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A Brief History of Alcohol

Many archaeologists believe that wine made from grapes was a part of man’s regular diet as many as 10,000 years back. Surprisingly, it is also believed that other kinds of alcohol like beer and mead existed even before. Along the way developed various social uses for the intoxicating drink, including pepping up men before a battle, calming fights, closing a deal and seduction. Many of these traditions associated with alcohol are still in existence.

Prehistoric man is known to have made beer from grain and water even before the method of making bread was discovered. The Greek, Norse, Egyptian and Babylonian history has proof of production and consumption of alcohol. In fact the Egyptians created a straw to drink beer that contained wheat husk. Clay tablets with more than 20 detailed recipes have been found in the remains of the Babylonian civilization.

The earliest records of alcohol consumption in Chinese civilization go back to 800 B.C. Fruit and grain were distilled and fermented to produce brandy, cognac and sake. The distillation process that was so prevalent in China as far back as 800 B.C. did not reach Europe till the eleventh century AD.

Since the Greeks worshipped Bacchus the god of wine, their wines were flavored with herbs like dandelion, mint, wormwood seeds, crab claws and more. The Romans who also worshipped this god (under the name of Dionysus) had a different way of paying tribute by creating an orgy of intoxication. Beer was introduced to the Northern parts of Europe by the Roman legions.

It might surprise some to know that many monasteries perfected the art of making beer since it was allowed during fasts too and was not considered to break the fast. The extent of consumption here reached very high levels. Some records indicate consumption of more than 5 liters a day.

Slowly the beer and wine that were brewed at home started to be produced centrally. Taverns and public houses opened up. When there were issues with the brewing, the issues were blamed on the ‘brew witch’ and witch burning became common.

It was only around Renaissance that brewing and distilling became an art. “Brew master” became an occupation and the methods adopted were passed from teacher to apprentice. As technology advanced with art and culture during these times, the methods of producing wine, alcohol and other kinds of liquor became perfect and stronger and purer creations were made. Gin, brandy, and sambuca were created. Some of the spirits started to be associated with specific countries like the Russian Vodka, the Scottish Whisky and the Mexican Tequila.

Till this time, alcohol consumption was considered to be healthy and over drunkenness was not considered to be an issue. As consumption broke all barriers, people like Benjamin Rush authored books that detailed the ‘Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body’. For the first time temperance was recommended and there were attempts by the government to impose a tax on distilled spirits causing the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States in 1794.

Later issues like prostitution, gambling and other vices were associated with the retail saloons that served alcohol and other liquor and the history of prohibition and smuggling started too.

-Article by Anne Hamilton.