History of alcohol

History of alcohol

The purposeful production of alcoholic beverages is common in many cultures and often reflects their cultural and religious peculiarities as much as their geographical and sociological conditions.

Patrick (1952) states that the discovery of late Stone Age beer jugs has established the fact that purposely fermented beverages existed at least as early as c. 10,000 BC. It has been suggested that beer may have preceded bread as a staple.cite web
url= http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/1114796842.html
title= History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World
accessdate= 2005-09-18
last= Hanson
first= David J
authorlink= David J. Hanson
work= Adapted from Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control
publisher= Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995
(Author has relinquished copyright of this article and allowed its use for public domain purposes.)(Site is funded by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States)]

Ancient period


Evidence of wine only appeared as a finished product in Egyptian pictographs around 4,000 BC.cite web
url= http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/1114796842.html
title= History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World
accessdate= 2005-09-18
last= Hanson
first= David J
authorlink= David J. Hanson
work= Adapted from Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control
publisher= Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995
(Author has relinquished copyright of this article and allowed its use for public domain purposes.); THomas Hengartner & Christoph M. Merki (eds.): Genussmittel, Frankfort 2001 (esp. the article on alcohol by Hasso Spode).]

Brewing dates from the beginning of civilization in ancient Egypt and alcoholic beverages were very important at that time. Symbolic of this is the fact that while many gods were local or familial, Osiris was worshiped throughout the entire country. The Egyptians believed that this important god invented beer, a beverage that was considered a necessity of life; it was brewed in the home "on an everyday basis."

Both beer and wine were deified and offered to gods. Cellars and wine presses even had a god whose hieroglyph was a winepress. The ancient Egyptians made at least 17 types of beer and at least 24 varieties of wine. Alcoholic beverages were used for pleasure, nutrition, medicine, ritual, remuneration and funerary purposes. The latter involved storing the beverages in tombs of the deceased for their use in the after-life.

Numerous accounts of the period stressed the importance of moderation, and these norms were both secular and religious. While Egyptians did not generally appear to define drunkenness as a problem, they warned against taverns (which were often houses of prostitution) and excessive drinking. After reviewing extensive evidence regarding the widespread but generally moderate use of alcoholic beverage, the nutritional biochemist and historian William J. Darby makes a most important observation: all these accounts are warped by the fact that moderate users "were overshadowed by their more boisterous counterparts who added 'color' to history." Thus, the intemperate use of alcohol throughout history receives a disproportionate amount of attention. Those who abuse alcohol cause problems, draw attention to themselves, are highly visible and cause legislation to be enacted. The vast majority of drinkers, who neither experience nor cause difficulties, are not noteworthy. Consequently, observers and writers largely ignore moderation.


The earliest evidence of alcohol in China are wine jars from Jiahu which date to about 7000 BC. [cite book | last = McGovern | first = Patrick E. | year = 2003 | title = Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture | publisher = Princeton University Press | location = Princeton | id = ISBN 0691070806 | pages = 314] This early drink was produced by fermenting rice, honey, and fruit.

A variety of alcoholic beverages was used in China since prehistoric times. Alcohol, known in Chinese as "Jiu" was considered a spiritual food rather than a material (physical) food, and extensive documentary evidence attests to the important role it played in the religious life. "In ancient times people always drank when holding a memorial ceremony, offering sacrifices to gods or their ancestors, pledging resolution before going into battle, celebrating victory, before feuding and official executions, for taking an oath of allegiance, while attending the ceremonies of birth, marriage, reunions, departures, death, and festival banquets."

A Chinese imperial edict of about 1116 BC makes it clear that the use of alcohol in moderation was believed to be prescribed by heaven. Whether or not it was prescribed by heaven, it was clearly beneficial to the treasury. At the time of Marco Polo (1254-1324) it was drunk daily and was one of the treasury's biggest sources of income.

