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Article Summary

This History of Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages date back to the very early part of man's history. Many archaeologists believe that wines made from grapes have existed for more than 10,000 years and that drinks such as mead and beer have existed for even longer. Throughout its history, alcohol has been used socially for many diverse purposes, such as calming feuds, giving courage in battle, sealing pacts, celebrating festivals, and seducing lovers. Historians speculate that prehistoric nomads may have made beer from grain & water before learning to make bread. The Celts, Ancient Greeks, the Norse, Egyptians, and Babylonians all have records of production and consumption of alcoholic drinks. Alcohol was included in the Egyptian burial provisions for the journey to the afterlife.

Fermentation and distilling

With agriculture came regular and larger supplies of the raw materials required for fermentation and distilling. The first civilizations to form around a fixed agricultural life style are the Sumerians around 4000 b.c. The evidence that alcohol was produced here has been confirmed by archaeological findings and images on many of their cuneiform tablets which show images of alcohol being drunk. A description of the making of beer on an ancient engraving in the Sumerian language followed by a pictograph of bread being baked, crumbled into water to form a mash, and then made into a drink that is recorded as having made people feel "exhilarated, wonderful and blissful."

Civilization continued to flourish and so did alcohol consumption and production .We know that the ancient Egyptians were drinkers, because they invented the first straws ...for drinking beer that still contained wheat-husks. There are also some passages within their texts referring to the social problems associated with drunkenness, and a 1600 BC Egyptian texts contain 100 medical prescriptions calling for the use of alcohol. There is evidence from Babylonian, another of the early cradles of humanity, clay tablets detail recipes for beer, in fact we know that the Babylonians knew how to brew 20 different types of beer. All these early civilizations grew barley and this may have been cultivated strictly for brewing. The Babylonians drew up the one of the world's first legal texts, and included in the law was a set of rules to regulating drinking houses.

Distilled Spirits

Distilled spirits have their origin in China and India in about 800 BC. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer are produced primarily through fermentation of a fruit or grain of some kind. Drinks such as Brandy, Cognac, and Sake are created by distilling these ferments yielding what is often a more potent drink. The distillation process did not make its way to Europe until the eleventh century.

When the Greeks and the Romans took up the mantle of being the greatest civilizations on earth, other than wine, the majority of their drink was often flavored with herbals like balsam, dandelion, mint, and wormwood seeds, and even crab claws & oyster shells for flavorings. The Greeks worshipped the god Bacchus, the god of wine. The Romans worshipped the same god under the name of Dionysus. The form of worship usually took the form of an orgy of intoxication, and their literature is full of warnings against intemperance. There is writing, which tells how Caesar toasted his troops after crossing the Rubicon, which began the Roman Civil War. It was the Roman legions who around 55 BC introduce beer to Northern Europe.

The beers and ales of Medieval Europe were actually rich in proteins and carbohydrates, making them a good source of nutrition in that society. It is theorized that hops, which are now an universal ingredient in beer making, date back to Babylonians in the eighth and ninth centuries BC. In Europe hops were primarily medicinal plants which were added to beer to make both the drink and the medication taste better. This process soon became standard in the production of the beverage.

Monastaries and Beer

But alcohol consumption continued to grow and by the middle ages many monasteries made beer to nourish their monks and to sell to the people. (The reason the monks were so intensively concerned with making beer was because they wanted a pleasant tasting, nutritious drink to serve with their meals, which were frugal at best, especially during the fasting periods. As the consumption of liquids was not considered to break the fast, beer was always permitted.) The consumption of beer in the monasteries reached astounding levels: Historians report that each monk was allowed to imbibe 5 liters of beer per day. Before the Middle Ages brewing was left to women to make since it was considered a food. During the middle ages the emphasis began shifting from family tradition to centralized production, providing hospitality for travelers and pilgrims. Home breweries became Inns, Taverns and Public Houses as beer remained at the heart of almost every culture and subculture. The middle ages were a superstitious time and occasionally distilling/brewing failures were blamed on "brew witches" or even the devil. The last known burning of a "brew witch" took place in 1591. By the end of the middle ages most of Europe and in fact most of the world were beginning to master the art of brewing and distilling.

