alcohol history, alcohol discovery, early alcohol use till now.

Alcohol use: quick overview

The use of alcohol can be traced way back to antique times. Used
in rituals , sacred ceremonies, parties or “conviviales”. Alcohol was also used as a remedy: an anesthesic. In 19th century appears the notion of alcoholism. After world war one, from a very young age people are advised to use fermented drinks moderately, and against distilled drinks. After world war two, sobriety is glorified. Many laws concerning alcohol appeared.


A depiction of OsirisThe discovery of late Stone Age beer jugs has established the fact that intentionally fermented beverages existed at least as early as the Neolithic period (cir. 10,000 B.C.), and it has been suggested that beer may have preceded bread as a staple; wine clearly appeared as a finished product in Egyptian pictographs around 4,000 B.C.[1]

Brewing dates from the beginning of civilization in ancient Egypt and alcoholic beverages were very important in that country. Symbolic of this is the fact that while many gods were local or familial, Osiris, the god of wine, was worshiped throughout the entire country. The Egyptians believed that this important god also invented beer, a beverage that was considered a necessity of life; it was brewed in the home “on an everyday basis.”[1]

Both beer and wine were deified and offered to gods. Cellars and winepresses even had a god whose hieroglyph was a winepress. The ancient Egyptians made at least seventeen varieties 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.[1]

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 inebriety 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 historian 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.[1]


A variety of alcoholic beverages have been used in China since prehistoric times. Alcohol was considered a spiritual food rather than a material 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.”[1]

A Chinese imperial edict of about 1,116 B.C. 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 it was drunk daily and was one of the treasury’s biggest sources of income.[1]

Alcoholic beverages were widely used in all segments of Chinese society, were used as a source of inspiration, were important for hospitality, were an antidote for fatigue, and were sometimes misused. Laws against making wine were enacted and repealed forty-one times between 1,100 B.C. and A.D. 1,400. However, a commentator writing around 650 B.C. 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.”[1]


Alcoholic beverages in the Indus valley civilization appeared in the Chalcolithic Era. These beverages were in use between 3000BC – 2000BC. Sura, a beverage distilled from rice meal, was popular among the Kshatriya warriors and the peasent population. The use of these beverages was well defined within specific social contexts. [2]

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. However, devout adherents of Buddhism, which arose in India in the 5th and 6th centuries BC and spread over southern and eastern Asia, abstain to this day, as do the members of the Hindu Brahman caste.[3]


Beer was the major beverage among the Babylonians, and as early as 2,700 B.C. they worshiped a wine goddess and other wine deities. Babylonians regularly used both beer and wine as offerings to their gods. Around 1,750 B.C., 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.[1]


While the art of wine making reached the Hellenic peninsula by about 2,000 B.C., 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 B.C., 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.[1]

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.[1]

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 B.C., warnings against intemperance, especially at symposia, appear to become more frequent.[1]

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 B.C.) 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.[1]

Among Greeks, the Macedonians viewed intemperance as a sign of masculinity and were well known for their drunkenness. Their king, Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), whose mother adhered to the Dionysian cult, developed a reputation for inebriety.[1]

Early modern period (1500-1800)

Protestant leaders such as Luther, 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).[1]

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.[1]

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.[1]

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.”[1]

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.[1]

The original grain spirit, whiskey, appears to have first been distilled in Ireland, where it is spelled “whisky.” While its specific origins are unknown there is evidence that by the sixteenth century it was widely consumed in some parts of Scotland. It was also during the seventeenth century that Franciscus Sylvius (or Franz de la Boe), a professor of medicine at the University of Leyden, distilled spirits from grain.[1]

Distilled spirit was generally flavored with juniper berries. The resulting beverage was known as junever, 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 .[1]

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.[1]

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.[1]

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.[1]

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.[1]

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.[1]

Colonial America

Further information: Christianity and alcohol

Interior view of the Toll Gate Saloon, Black Hawk, ColoradoAlcoholic 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.

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.

A Depression-era bar in Melrose, Louisiana.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.

J.W. Swarts Saloon in Charleston, Arizona in 1885Colonists 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.”

Prohibition In the United States

Prohibition In the United States (1920–1933) was the era during which the United States Constitution outlawed the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The term also includes the prohibition of alcohol by state action at different times, and the social-political movement to secure prohibition. Selling, manufacturing, or transporting (including importing and exporting) alcohol for beverage purposes was prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment. Though drinking and possession of alcohol were not prohibited by the Constitution, they were restricted by the Volstead Act.

Alcohol Etymology

The word “alcohol” almost certainly comes from the Arabic
language (the “al-” prefix being the Arabic definite article);
however, the precise origin is unclear. It was introduced into Europe,
together with the art of distillation and the substance itself, around
the 12th century by various European authors who translated and popularized
the discoveries of Islamic alchemists.

A popular theory, found in many dictionaries, is that it comes from ??????
= ALKHL = al-kuhul, originally the name of very finely powdered antimony
sulfide Sb2S3 used as an antiseptic and eyeliner. The powder is prepared
by sublimation of the natural mineral stibnite in a closed vessel. According
to this theory, the meaning of alkuhul would have been first extended
to distilled substances in general, and then narrowed to ethanol. This
conjectured etymology has been circulating in England since 1672 at least

However, this derivation is suspicious since the current Arabic name
for alcohol, ?????? = ALKHWL = al???, does not derive from al-kuhul. The
Qur’an in verse 37:47 uses the word ????? = ALGhWL = al-ghawl —
properly meaning “spirit” (“spiritual being”) or “demon”
— with the sense “the thing that gives the wine its headiness”.
The word al-ghawl also originated the English word “ghoul”,
and the name of the star Algol. This derivation would, of course, be consistent
with the use of “spirit” or “spirit of wine” as synonymous
of “alcohol” in most Western languages. (Incidentally, the etymology
“alcohol” = “the devil” was used in the 1930s by the
U.S. Temperance Movement for propaganda purposes.)

According to the second theory, the popular etymology and the spelling
“alcohol” would not be due to generalization of the meaning
of ALKHL, but rather to Western alchemists and authors confusing the two
words ALKHL and ALGhWL, which have indeed been transliterated in many
different and overlapping ways. The fact that stibnite is also mentioned
in the Hebrew Bible under the name ??? = kohel = ” can only
have contributed to the confusion.


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