Alcoholic beverages were widely used in all segments of Chinese society, were used as a source of inspiration, were important for hospitality, were considered an antidote for fatigue, and were sometimes misused. Laws against making wine were enacted and repealed forty-one times between 1100 BC and AD 1400. However, a commentator writing around 650 BC asserted that people "will not do without beer. To prohibit it and secure total abstinence from it is beyond the power even of sages. Hence, therefore, we have warnings on the abuse of it."


Alcoholic beverages in the Indus valley civilization appeared in the Chalcolithic Era. These beverages were in use between 10000 BC - 2000 BC. "Sura", a beverage distilled from rice meal, wheat,sugar cane, grapes, other fruits and soma drink was popular among the Kshatriya warriors and the peasant population. They pray different gods like Someswar,Madhusudan,soma and the goddess somalamma. There is a community called somavansh kshatriyas or savji who are involved in alcohal beverages development. The use of these beverages was well defined within specific social contexts. [Alcohol and Pleasure: A Health Perspective By Stanton Peele, Marcus Grant. Page number 102. Contributor Stanton Peele, Ph. D., J.D. Published 1999. Psychology Press. Self/Help. 419 pages. ISBN 1583910158 ]

The Hindu Ayurvedic texts describe both the beneficent uses of alcoholic beverages and the consequences of intoxication and alcoholic diseases. Most of the peoples in India and China, have continued, throughout, to ferment a portion of their crops and nourish themselves with the alcoholic product.


Beer was the major beverage among the Babylonians, and as early as 2,700 BC they worshiped a wine goddess and other wine deities. Babylonians regularly used both beer and wine as offerings to their gods. Around 1,750 BC, the famous Code of Hammurabi devoted attention to alcohol. However, there were no penalties for drunkenness; in fact, it was not even mentioned. The concern was fair commerce in alcohol. Nevertheless, although it was not a crime, it would appear that the Babylonians were critical of drunkenness.


While the art of wine making reached the Hellenic peninsula by about 2,000 BC, the first alcoholic beverage to obtain widespread popularity in what is now Greece was mead, a fermented beverage made from honey and water. However, by 1,700 BC, wine making was commonplace, and during the next thousand years wine drinking assumed the same function so commonly found around the world: It was incorporated into religious rituals, it became important in hospitality, it was used for medicinal purposes and it became an integral part of daily meals. As a beverage, it was drunk in many ways: warm and chilled, pure and mixed with water, plain and spiced.

Contemporary writers observed that the Greeks were among the most temperate of ancient peoples. This appears to result from their rules stressing moderate drinking, their praise of temperance, and their avoidance of excess in general. An exception to this ideal of moderation was the cult of Dionysus, in which intoxication was believed to bring people closer to their deity.

While habitual drunkenness was rare, intoxication at banquets and festivals was not unusual. In fact, the symposium, a gathering of men for an evening of conversation, entertainment and drinking typically ended in intoxication. However, while there are no references in ancient Greek literature to mass drunkenness among the Greeks, there are references to it among foreign peoples. By 425 BC, warnings against intemperance, especially at symposia, appear to become more frequent.

Xenophon (431-351 BC) and Plato (429-347 BC) both praised the moderate use of wine as beneficial to health and happiness, but both were critical of drunkenness, which appears to have become a problem. Hippocrates (cir. 460-370 BC) identified numerous medicinal properties of wine, which had long been used for its therapeutic value. Later, both Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Zeno (cir. 336-264 BC) were very critical of drunkenness.

Among Greeks, the Macedonians viewed intemperance as a sign of masculinity and were well known for their drunkenness. Their king, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), whose mother adhered to the Dionysian cult, developed a reputation for inebriety.


Pre-Columbian America

Several Native American civilizations developed alcoholic beverages. Many versions of these beverages are still produced today.

