Alcohol: History of Drinking

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Alcohol: History of Drinking

Over the course of human history, alcohol has played a role in religion, economics, sex, politics, and many other aspects of societies around the world. Its role has varied from culture to culture, and has also changed over time within cultures. A complex array of customs, attitudes, beliefs, and values surround the use—or avoidance—of alcohol.

The way people feel about their alcohol consumption may have little to do with its actual impact on the human body. In much of France and Italy, for example, people think of wine as a food. Many Scandinavians and Germans think of beer in much the same way. In the United States many people who regularly drink beer in large quantities do not think of themselves as using alcohol. The following brief review of the history of drinking looks at the various roles that alcohol has played in different societies.

In Ancient Times

Throughout history, people have viewed alcohol as a substance that nourishes and gives comfort. Many societies and cultures have even thought that alcohol possesses supernatural powers. According to the Bible, one of the first things Noah did after the great flood was plant a vineyard (Genesis 9:21). Many myths and religious beliefs reflect the importance of alcohol. The ancient Egyptians believed that the great god Osiris taught them how to make beer, a substance that had great religious as well as nutritional value for them. Beer was buried in royal tombs and offered to the deities. Greeks drank wine as a form of worship. The Greeks believed wine had been given to them by the god Dionysus. In Roman times, the god Bacchus was thought to be both the originator of wine and always present within it. The Aztecs believed that the goddess Mayahuel taught them how to make a mild beer from the sap of the century plant. Even to this day, beer continues to be important in the diet of many Indians.

Early wines and beers were quite different from the drinks we know in the twenty-first century. Until as recently as 1700, most wines and beers were dark, dense with sediments, and extremely uneven in quality. Home-brewed beers tended to be highly nutritious but lasted only a few days before going sour. Homemade wines had relatively little in the way of vitamins or minerals but could last a long time if adequately sealed.

Although it is impossible to say exactly where or when Homo sapiens first sampled alcohol, chemical analysis of the residues found in pots dating from 3500 B.C.E. shows that wine was already being made from grapes in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). This discovery makes alcohol almost as old as farming. In fact, beer and bread were first produced at the same place at about the same time from the same ingredients. We know little about the gradual process by which people learned to control fermentation, to blend drinks, or to store and ship them in ways that kept them from souring. However, by studying the different styles of wine vessels from various regions, we have learned about how goods were transported from one region to another during ancient times.

It was the custom of the ancient Greeks to dilute wine with water and to drink it only after meals. This kept them sober, compared to neighboring populations, who often sought drunkenness through beer as a transcendental state of altered consciousness. Certainly the Greeks and Romans drank heavily at religious orgies honoring their gods. Alexander the Great (356 B.C.E.–325 B.C.E.), who conquered most of the known world in his time, was famous for his constant drunkenness.

The religious practices of the Hebrews in about 500 B.C.E. differed greatly from previous practices of other cultures. They drank wine in sacred family rituals, but the Hebrews placed an overall emphasis on temperance, or drinking in only moderate amounts and at certain times. This pattern persists into the twenty-first century and often marks drinking by religious Jews as different from that of their neighbors. Early Christians, many of whom had been Jews, praised the healthful and social benefits of wine while condemning drunkenness. The Bible makes many positive references to drinking. Jesus' choice of wine to symbolize his blood continues into the twenty-first century in the solemn rite of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, a central practice in many Christian churches.

Although little is known about ancient Africa, mild fermented home brews (such as banana beer) were commonplace there, just as they were in Latin America. In Asia, we know most about China, where as early as 2000 B.C.E. grain-based beer and wine were used in ceremonies, offered to the gods, and included in royal burials. Clearly, drink and drinking had highly positive meanings for early peoples, as they do now for many non-Western societies.

From 1000 to 1500

Christianity and Islam spread rapidly during the Middle Ages. Also during this time, people began to come together as national groups. The cultures of these emerging nations differed from each other, and each culture had preferences for certain drinks and ways of drinking. For peasants and craftspeople, home-brewed beer was a major part of the diet. Nobles criticized excessive drinking by poor people, but they themselves enjoyed a rich array of food and drink. In towns and villages, taverns became important social centers, often condemned by the wealthy as damaging to religion, political stability, and the family.

