A History of Alcohol Use

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Chapter 1
A History of Alcohol Use

Alcohol is a clear, thin, odorless liquid that is produced by fermentation. Fermentation is a chemical reaction that occurs naturally when yeast, a microscopic plant that floats freely in the air, reacts with food that contains sugar. Fruits and berries have sugar in the form of fructose, which ferments as they become overripe due to yeast. Grains from wheat, rye, and barley also have natural sugars that can be transformed into alcohol as they age. Birds can become drunk from eating such fermented foods, and biologists have observed that animals in the wild sometimes become intoxicated in the same way.

How or when people first discovered how to control the fermentation process is unknown. However, historians know that people have been drinking alcoholic beverages for thousands of years. In Alcohol: The Delightful Poison, historian Alice Fleming explains the widespread use of this ancient drug:

Alcohol has been intriguing and intoxicating human beings for at least seven thousand years. Nobody knows when, how, or by whom it was first discovered, but the chances are good that this happened by accident. Alcohol has turned up in different places at different times and in different forms [since before the start of recorded history]. There is scarcely an age or a culture in which it was not known.3

Clay tablets found in the ruins of ancient Babylon indicate its inhabitants brewed beer and drank it as part of their religious ceremonies as far back as 5000 b.c. Historians also know that the ancient Egyptians brewed beer, which they called hek. They did this by placing crumbled barley bread into jars and covering the bread with water to allow natural fermentation.

Wine making also began thousands of years ago. Wine, which is made from grapes, is mentioned in historical documents from Mesopotamia dating as far back as 3000 b.c. The most distinctive type of wine, champagne, was created in 1688 by Dom Pierre Perignon, a Roman Catholic monk in charge of the wine cellars at a Benedictine abbey in France. Champagne is named after the French province in which it was first made, and a famous brand of champagne bears Perignon's name.

In a sense, the techniques that brewers and wine makers developed over the centuries have simply been refinements of the natural process of fermentation. The beer and wine produced in this manner have comparatively low concentrations of alcohol, about 5 to 8 percent for beer and 12 percent for wine. That is because most strains of yeast, a catalyst in the chemical process of fermentation, cannot survive an alcohol concentration much above 14 percent. It was not until another alcohol-making process—distillation—was perfected that it was possible to make distilled spirits such as brandy and whiskey with higher alcohol concentrations.

The process of distillation is believed to have been first discovered during the eighth century in Arabia and then rediscovered almost five hundred years later during the thirteenth century by Arnauld de Villeneuve, a professor of medicine at the University of Montpelier in France. Distillation enables people to produce a drink with high alcohol concentration. These distilled alcoholic beverages are also referred to simply as "spirits" or "hard liquor." In distillation, a fermented beverage is heated until it vaporizes; the vapor is then cooled until it condenses again into a liquid, which has a much higher alcohol concentration. Distillation allowed de Villeneuve to produce pure alcohol, which he named aqua vitae, Latin for "water of life." This Latin term was translated as usquebaugh in Gaelic, a language spoken in Scotland, and eventually became the English word whiskey.

Religion and Alcohol

Alcohol has had many uses throughout history, including in religion. Alcohol's ability to intoxicate drinkers mystified ancient people so much that many of them came to believe that alcohol had been sent to them as a gift from the gods. The Greeks, for example, believed a mythological figure named Dionysus had originally taught people how to make wine. Even today alcohol has a central role in some religions. In Christianity wine serves as a symbol of the blood of Christ during communion, and in Judaism wine is drunk as part of the religious observance of the first day of Passover, the most important feast in the Jewish calendar.

In some cultures long ago, large quantities of alcohol were consumed during religious ceremonies in hopes of achieving closer communication with the gods. The Aztecs and many Native American tribes, for example, consumed alcohol and other intoxicating substances to accomplish this. In Alcohol, Science and Society Revisited, Dwight B. Heath states,

In the early years of the fur trade in northeastern North America, it appears as if the Iroquois used brandy as they had previously used self-imposed partial starvation, as a means of assuring that a young man achieve the hallucinatory "vision" that would be the basis of his personal link with supernatural powers throughout the rest of his life.4

Some religions, however, reject the use of alcohol. The Muslim religion prohibits drinking. In the Koran, Islam's holy book, the prophet Mohammed advises adherents to abstain from alcohol: "The devil desires to sow dissensions and hatred among you through wine and games of chance, be obedient to God and the prophet, his apostle, and take heed to yourselves."5

Nonetheless, most cultures throughout history have considered alcoholic beverages a blessing, considering beer and other forms of alcohol important sources of food.