"Pulque", or "octli" is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of the maguey, and is a traditional native beverage of Mesoamerica. Though commonly believed to be a beer, the main carbohydrate is a complex form of fructose rather than starch. "Pulque" is depicted in Native American stone carvings from as early as AD 200. The origin of pulque is unknown, but because it has a major position in religion, many folk tales explain its origins. "Mezcal" is made by distilling "pulque." "Tequila" is a form of "mezcal".

"Chicha" is a Spanish word for any of variety of traditional fermented beverages from the Andes region of South America. It can be made of maize, manioc root (also calledyuca or cassava) or fruits among other things. During the Inca Empire women were taught the techniques of brewing chicha in Acllahuasis (feminine schools). "Chicha de jora" is prepared by germinating maize, extracting the malt sugars, boiling the wort, and fermenting it in large vessels, traditionally huge earthenware vats, for several days. In some cultures, in lieu of germinating the maize to release the starches, the maize is ground, moistened in the chicha maker's mouth and formed into small balls which are then flattened and laid out to dry. Naturally occurring diastase enzymes in the maker's saliva catalyzes the breakdown of starch in the maize into maltose. Chicha de jora has been prepared and consumed in communities throughout in the Andes for millennia. The Inca used chicha for ritual purposes and consumed it in vast quantities during religious festivals. In recent years, however, the traditionally prepared chicha is becoming increasingly rare. Only in a small number of towns and villages in southern Peru and Bolivia is it still prepared.

"Cauim" is a traditional alcoholic beverage of the Native American populations of Brazil since pre-Columbian times. It is still made today in remote areas throughout Panama and South America. "Cauim" is very similar to "chicha" and it is also made by fermenting manioc or maize, sometimes flavored with fruit juices. The Kuna Indians of Panama use plantains. A characteristic feature of the beverage is that the starting material is cooked, chewed, and re-cooked prior to fermentation. As in the making of "chicha", enzymes from the saliva of the "cauim" maker breakdown the starches into fermentable sugars.

Medieval period

Islamic world

The isolation of ethanol (alcohol) as a pure compound was first achieved by Muslim chemists who developed the art of distillation during the Abbasid caliphate, the most notable of whom were Arab Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), Arab Al-Kindi (Alkindus) and Persian al-Razi (Rhazes). The writings attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815) mention the flammable vapors of boiled wine. Al-Kindi (801-873) unambiguously described the distillation of wine.cite web |url=http://www.history-science-technology.com/Notes/Notes%207.htm |title=Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources |accessdate=2008-03-29 |last=Hassan |first=Ahmad Y |authorlink=Ahmad Y Hassan |work=History of Science and Technology in Islam]

Pure distilled alcohol was first produced by Muslim chemists in the Islamic world during the 8th and 9th centuries. The development of the still with cooled collector—necessary for the efficient distillation of spirits without freezing—was an invention of Muslim alchemists during this time. In particular, Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 721–815) invented the alembic still; he observed that heated wine from this still released a flammable vapor, which he described as "of little use, but of great importance to science". Not much later, al-Razi (864–930) described the distillation of alcohol and its use in medicine. [cite web |url= http://www.history-science-technology.com/Articles/articles%2072.htm |title=Technology Transfer in the Chemical Industries |accessdate=2008-03-29 |last=Hassan |first=Ahmad Y |authorlink=Ahmad Y Hassan |work=History of Science and Technology in Islam]

The Persian physician and scientist Rhazes discovered techniques of distillation. The word was introduced into Europe, together with the art of distillation and the resulting substance itself, around the 12th century by various European authors who translated and popularized the discoveries of Islamic and Persian alchemists. [http://encyclopedia.farlex.com/Paracelsus,+Philippus+Aureolus]

The word "alcohol" almost certainly comes from the Arabic language, however, the precise etymology is unclear. "Al-" is the Arabic definite article, but the second part may be derived from the "ISOtranslit|al-kuḥl|ar", the name of an early distilled substance, or perhaps from "ISOtranslit|al-ġawl|ar", meaning "spirit" or "demon" and akin to liquors being called "spirits" in English.