During this period, hops, which enhanced both the flavor and durability of beer, were introduced. In Italy and France wine became even more popular, both in the diet and as a product to be traded. The Arabs had known how to distill spirits (such as whiskey, brandy, and other drinks that today are often called hard liquor) since about 800. In Europe, a small group of religious leaders, physicians, and alchemists controlled that technology until about 1200. The spirits they produced as beverages were sold as a luxury item and for use as medicine.

Among populations across northern Africa and much of Asia, drinking and drunkenness were celebrated as ways to alter consciousness. However, as the teachings of Islam, Buddha, and Confucius spread, most Africans and Asians became temperate and sometimes abstinent . China and India both went through periods of prohibition, during which alcohol use was forbidden. In the Hindu religion, some castes, or social classes, drank liquor as a sacred rite. Others looked down on drinking.

During the Renaissance, European exploration of the seas expanded. Europeans came into contact with civilizations and tribal peoples who had long occupied North America, Central America, and South America. Alcoholic beverages appear to have been totally unknown north of Mexico, although a vast variety of beers and other fermented brews were important in Mexico as foods, as offerings to the gods, and as direct ways to achieve religious ecstasy.

From 1500 to 1800

The Protestant Reformation affected ways of life throughout Europe. One such change was the belief that drunkenness as a form of celebrating was wrong. The faithful frowned upon long-term heavy drinking. Even so, public drinking establishments became important town meeting places, where workers could catch up on the news, gossip, and play games. The aristocracy increasingly drank brandies , and champagne was introduced as a luxury beverage, as were various cordials and liqueurs. Brewing and wine making grew into major businesses as technology and quality controls improved.

Throughout Latin America and parts of North America, the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors (conquerors) found that indigenous peoples already had home brews that were important to them for food, medicine, and religious purposes. For the Aztecs of Mexico, beer offered a significant portion of their nutritional intake, but drunkenness was allowed only for priests and old men. The Yaqui (in what is now Arizona) made a wine from cactus as part of their rain ceremony. Spanish and Portuguese colonial authorities tried to impose laws and regulations on drinking and producing alcohol, but they enforced these laws inconsistently. As merchants from various countries competed for trade with the various Native American groups of North America, liquor quickly became an important item.

In the colonies that later became the United States, rum—distilled from West Indies sugar production—became an important item in international trade. In the Triangle Trade, captive black Africans were shipped to the West Indies for sale as slaves. Many worked on plantations there, producing not only refined sugar, a sweet and valuable new food, but also molasses, much of which was shipped to New England. Distillers there turned molasses into rum, which was in turn shipped to West Africa, where it could be traded for more slaves.

During the American Revolution (1775–1783), however, that trade triangle was interrupted and North Americans shifted to producing whiskey. Farmers east of the Mississippi River, along what was then the frontier, were eager to make money from their surplus corn by distilling it into whiskey. In 1790 a federal tax was imposed on whiskey to help pay off the debt owed by the new United States. The producing farmers were so angry about the new tax that they joined forces to oppose it. Their protest, known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, forced the new federal government to call up the militia (federal troops) for the first time to put down the opposition. At about the same time, Benjamin Rush, a noted physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, started a campaign against long-term heavy drinking, asserting that it was damaging to one's health.

The 1800s

Throughout Europe during the Industrial Revolution, beer, wine, and distilled liquor became important products. Businesses and industries sold their products to countries around the world. As a new middle class emerged with more time and money to spend, drinking became a valued leisure activity. For many it provided a release from the strict atmosphere of the workplace.

At this time alcohol began to lose much of its religious importance. Some Protestant groups and Catholic priests believed it led to crime, family disruption, unemployment, and other social problems. Some doctors and scholars also linked long-term heavy drinking with disease, although liquor remained an important part of medicine for certain purposes. Many medicines were formulated using herbs steeped in alcohol. In fact, alcohol was the base of most patent medicines marketed for every possible ill imaginable. Even babies were the target of these medicines, which were used to soothe colicky infants. Little was known about how or why drinking created problems for some people but not for others.