Alcohol as Food

Prior to the introduction of the potato, beer was second only to bread as the main source of nourishment for most central and northern Europeans. In 1551 historian Johann Brettschneier, referring not to hard-core drinkers but to average people, wrote: "Some subsist more upon this drink than they do on food. People of both sexes and every age, the hale and the infirm alike, require it."6

Although the only vitamin that beer has in significant amounts is riboflavin, beer and other alcoholic drinks provide a source of natural sugar. When an ounce of whiskey is broken down by digestion, it can release seventy-five calories of energy, about as much as four and a half teaspoons of sugar or a large slice of bread. Even though beer is not nutritious, it was considered a healthy food centuries ago because it imparted energy to people whose diet was often low in calories.

At a time when little was known about health or proper nutrition, alcohol also seemed to offer other benefits to those who drank it. For example, alcohol was prized because it was so good at masking pain associated with injury, illness, and arduous labor. Historian Mark Keller explains how alcohol seemed to aid workers in the past:

At one time people thought that alcohol was especially helpful in doing hard work. They even supposed that heavy laborers could not work well without it. Some men labored so hard and long each day that they might not have been able to bear the pain and fatigue without the sedation of alcohol. As their labor was not skilled, the amounts they drank did not interfere noticeably with their efficiency.7

The sedative action of alcohol, which allows it to ease pain, was only one reason why people believed for centuries that alcohol was an indispensable part of their lives. In fact, in the past alcohol's most exalted status was as one of humankind's most ancient and effective medicines.

Healing Alcohol

When de Villeneuve discovered how to distill alcohol and named it "water of life," he argued, "This name is remarkably suitable, since it is really a water of immortality. It prolongs life, clears away [sickness], and maintains youth."8 Two hundred years later, Hieronymous Brunschwig, a German doctor, referred to de Villeneuve's aqua vitae as "the mistress of all medicines" and claimed,

It eases the diseases coming of cold, it comforts the heart, it heals all old and new sores on the head. It causes a good color in a person. It heals [baldness] and causes the hair well to grow, and kills lice and fleas. It cures lethargy. Cotton wet in the same and a little wrung out again and so put in the ears at night before going to bed . . . is of good [cure] against deafness.9

Proof in Alcohol

Many of the terms related to alcohol are centuries old. One of these is proof, which refers to the alcohol content of a beverage. In The Facts About Drinking: Coping with Alcohol Use, Abuse, and Alcoholism, author Gail Gleason Milgram explains the archaic test from which this word evolved.

The term "proof" is derived from a seventh century test in which an alcohol-containing liquid was mixed with gunpowder and set on fire. When the liquor was sufficiently free of water, the gunpowder would ignite and thereby establish the "proof" of alcohol [being present]. If the flame flared, there was too much alcohol; if it sputtered, there wasn't enough; and if it yielded a strong blue flame it was considered just right—about 57 percent alcohol by volume.

(British and Canadian regulations still consider a concentration of 57.35 percent to be proof spirits.) Today, the degree of proof translates as twice the percentage of alcohol in the drink—that is, a 100 percent alcohol beverage would be 200 proof. [There is a] wide range of proof available in alcoholic beverages. One can buy wine that is 8 percent alcohol by volume, or 16 proof, and distilled spirits that range from approximately 25 percent to 45 percent alcohol or 50 to 90 proof. Although regular beers are usually around 4.5 percent alcohol, "light" beers and low-alcohol beers contain less.

