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The History of Alcohol

Alcohol, which has an interesting and far-reaching history, has been discovered, used and prohibited throughout the ages. Long before the evolution of humans, alcohol had always existed in nature as part of the living process in plant and animal life. Man has never had to manufacture alcohol. Small but definitely measurable quantities of alcohol are normally present in many parts of the human body: in the liver, brain and blood; from bacteria in the large intestine; and in the muscles. Alcoholic beverages were probably discovered accidentally.

People would have first tasted alcohol in fermented fruit; they were quick o take to and improve on this strange, new taste. People discovered that alcoholic beverages could be produced from practically any fermentable material: fruits, berries, flowers, honey, the sap of trees, milk and from almost any plant or animal substance containing carbohydrates or sugar. In the tropics, people learned to use the sap of palm trees and cactus. In the Far and Near East and in Europe, they used honey and milk. In the New World, they used corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane, potatoes and a wide variety of other plants.

By the time recorded history began, only a few people had not iscovered alcoholic beverages, mainly because they were geographically isolated from the main continents. These exceptions have led many scientists to theorize that wine and alcoholic beverages produced from grains appeared only after agriculture was established in the economic life of man. Actually, alcoholic beverages were as important to primitive man as they are to modern man. They were the soothing substances which permitted him to escape from the constant threats of his hostile world– cold, hunger, warfare and illness.

Alcohol also became an important part of early tribal and religious life. While severe intoxication was often a welcome part of many religious festivals and tribal ceremonies, personal drunkenness apart from ceremonials was generally frowned upon, as it is now. Earlier civilization developed many reasons or occasions for drinking. Ancient civilizations used alcohol to welcome friends and to take leave of them. They drank in honor of new leaders, new years, marriages, births and deaths. People drank to each other’s health and to avoid each other’s illnesses.

They drank to launch ships, to celebrate victory, and to forget the misery and defeat of war. They drank in luxury as a symbol of heir wealth and in poverty to forget their hunger. They drank to their gods and to many earthly things. However, all throughout the history of alcohol, there were always people who preached against the sin. In 2300 BC, history records (in the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon) a number of price-fixing and dispensing controls of alcoholic beverages. These statutes were directed at tavernkeepers of the time.

Some years later, in ancient Egypt, the priesthood issued a number of proscriptions against drinking in excess. These were among the earliest instances of a religious caste concerning tself with the problem of excess alcohol consumption. Attempts to deal with the problems of excessive drinking were also recorded throughout Persian, Cretan, Arabic, Greek, and Roman history. Prohibition as one means of coping with the excess consumption of alcohol was attempted in many forms throughout history. The rulers of many countries tried to enact these restrictions.

That prohibition never succeeded in its purpose is always seen in its early repeal. In general, early laws were directed against the consequences of excessive drinking, rather than at drinking itself. Drinking, by itself, was not regarded as inful by the early Christian church. Such laws originally adopted by the princes of the church were directed not against drinking, but against drunkenness, specifically among the clergy. As the influence of the church grew during the Middle Ages, these ordinances were broadened to include the population as a whole and, in effect, became common law.

However, none of these factors accounts for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages among the people of certain Far and Near Eastern religions, such as Islam. Some scholars believe that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol resulted ainly from their religious rivalry with the Christian church, and also from their belief that wine was polluting and their desire to prevent the excesses commonly associated with drinking. Condemnation of drinking by the Christian church as sinful and immoral came into being in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Protestant Reformation.

The preaching of temperance by Calvin and Luther had a profound effect on not only Europe, but upon Colonial America, which was just being settled by pilgrims of these faiths. Until the 18th century, wine, beer and ale had satisfied most of he civilized desire for alcoholic beverages. Once more variety of drink came about, people tended to drink in excess more often. This excess of drinking became a public concern. Public leaders everywhere (doctors, ministers, artists, writers, etc. ) began to speak out against the excesses of alcohol.

Despite the severity of the problems associated with excessive drinking, national prohibition did not succeed then for precisely the same reasons (social, economic, and political) that it fails today. Back then, instead of prohibiting excessive drinking, dilution of alcoholic beverages as encouraged. In 18th century England, distillation as an industrial process was encouraged. England’s traditional animosity toward France culminated during this time in the imposition of heavy tariffs on French wine imports.

As a substitute for the light wines of France, the smuggling of Dutch gin became a major industry until English production of distilled spirits got underway. Then, within a short period of time, the English changed from a dilute alcohol drinking nation to a relatively “hard liquor” drinking nation. The drinking pattern suddenly changed from beer and ale (containing % alcohol) to port (18%-22% alcohol) to gin (35%-45% alcohol). Gin was cheap and every encouragement was given to the people to purchase it.

By the middle of the 18th century, England came to regret its earlier policy of encouraging the production of gin and other distilled spirits. The government embarked on a permanent program of coping with drinking excesses by levying higher and higher taxes on distilled spirits. Along with these increasingly prohibitive costs to consumers, came more rigid regulations concerning the manner, times and terms of sale of alcohol, and the licensing of pubs. The success of these laws and regulations can be proven by the fact that today England is once again primarily a dilute alcohol drinking nation, a country of beer and ale drinkers.

In the United States, we were as picky in our drinking as in all other things. Founded precisely at the time when distillation was rapidly becoming an important industry in other parts of the world, America immediately became a “hard liquor” drinking nation in which gin and whiskies played an important part. Although the early colonists had to satisfy their meager drinking wants mostly with home-brewed beer, ale and ine, by the late 1600’s, rum was imported from the Caribbean islands and the distillation industry was established and encouraged.

The history of New England is noted for its laws involving a wide variety of prohibitions and penalties. The laws of Colonial America preempted those of the church. Drunkenness, defined as a sin by church law, was translated in precisely those terms into secular law, where it has remained practically unchanged to today. Punishment, including fines, flogging, imprisonment, censure, instead of treatment, has likewise remained the primary discouragement to excessive drinking. Drinking excesses mounted throughout the last half of the 18th century.

Communities all over America were manufacturing their own distilled whiskies. The people west of the Allegheny Mountains were cut off from the supplies of gin on the eastern seaboard and also from supplies of rum from the islands. So they discovered a way of distilling alcohol from their bulk products–corn and grain–by converting them into a kind of liquid gold. The bourbon whisky they distilled was small in bulk, relatively easy to transport, and had a high money value.

It became much ore than mere spirits; it actually became a medium of exchange, to the extent that bottles of bourbon were occasionally placed in church coffers instead of cash. Before the Civil War, Americans of drinking age drank large amounts of hard liquor, primarily rum, whisky and gin, and small amounts of beer and wine. After the Civil War, coinciding with the immigration of German and Scandinavian beer-drinking peoples, a radical change in American drinking patterns became evident. By 1915, Americans were consuming large amounts of beer and much smaller amounts of hard liquor.

The American drinking style has remained much the same to this day. Despite brief flirtations with such hard drink as the 1920s “bathtub gin” and the 1980s designer vodkas and single malt whiskies, Americans generally remain content with the consumption of softer products such as beer and wine. The popularity of alcohol is likely to continue despite the regular eruption of temperance movements; this and the current 20th century’s focus on the illegality of drugs seems to predict that national alcohol prohibition will never again be attempted in the United States.

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