Early in the 1800s a wave of religious activity, including concern over the use of alcohol, swept over the United States. By 1850 a dozen states had banned the production of alcohol. These local prohibition laws were eventually overturned when religious intensity calmed. After the Civil War (1861–1865), the public became fascinated with hard-drinking cowboys, miners, lumberjacks, and other colorful characters of the expanding frontier. Wealth became an important sign of social status as the United States expanded westward. Certain public drinking establishments conveyed social status or importance by serving only people of a particular economic class.

New opposition to alcohol developed toward the end of the 1800s. Protestants in northern states such as New York and Massachusetts saw the large numbers of immigrants, many of them Catholic, as trouble. These new Catholic immigrants competed for jobs and threatened the control Protestants had long had over politics, government, and mainstream values. The Protestants looked down on the new immigrants' drinking habits, calling instead for "clean living." Native American populations, in the meantime, were being displaced from their land and in some cases wiped out. The stereotype of the drunken Indian began to appear in novels and news accounts. In reality, many Indians remained abstinent.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century brought many significant changes to daily life. Some of these innovations, such as pasteurization , mass production, commercial canning and bottling, and rapid transport, improved the conditions for producing and selling alcohol. Also at this time, new ideas emerged about the government's role in protecting public health and social welfare. These ideas resulted in our current expectations that the state should set rules on drinking and the sale of alcohol.

In the United States, a combination of religious objections to drinking and unproven medical claims about its dangers resulted in the nationwide prohibition of alcohol in 1919. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution forbade commercial sales of alcohol but said nothing about drinking or possession. At first there was relatively little home production of alcohol and a low incidence of smuggling. But illegal sources eventually appeared. Those who distilled liquor illegally were called moonshiners, and those who smuggled it within the United States or from abroad were bootleggers. Speakeasies, or secret bars and cocktail lounges, sprang up in cities and towns, and drinking became even more fashionable than before prohibition. Some business owners became immensely wealthy from dealing in alcohol. The government, meanwhile, was suffering from the loss of income from taxes on alcohol.

Then came the stock-market crash in 1929, followed by massive unemployment, a crisis in agriculture, and worldwide economic depression. Americans became angry about prohibition, and some of the same influential people who had demanded it now called for it to end. The Twenty-first Amendment, the first and only repeal to affect the U.S. Constitution, ended federal prohibition in 1933. Specific regulations about retail sales were left up to the states. Many states remained officially dry, meaning no liquor could be sold within state lines. Others allowed counties or towns to decide for themselves whether they would permit alcohol.

U.S. consumption of all alcoholic beverages increased gradually from the end of prohibition until the early 1980s, with a marked increase following World War II (1939–1945). In the mid-twentieth century, a group of people suffering from alcohol addiction formed Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA has grown to be an international fellowship of individuals whose main purpose is to keep from drinking. Also mid-century, scientists started studying the effects of alcohol, and our knowledge has grown rapidly. The public has come to view alcoholism as a disease rather than as a moral problem.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 1 for address, telephone, and URL.

Around 1980, sales of spirits started dropping and have continued to do so. A few years later, wine sales leveled off and have since gradually fallen; beer sales also appear to have passed their peak even more recently. These reductions occurred despite increased advertising. A general belief in a healthy lifestyle—stressing physical exercise and a good diet—may account for the drop in alcohol consumption.


Research has shown a relationship between the amount of alcohol people drink and a broad range of alcohol-related problems, including domestic violence, child neglect, social violence, psychiatric illness, physical illness, and traffic fatalities. It is important to remember, however, that those who enjoy moderate drinking have little in common with those who insist on drinking heavily. Alcohol can be a safe and enjoyable part of life when people understand not only the effects of alcohol but also what they expect to get from their drinking.

see also Alcohol: Chemistry; Alcoholics Anonymous (AA); Beers and Brews; Temperance Movement; Treatment: History of, in the United States.