Names like "life water" have continued to be the inspiration for the names of several types of beverages, like Gaelic whisky, French eaux-de-vie and possibly vodka. Also, the Scandinavian akvavit spirit gets its name from the Latin phrase "aqua vitae".

Modern period

Early modern period

During the early modern period (1500-1800), Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, the leaders of the Anglican Church, and even the Puritans did not differ substantially from the teachings of the Catholic Church: alcohol was a gift of God and created to be used in moderation for pleasure, enjoyment and health; drunkenness was viewed as a sin (see Christianity and alcohol).

From this period through at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, attitudes toward drinking were characterized by a continued recognition of the positive nature of moderate consumption and an increased concern over the negative effects of drunkenness. The latter, which was generally viewed as arising out of the increased self-indulgence of the time, was seen as a threat to spiritual salvation and societal well being. Intoxication was also inconsistent with the emerging emphasis on rational mastery of self and world and on work and efficiency.

In spite of the ideal of moderation, consumption of alcohol was often high. In the sixteenth century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain, and Polish peasants consumed up to three liters of beer per day. In Coventry, England, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was about 17 pints per person per week, compared to about three pints today; nationwide, consumption was about one pint per day per capita. Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modern Sweden. English sailors received a ration of a gallon of beer per day, while soldiers received two-thirds of a gallon. In Denmark, the usual consumption of beer appears to have been a gallon per day for adult laborers and sailors.

However, the production and distribution of spirits spread slowly. Spirit drinking was still largely for medicinal purposes throughout most of the sixteenth century. It has been said of distilled alcohol that "the sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth century consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it."

A beverage that clearly made its debut during the seventeenth century was sparkling champagne. The credit for that development goes primarily to Dom Perignon, the wine-master in a French abbey. Around 1668, he used strong bottles, invented a more efficient cork (and one that could contain the effervescence in those strong bottles), and began developing the technique of blending the contents. However, another century would pass before problems, especially bursting bottles, would be solved and sparkling champagne would become popular.

The original grain spirit, whisky and its specific origins are unknown but the distillation of whisky has been performed in Scotland and Ireland for centuries. The first confirmed written record of whisky comes from 1405 in Ireland, the production of whisky from malted barley is first mentioned in Scotland in an entry on the 1494, although both countries could have distilled grain alcohol before this date.

Distilled spirit was generally flavored with juniper berries. The resulting beverage was known as jenever, the Dutch word for "juniper." The French changed the name to genievre, which the English changed to "geneva" and then modified to "gin." Originally used for medicinal purposes, the use of gin as a social drink did not grow rapidly at first. However, in 1690, England passed "An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn" and within four years the annual production of distilled spirits, most of which was gin, reached nearly one million gallons.. It should be noted that at that time "corn" in England meant "grain" in general.

The dawn of the eighteenth century saw the British Parliament pass legislation designed to encourage the use of grain for distilling spirits. In 1685, consumption of gin had been slightly over one-half million gallons but by 1714 it stood at two million gallons. In 1727, official (declared and taxed) production reached five million gallons; six years later the London area alone produced eleven million gallons of gin.The English government actively promoted gin production to utilize surplus grain and to raise revenue. Encouraged by public policy, very cheap spirits flooded the market at a time when there was little stigma attached to drunkenness and when the growing urban poor in London sought relief from the newfound insecurities and harsh realities of urban life. Thus developed the so-called Gin Epidemic.

While the negative effects of that phenomenon may have been exaggerated, Parliament passed legislation in 1736 to discourage consumption by prohibiting the sale of gin in quantities of less than two gallons and raising the tax on it dramatically. However, the peak in consumption was reached seven years later, when 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 consumed beer, ale and cider.