For many centuries, people in almost every society valued wine for its medicinal qualities, sometimes simply as the recommended liquid with which to consume other medical remedies. The Greek sage Hippocrates included wine in a list of important medicines, and Roman physicians endorsed it as a dressing for wounds, a fever fighter, and a restorative beverage. The Talmud, a Jewish book of wisdom, claims that "wine taken in moderation induces appetites and is beneficial to health. Wine is the greatest of medicines."10

Until the discovery of ether in 1846, alcohol was used to dull the pain of tooth extractions and surgery, and doctors often advised patients to drink it to kill any discomfort they were feeling from many other physical ailments. Alcohol was also considered an aid to preventing infection, especially after childbirth, and to calming victims who went into shock after an accident or traumatic experience. Doctors also prescribed alcohol for people who were unhappy or depressed because they believed alcohol would make their patients feel happier.

Physicians, in fact, believed so deeply in the healing powers of alcohol that they thought it could cure almost anything from shortness of breath and hiccups to a bite from a poisonous snake. Doctors even advised patients with sore knees and other inflamed joints to rub alcohol on the painful areas to relieve swelling or discomfort.

Although people in past centuries valued alcohol for its benefits as a medicine and as a source of food, the main reason people have consumed alcohol has been its ability to make social gatherings more enjoyable. Drinking has thus become a traditional part of almost every social occasion imaginable.

Social Drinking

Today alcohol is a welcome addition to most of life's personal and public rites and rituals, something that was also true hundreds of years ago. In his study of popular beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, Keith Thomas writes,

[Alcohol] was built into the fabric of social life. It played a part in nearly every public and private ceremony, every commercial bargain, every craft ritual, every private occasion of mourning or rejoicing. As a Frenchman observed in 1672, there was no business which could be done in England without pots of beer.11


One of the drinking traditions the English brought to America was taverns—commercial establishments where people could drink alcoholic beverages and socialize with their friends. Many taverns played a role in the American Revolution as meeting places for patriots plotting to overthrow the British, and it was in a room above a tavern in Philadelphia where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. In Drinking in America: A History, Mark Lender and James Kirby Martin explain the importance of colonial taverns:

Taverns filled a variety of practical social needs. In many areas, they were the most convenient retail outlets for liquor—and often the only place where travelers could find food and lodging. They provided all localities with a forum for social intercourse, which often included political, religious, or other gatherings. Before and during the Revolution, for example, inns were favorite places for political discussions, and they served as rallying points for the militia and as recruiting stations for the Continental army. Innkeepers ideally reflected the high public status accorded their establishments, and in reality they often did. Publicans [tavern owners] were commonly among a town's most prominent citizens and not infrequently were deacons [in their church]. While some taverns were only rude structures with plank bars—there were a lot of these in port towns like New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston and on the sparsely settled frontier––others were well-appointed, pleasant places to spend time. The taverns were a vital early American institution—an institution highly regarded by most colonials and attended as faithfully as many churches.

The English even gave a name to their inclusion of drinking into almost every social and business aspect of daily life. They termed such celebrations cakes and ale, and there were few occasions that failed to call for a round of drinks to make the event more festive and enjoyable. Beer, wine, and later distilled spirits such as brandy, gin, and whiskey became an established part of the way people commemorated special events in their lives, such as marriage or childbirth. Alcoholic beverages were also present when people celebrated the successful conclusion of business deals, honored special dates in their nation's history, or simply added to the enjoyment they got from getting together with members of their family or their friends.

When the English began to settle the New World, they brought their drinking traditions with them, and that meant that early Americans also drank a lot—per capita alcohol consumption in colonial America was more than twice what it is today. Historian Don Cahalan explains that beer, wine, and other beverages played an important role in early American society:

No other element seemed capable of satisfying so many human needs. It [alcohol] contributed to the success of any festive occasion and [eased] those in sorrow and distress. It gave courage to the soldier, endurance to the traveler, foresight to the statesman, and inspiration to the preacher. It sustained the sailor and plowman, the trader and trapper. By it were lighted the fires of revelry and of devotion. Few doubted that it was a great boon to mankind.12

People also drank just to have a good time, and psychologist Abraham Myerston writes that the relaxing, social aspect of alcohol is still its most important use in daily life today:

There are times when, and places where, that chemical physiological compound known as man needs chemicals to alter his reactions. Alcohol is a sort of chemotherapy for undue stress. It releases exuberance, good fellowship, and friendliness, all of which are exceedingly valuable to man.13

There is, however, an inherent danger to social drinking, and that is that some drinkers will consume so much alcohol that they create problems for themselves and the rest of society. Excessive drinking by some people has been a problem for as long as alcohol has been around, but during the eighteenth century an epidemic of ruinous alcohol consumption swept through England. This first widespread breakdown of social drinking became known as "gin fever."

