraged a transition from a spirits-drinking to a beer-drinking culture.’1
  • In the early nineteenth century the consumption of spirits dominated drinking in the U.S.2
  • The continuous still was developed, which made the distilling process cheaper and easier to control.3

Liquor in the 19th Century by Date


By 1803 cocktails appear to have been invented. The first published reference to the cocktail appeared in the Farmer’s Cabinet and the first published definition appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806 as ‘a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.’4


The Sikes hydrometer became the standard instrument in Great Britain for measuring the alcoholic content of spirits. This was needed for taxation purposes. Sikes was a former customs agent.5


  • Dr. James C. ‘Jim’ Crow is generally credited with developing the sour mash process. It involves adding some spent mash to a new mash. This greatly increases the consistency between batches. The result is that bottles of spirits from successive batches tend to be consistent. This process revolutionized the production of bourbon. It’s legally required in producing Tennessee whiskey.6
  • The licensing of distilleries began in Scotland. This was part of an effort to reduce moonshining.


A patent for a continuous still was awarded to Irish inventor Robert Stein.7


After inventing a ‘continuous still’ and improving the technology involved in distillation, Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey still. This enabled manufacturers to produce whiskey more efficiently and at a lower cost.8


  • Spirits consumption in England was 0.53 gallons per capita, in Ireland it was 1.32 gallons, in Scotland it was 2.46, and in Australia it was 5.02.9
  • Maine passed its Fifteen Gallon Law designed to ]reduce the availability of distilled spirits by making that the minimum legal purchase quantity.10


  • The first blended whisky was produced. Andrew Usher mixed traditional pot still whiskey with that of a new batch produced in a  Coffey still.11
  • Local regulation of liquor sales and consumption began in Sweden. That was followed by national regulation in 1855.12

    liquor in the 19th century
    Dr. Johann Siegert
  • Dr. Johann Siegert began exporting bitters from Angostura, Venezuela.13
  • Dry gin was developed in London.14


Funded by a distiller, Louis Pasteur investigated the process of fermentation and isolated yeast, a major discovery in the field of alcohol production.15


  • Irish distillers began to blend whiskey.16
  • There were 1,138 legal stills operating in the U.S. producing 88 million gallons of distilled spirits per year.17


  • Finland outlawed home production of spirits, prohibited rural sales and limited urban sales.18
  • The Swedish city of Gothenburg awarded a retail spirits license to a single company that was run as a trust. Five percent of the profit of the trust went to the shareholders with 95% going to the city government. The System was soon adopted by other cities in Sweden.19


After the American Civil War (1861-1865) beer replaced whiskey as preferred beverage of working men.20


liquor in the 19th century
Washington with liquor


  • Until the 1870s, schnaps, a distilled spirit, was included as part of wages in Denmark.21
  • By the 1870s, the temperance movement exerted great influence in American life and culture, as this example illustrates.
    In the Currier and Ives print of 1848, George Washington bid farewell to his officers with a toast in his hand and a supply of liquor on the table.
liquor in the 19th century
Politically correct Washington

Reflecting the power of the temperance movement, a re-engraved version in 1876 removed all evidence of alcohol. Gone is the glass from Washington’s hand and the liquor supply is replaced with a hat.


‘In 1870, exactly a third of all British national tax revenues derived from the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks.’22


A Licensing Act was passed in the UK that restricted hours of alcohol beverage sale in England and Wales.23


liquor in the 19th century
William Gladstone


Prime Minister Gladstone lost his seat in Parliament when he attempted to restrict gin consumption.24


‘In 1875, French absynthe drinkers downed approximately 185,000 gallons of the stuff; by 1910, that figure had increased to an astonishing 9,500,000 gallons.’25


  • Absinthe became very popular in France in the 1880s when failing grape crops resulted in absinthe becoming cheaper than wine.26
  • After the worldwide production of wine became severely impacted by the spreading of the phylloxera, production and consumption of whisky greatly rose outside Northern Europe.


In New Zealand, beginning in 1894, ‘a series of local-option no-license areas began to be voted in, and restrictions on the circumstances of the sale of liquor were put in place, such as no barmaids in hotels (1912), no sales after 6 P.M. (a 1917 ‘˜temporary war measure’ that lasted until 1967), and no liquor at dances (1939).’27



This might lift your spirits.

Drinking Jokes and One Liners.

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Specific Spirits

Resources on Liquor in the 19th Century.

Popular Readings


1   Hall, W., and Hunter, E.  Australia. In: Heath, D., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Pp. 719. P. 9-19.

2   Rorabaugh, W. The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979.

3 Walton, S., and Glover, B.  Encyclopedia of Wine, Beer, Spirits, and Liqueurs. London: Lorenz, 1999.

4 Graham, C. What is a Cocktail? About.Com Cocktails website.

5  Jeffs, J. Sherry. London : Faber and Faber, 1982, p. 222.

6 Kleber, J.  The Kentucky Encyclopedia.  Lexington: U Press of KY, 1992, p. 266.

7 History of the column still. Whisky Science, 2013.

8 History of the column still, ibid.

9  Samuelson, J. The History of Drink. London: Truber, 1878, p. 10.


10  Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

11 Usher, C.  A History of the Usher family in Scotland. Edinburgh, 1956.

12  Austin, G. History of Psychoactive Substance Use. Rockville: NIDA, 1979.

13  Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits. Seattle: Ford Pub., 1996, p. 17.

14   Ford, ibid.

15  Williams, G. The Age of Miracles. Chicago: Acad Pub, 1987.

16  Ford, p. 17.

17  Nelson, D. Moonshiners, Bootleggers, and Rumrunners. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, 1995.

18  Austin, ibid. 

19  Gordon, E. The Breakdown of the Gothenburg System. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1911.

20   Rorabaugh, W. The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979. Great coverage of liquor in the 19th century.

21  Schioler, P.  Denmark. In: Heath. Pp. 51-62. P 54.


22  Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008, p. 326.

23  Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003, xxxi-xiv.

24   Ford, ibid.

25  Lukacs, P. Inventing Wine. NY: Norton, 2012, p. 190.

26  Baker, P. The Book of Absinthe. Cambs, UK: Dedalus, p. 8.

27   Park, J.  New Zealand. In: Heath. Pp. 2001-212. P. 204-214.