But it was not until the Renaissance, as with so many things, that distilling and brewing became an art. Brewers became one of the first occupations to form a guild, and continuity was set with old Brew-"masters" teaching their apprentices the proper techniques. The Renaissance is not simply known for the burgeoning of Art and Culture, but also of Science. The thermometer was invented along with other implements used in the creation of alcohol. This led to a more controlled scientific method of production. Science continued to advance into the Industrial revolution creating steam power, refrigeration and the science of microbiology. As technology advanced it became possible to distill spirits and produce alcohol at much purer and higher strength. The making of alcoholic spirits like gin, brandy and sambuca only started some one thousand or so years ago. Germany, Belgium, and Britain soon evolved as distinct brewing cultures. Countries developed national spirits, which were identified, and gave identity to these countries. Russian Vodka, Scottish Whisky, Mexican Tequila, the Greeks have Ouzo and the Italians Strega and Sambuca, and there are hundreds more.

Americans during the time of the American Revolution, for the most part showed little concern over drunkenness, and spiritous liquors had become the greatest factors in colonial commerce. The first serious and effective efforts to regulate liquor consumption, particularly within the army, occurred during the war. Following it, social conditions weakened traditional controls over drunkenness and consumption increased even further.

The early temperance movement developed among New England Federalists; the most prominent spokesperson was Benjamin Rush, author of Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body (1785), who was one of the first to challenge popular beliefs in the health benefit of spirits. He recommended for temperance and health the use of fermented alcoholic beverages rather than spirits. This early movement relied on the technique of persuasion to bring about such temperance. Congressional attempts to impose a tax on distilled spirits resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion (1794).

During this time, the brewing industry was the most prosperous of the beverage alcohol industries. Because of the competitive nature of brewing, the brewers entered the retail business. Americans called retail businesses selling beer and whiskey by the glass saloons. To expand the sale of beer, brewers expanded the number of saloons. Saloons proliferated. It was not uncommon to find one saloon for every 150 or 200 Americans, including those who did not drink. Hard-pressed to earn profits, saloonkeepers sometimes introduced vices such as gambling and prostitution into their establishments in an attempt to earn profits. Many Americans considered saloons offensive, noxious institutions.


Prohibition had its roots back in the temperance movements of the nineteenth century. The cultural climate in the U.S. at that time was apt to accept such an idea, which was compatible with popular contemporary notions of personal perfection. Prohibition in the United States was a measure designed to reduce drinking by eliminating the businesses that manufactured, distributed, and sold alcoholic beverages. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took away license to do business from the brewers, distillers, vintners, and the wholesale and retail sellers of alcoholic beverages.

The first prohibition law was passed in Maine in 1851, and some twelve states followed suit. Eighteen years later, the National Prohibition Party was formed, which won its first seat in the House of Representatives in 1890. Another three years, and the Anti-Saloon League, a powerful political force in later years, was formed. Throughout the second half of the century, various anti-alcohol measures were enforced in states all over the Union.

By 1906, the movement was well under way, fueled by anti-alien and anti-Roman Catholic sentiments among the Protestant middle classes. The conflict between rural and urban lifestyles was becoming more apparent with the growth of the cities, which were perceived by country-dwellers as hotbeds of crime and vice. Employers were concerned, as they always had been, about the effects of alcohol on the efficiency of their workforce. These factors, combined with a temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, introduced in World War I to save grain for food, led to total Prohibition in 33 states by 1920.

Some prohibition leaders looked forward to an educational campaign that would greatly expand once the drink businesses became illegal, and would eventually, in about thirty years, lead to a sober nation. Other prohibition leaders looked forward to vigorous enforcement of prohibition in order to eliminate supplies of beverage alcohol. After 1920, neither group of leaders was especially successful. The educators never received the support for the campaign that they dreamed about; and the law enforcers were never able to persuade government officials to mount a wholehearted enforcement campaign against illegal suppliers of beverage alcohol.

The laws were enforced easily in rural communities where the population was most sympathetic. But in the cities, an enormous industry grew up around the production, transportation and sale of contraband beer and liquor. The bootleggers (named after the practice adopted by travelers in the Midwest in the 1880's, who concealed liquor in their boots when trading with Indians) began by importing booze over the Mexican and Canadian borders, and from the Caribbean.