After its dramatic peak, gin consumption rapidly declined. From 18 million gallons in 1743, it dropped to just over seven million gallons in 1751 and to less than two million by 1758, and generally declined to the end of the century. 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, an increasing criticism of drunkenness, a newer standard of behavior that criticized coarseness and excess, increased tea and coffee consumption, an increase in piety and increasing industrialization with a consequent emphasis on sobriety and labor efficiency.

While drunkenness was still an accepted part of life in the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century would bring a change in attitudes as a result of increasing industrialization and the need for a reliable and punctual work force. Self-discipline was needed in place of self-expression, and task orientation had to replace relaxed conviviality. Drunkenness would come to be defined as a threat to industrial efficiency and growth.

Problems commonly associated with industrialization and rapid urbanization were also attributed to alcohol. Thus, problems such as urban crime, poverty and high infant mortality rates were blamed on alcohol, although "it is likely that gross overcrowding and unemployment had much to do with these problems." Over time, more and more personal, social and religious/moral problems would be blamed on alcohol. And not only would it be enough to prevent drunkenness; any consumption of alcohol would come to be seen as unacceptable. Groups that began by promoting the moderate use of alcohol instead of its abuse- would ultimately form temperance movements and press for the complete and total prohibition of the production and distribution of beverage alcohol. Unfortunately, this would not eliminate social problems but would compound the situation by creating additional problems wherever it was implemented.

Colonial America

Alcoholic beverages played an important role in Colonial America from the very beginning. The Puritans brought more beer than water on the Mayflower as they departed for the New World. While this may seem strange for Puritans viewed from the modern context, it should be understood that drinking wine and beer at that time was safer than water - which was usually taken from sources used to dispose of sewerage and garbage. Their experience showed them that it was safer to drink alcohol than the typically polluted water in Europe. Alcohol was also an effective analgesic, provided energy necessary for hard work, and generally enhanced the quality of life.

For hundreds of years their English ancestors had consumed beer and ale. Both in England and in the New World, people of both sexes and all ages typically drank beer with their meals. Because importing a continuing supply of beer was expensive, the early settlers brewed their own. However, it was difficult to make the beer they were accustomed to because wild yeasts caused problems in fermentation and resulted in a bitter, unappetizing brew. Although wild hops grew in New England, hop seeds were ordered from England in order to cultivate an adequate supply for traditional beer. In the meantime, the colonists improvised a beer made from red and black spruce twigs boiled in water, as well as a ginger beer. Beer was designated X, XX, or XXX according to its alcohol content. The colonists also learned to make a wide variety of wine from fruits. They additionally made wine from such products as flowers, herbs, and even oak leaves. Early on, French vine-growers were brought to the New World to teach settlers how to cultivate grapes.Colonists adhered to the traditional belief that distilled spirits were "aqua vitae", or water of life. However, rum was not commonly available until after 1650, when it was imported from the Caribbean. The cost of rum dropped after the colonists began importing molasses and cane sugar directly and distilled their own. By 1657, a rum distillery was operating in Boston. It was highly successful and within a generation the production of rum became colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry. Almost every important town from Massachusetts to the Carolinas had a rum distillery to meet the local demand, which had increased dramatically. Rum was often enjoyed in mixed drinks, including flip. This was a popular winter beverage made of rum and beer sweetened with sugar and warmed by plunging a red-hot fireplace poker into the serving mug.Alcohol was viewed positively while its abuse was condemned. Increase Mather (d. 1723) expressed the common view in a sermon against drunkenness: "Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil."



*Bert L. Vallee, "Alcohol in the Western World", "Scientific American" June 1998
* Jack S. Blocker et al. (eds.): Alcohol and Temperance in History. An International Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara 2003 (esp. on the period after 1800, which is not mentioned in this article).
* Thomas Hengartner / Christoph M. Merki (eds.): Genussmittel, Frankfort 2001 (esp. the article on alcohol by Hasso Spode).

ee also

*Distilled beverage (Includes history section)
*History of beer
*Alcohol and Drugs History Society

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