Gin Fever

During the 1700s the drinking preference of hundreds of thousands of English people suddenly and dramatically changed from beer and ale to gin, a generic name at the time for gin, brandy, rum and other distilled spirits, which had much higher percentages of alcohol. Distilled spirits had been available in Europe since the Middle Ages, but up until the sixteenth century they had been expensive and were taken mainly for medical reasons.

The popularity of these liquors soared among the poor when new manufacturing methods enabled distillers to produce them more cheaply than beer or ale. In Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, Wolfgang Schivelbusch explains that the large-scale switch to drinking distilled spirits was disastrous:

Liquor dealt a death blow to traditional drinking, which had been based on wine and beer. Whereas beer and wine are drunk slowly in long sips, and the inebriation process is gradual, liquor is tossed off, and intoxication is more or less instantaneous. Liquor thus represents a process of acceleration of intoxication. Gin struck the typically beer-drinking English populace like a thunderbolt. Traditional drinking patterns could not cope with this highly concentrated inebriant. Drinking and intoxication totally lost their characteristic role of establishing social bonds or connections. Inebriation [mild drunkenness] gave way to alcoholic stupor.14

The new style of drinking crippled English society and by the mid-1700s widespread drunkenness was common, especially in major cities. Excessive liquor consumption was a contributing factor to a huge increase in robberies, murders, and brawls; thousands of men and women died from overdrinking and thousands more drank so much they were unable to work. This is how noted eighteenth-century author Henry Fielding described this disastrous national drinking spree:

A new kind of drunkenness, unknown to our ancestors, is lately sprung up amongst us, and which, if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people. The drunkenness I here intend is that acquired by the strongest intoxicating liquors and particularly by that poison called Gin which I have reason to think is the principal sustenance (if it may be so called) of more than a hundred thousand people in this metropolis [London].15

This ruinous drinking began to decrease during the second half of the eighteenth century after the English government acted to curb the sale of distilled spirits. Starting with the Gin Act in 1736, Parliament levied increasingly higher taxes on liquor, making it too expensive for most people to drink in large quantities. The act also created rigid regulations governing its sale, such as limiting the hours that taverns could do business. Such laws led most people to resume drinking more beer and ale than liquor, which helped reduce the problems.

Gin Lane and Beer Street

William Hogarth, one of England's most famous eighteenth-century artists, is best known for engravings that commented satirically on social ills. One of his most famous works is Gin Lane, a frightening rendering of the epidemic of drunkenness caused by gin and other distilled spirits. By comparison, the companion piece Beer Street shows a scene of peace and prosperity. Hogarth, like many others of his era, believed it was healthy to drink beer and ale but thought consuming distilled spirits was bad for people. In Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, Wolfgang Schivelbusch comments on these diverse attitudes toward alcohol.

This famous engraving depicting the world's ruin through liquor is a comment upon the so-called epidemic of the eighteenth century. While Gin Lane offers an image of destruction—collapsing houses, a dehumanized mother who drops her child, people assaulting one another, suicides, and only the pawnbroker's shop thriving—in its counterimage, Beer Street, peace, contentedness, and industriousness prevail. This contrast of beer and hard liquor survived into nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussions [of social problems]. [Beer] was viewed as a guarantee of happiness, contentment, health. The world of beer was all right; with liquor the world came apart at the seams.

Evil and Good

Alcohol has always been a mixed blessing for humankind, able to create misery as well as provide enjoyment for those who use it. In 1673Increase Mather, a noted clergyman and early president of Harvard College, commented on the twin nature of alcohol in Wo to Drunkards: "Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan."16

Scientists today know that it is not evil spirits that cause problems when people drink. They are also learning more every day about how alcohol works its chemical magic to intoxicate people and, sometimes, to addict them.

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A History of Alcohol Use

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