Alcohol Smuggling

Smuggling became harder when customs officials became aware and purchased faster boats. The gangsters then resorted to other means to acquire their liquor. "Medicinal" whiskey was still available in drug-stores, on real or forged prescriptions. Denatured alcohol, legally used in other industries and treated with noxious chemicals to render it undrinkable, was "washed" of its poisonous additives and diluted with tapwater. Worse still, illegal corn liquor stills were used to produce frequently toxic "rotgut". Coroners reports for the first five months of 1923 reveal that a hundred people had perished from drinking contaminated hooch. Officials at the time believed the figure to be much higher.

The damage was not limited to public health. Because of the complexity of the operations, the bootleggers quickly organized themselves into alliances and cartels that could control their activities. Law and order began to break down as corruption spread virus-like into public life. In a famous trial in Indiana in 1923, it was revealed that protection monies were paid to: "the mayor, the sheriff, a judge of the city court, the prosecuting attorney for the county, a former sheriff, a former prosecuting attorney, a deputy sergeant, a justice of the peace, an influential lawyer, and former deputy sheriffs, detectives, policemen, petty lawyers, bartenders, caberet singers and notorious women." In other words, just about everybody.

As the cartels grew, and gang rivalry diminished, so the power and profits were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Al Capone's annual earnings were estimated at the time of his arrest to be $60 million. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, an elaborate syndicate of organized crime, built on the multi-million dollar bootlegging industry, had survived. The American Mafia branched out into narcotics, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking and extortion, concerns they still control today.

The best evidence available to historians shows that consumption of beverage alcohol declined dramatically under prohibition. In the early 1920s, consumption of beverage alcohol was about thirty per cent of the pre-prohibition level. Consumption grew somewhat in the last years of prohibition, as illegal supplies of liquor increased and as a new generation of Americans disregarded the law and rejected the attitude of self-sacrifice that was part of the bedrock of the prohibition movement. Nevertheless, it was a long time after repeal before consumption rates rose to their pre-prohibition levels.

