Bradford Wright9/5/03Alcohol, which has an interesting and far-reaching history, has beendiscovered, used and prohibited throughout the ages. Long before theevolution of humans, alcohol had always existed in nature as part of theliving process in plant and animal life. Man has never had to manufacturealcohol. Small but definitely measurable quantities of alcohol arenormally present in many parts of the human body: in the liver, brain andblood; 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 quickto take to and improve on this strange, new taste. People discovered thatalcoholic beverages could be produced from practically any fermentablematerial: fruits, berries, flowers, honey, the sap of trees, milk and fromalmost any plant or animal substance containing carbohydrates or sugar.
Inthe tropics, people learned to use the sap of palm trees and cactus. In theFar and Near East and in Europe, they used honey and milk. In the NewWorld, they used corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane, potatoes and a widevariety of other plants.By the time recorded history began, only a few people had notdiscovered alcoholic beverages, mainly because they were geographicallyisolated from the main continents.
These exceptions have led manyscientists to theorize that wine and alcoholic beverages produced fromgrains appeared only after agriculture was established in the economic lifeof man. Actually, alcoholic beverages were as important to primitive manas they are to modern man. They were the soothing substances whichpermitted him to escape from the constant threats of his hostile world–cold, hunger, warfare and illness. Alcohol also became an important part ofearly tribal and religious life. While severe intoxication was often awelcome part of many religious festivals and tribal ceremonies, personaldrunkenness apart from ceremonials was generally frowned upon, as it isnow. Earlier civilization developed many reasons or occasions fordrinking. Ancient civilizations used alcohol to welcome friends and to takeleave 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 eachother’s illnesses. They drank to launch ships, to celebrate victory, and toforget the misery and defeat of war. They drank in luxury as a symbol oftheir wealth and in poverty to forget their hunger.
They drank to theirgods and to many earthly things. However, all throughout the history of alcohol, there were alwayspeople who preached against the sin. In 2300 BC, history records (in theCode of Hammurabi, King of Babylon) a number of price-fixing and dispensingcontrols of alcoholic beverages. These statutes were directed attavernkeepers of the time. Some years later, in ancient Egypt, thepriesthood issued a number of proscriptions against drinking in excess.These were among the earliest instances of a religious caste concerningitself with the problem of excess alcohol consumption. Attempts to dealwith the problems of excessive drinking were also recorded throughoutPersian, Cretan, Arabic, Greek, and Roman history. Prohibition as one means of coping with the excess consumption ofalcohol was attempted in many forms throughout history.
The rulers of manycountries tried to enact these restrictions. That prohibition neversucceeded 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 assinful by the early Christian church.
Such laws originally adopted by theprinces of the church were directed not against drinking, but againstdrunkenness, specifically among the clergy. As the influence of the churchgrew during the Middle Ages, these ordinances were broadened to include thepopulation as a whole and, in effect, became common law. However, none ofthese factors accounts for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages among thepeople of certain Far and Near Eastern religions, such as Islam.
Somescholars believe that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol resultedmainly from their religious rivalry with the Christian church, and alsofrom their belief that wine was polluting and their desire to prevent theexcesses commonly associated with drinking.Condemnation of drinking by the Christian church as sinful and immoral cameinto being in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Protestant Reformation.The preaching of temperance by Calvin and Luther had a profound effect onnot only Europe, but upon Colonial America, which was just being settled bypilgrims of these faiths. Until the 18th century, wine, beer and ale had satisfied most ofthe civilized desire for alcoholic beverages. Once more variety of drinkcame about, people tended to drink in excess more often. This excess ofdrinking became a public concern. Public leaders everywhere (doctors,ministers, artists, writers, etc.
) began to speak out against the excessesof alcohol. Despite the severity of the problems associated with excessivedrinking, national prohibition did not succeed then for precisely the samereasons (social, economic, and political) that it fails today. Back then,instead of prohibiting excessive drinking, dilution of alcoholic beverageswas encouraged. In 18th century England, distillation as an industrial processwas encouraged. England’s traditional animosity toward France culminatedduring 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 ginbecame a major industry until English production of distilled spirits gotunderway. Then, within a short period of time, the English changed from adilute alcohol drinking nation to a relatively “hard liquor” drinkingnation. The drinking pattern suddenly changed from beer and ale (containing8% alcohol) to port (18%-22% alcohol) to gin (35%-45% alcohol). Gin wascheap and every encouragement was given to the people to purchase it. By the middle of the 18th century, England came to regret itsearlier policy of encouraging the production of gin and other distilledspirits. The government embarked on a permanent program of coping withdrinking excesses by levying higher and higher taxes on distilled spirits.Along with these increasingly prohibitive costs to consumers, came morerigid regulations concerning the manner, times and terms of sale ofalcohol, and the licensing of pubs. The success of these laws andregulations can be proven by the fact that today England is once againprimarily a dilute alcohol drinking nation, a country of beer and aledrinkers.
In the United States, we were as picky in our drinking as in allother things. Founded precisely at the time when distillation was rapidlybecoming an important industry in other parts of the world, Americaimmediately became a “hard liquor” drinking nation in which gin andwhiskies played an important part. Although the early colonists had tosatisfy their meager drinking wants mostly with home-brewed beer, ale andwine, by the late 1600’s, rum was imported from the Caribbean islands andthe distillation industry was established and encouraged. The history of New England is noted for its laws involving a widevariety of prohibitions and penalties. The laws of Colonial Americapreempted those of the church. Drunkenness, defined as a sin by church law,was translated in precisely those terms into secular law, where it hasremained practically unchanged to today. Punishment, including fines,flogging, imprisonment, censure, instead of treatment, has likewiseremained the primary discouragement to excessive drinking.
Drinking excesses mounted throughout the last half of the 18thcentury. Communities all over America were manufacturing their owndistilled whiskies. The people west of the Allegheny Mountains were cut offfrom the supplies of gin on the eastern seaboard and also from supplies ofrum from the islands. So they discovered a way of distilling alcohol fromtheir bulk products–corn and grain–by converting them into a kind ofliquid gold.
The bourbon whisky they distilled was small in bulk,relatively easy to transport, and had a high money value. It became muchmore than mere spirits; it actually became a medium of exchange, to theextent that bottles of bourbon were occasionally placed in church coffersinstead of cash. Before the Civil War, Americans of drinking age drank largeamounts of hard liquor, primarily rum, whisky and gin, and small amounts ofbeer and wine.
After the Civil War, coinciding with the immigration ofGerman and Scandinavian beer-drinking peoples, a radical change in Americandrinking patterns became evident. By 1915, Americans were consuming largeamounts of beer and much smaller amounts of hard liquor. The Americandrinking style has remained much the same to this day.
Despite briefflirtations with such hard drink as the 1920s “bathtub gin” and the 1980sdesigner vodkas and single malt whiskies, Americans generally remaincontent with the consumption of softer products such as beer and wine. Thepopularity of alcohol is likely to continue despite the regular eruption oftemperance movements; this and the current 20th century’s focus on theillegality of drugs seems to predict that national alcohol prohibition willnever again be attempted in the United States. One encouraging note is therecent consideration of alcoholism as a disease and the emphasis placed noton punishment, but on treatment of alcoholics