A Brief Sociological History of Alcohol

Sociological History of Alcohol


Despite its unnatural effects, pure alcohol is entirely natural in its composition. The first wines and spirits emerged from fermented grain, the juice of various fruits, and even honey, the latter of which was the base of the popular Ancient Greek mead. From China to Babylon to undiscovered America, humans relied on nature to give them a buzz. Evidence suggests that beer was a popular drink as early as the Neolithic, or in the final throes of the Stone Age, around 10,000 BC. Wine followed shortly afterwards, with the earliest written records of it being traced to the Sumerians in 4,000 BC.

The golden age of alcohol began in Ancient Rome. Here, we have found extensive literature documenting the creation and use of booze. The phrase ‘in vino veritas,’ or ‘in wine there is truth,’ has been attributed to Pliny the Elder, Alcaeus of Mytilene, and Erasmus. Regardless of who first spoke the words, Romans certainly recognised the ‘relaxing’ effects of alcohol. The notion of binge-drinking began to take shape, with free booze often leading to riots and general public disorder.

In Europe, the Bible declared that ‘joy of heart, good cheer and merriment are wine drunk freely at the proper time,’ while also to ‘not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.’ Monks brewed beers and wines on a large scale, and they sold their products to the public. Jesus himself turned water into wine. For the time being, the Church was tenuously embracing social drinking. Overindulgence, however, remained a sin – with purgatory making for the ultimate hangover.

In the 17th century, gin entered the picture. The spirit dramatically shaped the future of Britain, and some historians attribute its invention and the ensuing alcohol-related deaths to the stabilisation of London’s inflated population. The Gin Acts, passed in 1736 and 1751, sought to curb the production of gin with taxes and regulations.

In America, the prevalence of corn led to the widespread popularity of whiskey. President James Madison allegedly consumed a pint of whiskey a day, and a Puritan minister described alcohol as a ‘good creature of God.’ Historian W. J. Rorabaugh concluded that ‘each person consumed about three and a half gallons of [pure ethanol] per year.’ Even toddlers drank at each meal. The effects of alcohol were also observed, with another historian noting that ‘in cities it was widely understood that common workers would fail to come to work on Mondays, staying home to wrestle with the echoes and aftershocks of a weekend binge.’ Sound familiar?

Today, the dangers of alcohol are better understood. Spirits are typically mixed rather than drunk straight, wine bottles advise the maximum recommended servings, and bars are legally prohibited from serving pints of whiskey. We may continue to overindulge, but collectively we manage our livers significantly better than our forefathers did theirs.

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