6000-4000 BCE Viticulture, the selective cultivation of grape vines for making wine, is believed to originate in the mountains between the Black and Caspian seas (modern Armenia).
c. 3000-2000 BCE Beer making flourishes in Sumerian/Mesopotamian civilization (modern day Iraq) with recipes for over twenty varieties of beer recorded on clay tablets.   
3000-2000 BCE Wine production and trade become an important part of Meditaranean commerce and culture. Ships carry large quantities between cities.
2200 BCE Cuneiform tablet recommends beer as a tonic for lactating women.
3000-1000 BCE Beer is unrefined and usually drunk through straw because it had large quantities of grain and mash in it.  
c. 1800 BCE Beer is produced in quantity in northern Syria.    
1500 B.C. Wine is produced commercially in the Levant and Aegean.   
900-800 BCE Extensive, large scale vineyards laid out in Assyria (modern Iraq) produced over 10,000 skins of wine for the new capitol at Nimrud by Assurbanipal II.   
c. 800 BCE Distillation of barley and rice beer is practiced in India.   
c. 50 BCE Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes "the Gauls (french) have no knowledge of wine.. but used a foul-smelling liquour made of barley rotted in water (beer)."   
c. 500 Wine making reaches Tang China along the Silk Road.   
768 First specific reference to the use of hops in beer from the Abbey St. Denis in France by King Pepin le Bref.   
1100 Alcohol distillation is documented by the medical school at Salerno, Italy. The product of the distillation is named 'spirits' in reference to it being the extracted spirit of the wine.
Middle Ages Distillation of grain alcohol in Europe follows the earlier distillation of wine.   
1516 German Beer Purity Law ("Rheinheitsgebot") makes it illegal to make beer with anything but barley, hops, and pure water.   
Early 1500's Benedictine, a cognac-based alcohol with added herbs, is developed at the monastery in Fecamp, Normandy.   
1525-1550 England. Excessive use of distilled spirits first becomes apparent.   
1524-1556 Viticulture spread through Peru, Chile and Argentina.   
1500's The term 'alcohol' is now used specifically to refer to distilled spirits rather than its previous general meaning of any product of the process of vaporizing and condensing.   
1550 - 1575 England. Thomas Nash describes widespread inebriety in Elizabethan England; drunkenness is mentioned for the first time as a crime, and preventive statutes multiply.   
17th Century Use of hashish, alcohol, and opium spreads among the population of occupied Constantinople   
1600 - 1625 England. During the reign of James I, numerous writers describe widespread drunkenness from beer and wine among all classes. Alcohol use is tied to every endeavor and phase of life, a condition that continues well into the eighteenth century.   
1606 England. Parliament passes "The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness".   
17th century America. Massachusetts laws attempt to control widespread drunkenness, particularly from home-brews, and to supervise taverns. At the same time each town is ordered to establish a man to sell wines and "strong water" so that the public will not suffer from lack of proper accommodations (1637); inns are required to provide beer for entertainment (1649).   
1643 Britain imposes an excise tax on distilled spirits. Along with a tax of alcohol came the development of the moonshine trade.   
1650 - 1675 America. New England colonies attempt to establish a precise definition of drunkenness that includes the time spent drinking, amount, and behavior. Massachusetts laws against home-brews are reaffirmed (1654); a law forbidding the payment of wages in the form of alcohol results in a labor strike (1672). Increase Mather writes Wo to Drunkards (1673).   
1650 - 1675 England. Gin is developed in Holland (c. 1650) by distilling grain with the juniper berry. gin can be produced cheaply and plentifully, and the gin industry grows rapidly in England after it is introduced by British soldiers fighting in the Low Countries.   
1675 - 1700 America. The office of tithingman is established in Massachusetts to report on liquor violations in homes (1675). Cotton Mather blames growing irreligiosity on excess tippling (1694).   
1675 - 1700 England. New laws encourage the distillation and sale of spirits for revenues and support of the landed aristocracy (1690). The production of distilled liquors, mostly gin, increases dramatically; so does use, particularly among the poor. Excessive consumption of beer and wine is still prevalent among the middle and upper classes.   
Late 1600's Western France develops a reputation as the producer of fine quality cognac.   
1700 Scotland and Ireland develop reputations for their quality whiskies.   
1770s Viticulture brought to Alta California. Within a century, it became one of the great wine-producing regions of the world.   
1791 The Act of 1791 (popularly called the "Whiskey Tax") enacted a tax on both publicly and privately distilled whiskey.   
1793 The 'Whiskey Rebellio' of Pennslyvania, during which government troops were used to make arrests of a handful of distillery leaders who were refusing to pay taxes on their products.   
1802 The 'Whiskey Tax' was repealed by Thomas Jefferson who called it 'infernal,' and 'hostile to the genius of a free people'.   
1814-1817 A new alcohol tax is temporarily imposed in the United States to help pay for the War of 1812.   
Early 19th Century Development of the continuous still makes the process of alcohol distillation cheaper and easier to control.   
1860 1,138 legal alcohol distilleries were operating in the United States producing 88 million gallons of liquor per year.   
1862 Abraham Lincoln imposed a new tax on liquor (the Act of July 1) to help pay the bills from the Civil War. This act also created the office of internal revenue. The alcohol tax began at 20 cents per gallon in 1862 and had risen to $2.00 per gallon just over two years later.   
1906 Pure Food and Drug Act is passed, regulating the labelling of products containing Alcohol, Opiates, Cocaine, and Cannabis, among others. The law went into effect Jan 1, 1907   
Dec 1917 The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (prohibition amendment) is adopted by the required majority of both houses of Congress.   
Jan 16, 1919 The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (prohibition amendment) is ratified by the 36th state, meeting the 3/4 requirement. It goes into effect one year later.   
Oct 1919 The Volstead Act is passed by Congress over President Wilson's veto. This clarifies and broadens the base of the 18th Amendment, and defines methods of enforcement. It specifies that possession of alcoholic beverages is also illegal, although the courts often failed to enforce this provision.   
Jan 16, 1920 The 18th Amendment (prohibition amendment) takes effect, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, import, and export of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.   
1920-1933 The illicit alcohol trade booms in the United States.   
Mar 22, 1933 The Volstead Act is modified, legalizing beverages containing not more than 3.2 percent alcohol. Roosevelt proposed this change to Congress nine days after his inauguration.   
Dec 5, 1933 The prohibition of alcohol is repealed with the passage of the 21st Amendment, effective immediately.
1934-1970 Once the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the excise tax on alcohol began to climb again. In 1934 the tax was $2.00 per gallon, in 1940 it was $3.00, $4.00 in 1941, $6.00 in 1942, $9.00 in 1944, and $10.50 in 1970. At this point a moonshiner could produce and sell a gallon of alcohol for half the amount of the tax alone.   
Oct 14, 1978 US President Jimmy Carter signs bill legalizing home brewing of beer for the first time since Prohibition.   

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