Alcohol has played an influential role throughout history and has left its mark on many cultures and civilizations, including the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and the British. From ancient times, when beer recipes were recorded on tablets, to Prohibition in the United States, to the staggering modern rates of alcoholism, alcohol consumption has brought people together and torn them apart.
For thousands of years, people around the world have used fermented grains and fruits to make alcohol. The earliest evidence that humans were brewing alcohol comes from residues in pottery jars found in northern China that date from 7000 to 6600 B.C.2
Between 3,000 to 2,000 B.C., Sumerians in Mesopotamia made beer. Researchers have found over 20 different beer recipes recorded on clay tablets.1 The Sumerians drank beer with straws because bits of mash and grain remained in the unfiltered alcohol mixture.2
Research and ancient texts suggest that Sumerians placed rules and regulations on the consumption of alcohol.2 However, Sumerians also used alcohol in sacrificial and religious settings as an offering to the gods. In the epic Sumerian story Gilgamesh, a primitive, underdeveloped man transforms into a cultured human being after drinking 7 cups of beer.3
In ancient Egypt, bread and beer were staples in the daily diet.3 At the time, beer was considered the drink of the gods.4 Egyptian beer typically consisted of barley, wheat, and yeasty dough.3
Most Egyptians drank beer for its virtues and supposed nutritional benefits. An ancient medical text from this time listed beer as a cure for several ailments. In Giza, it was used for labor compensation; workers received 3 rations of beer per day. People also drank beer at festivals and celebrations, such as the Tekh Festival (coined as The Festival of Drunkenness).4
Ancient Greece was one of the earliest known centers of wine production. Winemakers established vineyards as early as 2000 B.C.5 Alcohol played a pivotal role in early Greek religious culture and was often used as an offering to the gods. It was also used as currency throughout the Mediterranean region.
Like the Egyptians, the Greeks also used alcohol as a medicine. Greek texts frequently reference wine consumption for medical ailments, such as lethargy, diarrhea, childbirth pains, and keeping wounds clean and sterile.5 Wine was so important that it had its own god in Greek society: Dionysus. He was also considered the god of fertility and of ritual madness and ecstasy, and he represented the medium between the living and dead.3
During this time, the Greeks often gathered around for symposium, which was a place for elite men to drink together, share conversation, tell stories and jokes, and have lively debates.3 The symposiarch determined the wine strength for each particular event.5 Famous Greek literature such as Plato’s Symposium and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey highlighted the ancient relationships between alcohol and celebration.5,6
The Romans adopted wine production from the Greeks. The Greek poet Euripides wrote the play Bacchae, depicting how the followers of the god Bacchus drank to excess and committed murder while under the influence. By 186 B.C., the Roman Senate outlawed the performance of Bacchic rites in Italy. They believed that these followers could be a threat to public safety.5
The Roman Empire also placed restrictions on grapevine growth and production to increase local demand for Roman wine. Within the first 2 centuries B.C., the Romans exported wines, often to be used as currency for slave labor.7
However, after the anti-Bacchic purge, the Roman perspective on drinking changed. Wine became a standard ration for military personnel. Alcohol production quickly became standardized, and the Romans created model vineyards and developed bulk wine. Roman writers praised wine and even condemned drinking water. The legendary story of Bacchus became one of their own—with the character portrayed as a mythical but competent creature with a comical sidekick.2
China has its own complex history with alcohol. Many Chinese sources cite consumption of “natural alcohol” in ancient times. This natural alcohol refers to natural fermentation of fruits and flowers.8
China was the first country to distill spirits with yeast-fermented bases. Similar to other cultures, alcohol was also considered sacred in China. People frequently drank during important rituals and celebrations, such as family meals, weddings, and holidays like the New Year.8 Drinking coincided with music, dancing, and reading literature.
Additionally, the Chinese believed alcohol could heal and prevent illnesses, reduce degeneration from old age, and maintain overall health. An old Chinese proverb claims that alcohol is the best of all medicines.8
In all these ancient cultures, alcohol was used for a variety of medical purposes, including relieving headaches, preventing colds, strengthening immune systems, staving off bowel issues, and promoting overall good health.2
Britain: 16th and 17th Centuries
In England, the first excessive use of distilled spirits dates to 1525–1550. Around the same time, playwright Thomas Nash discussed the pervasiveness of drunkenness in England. For the first time, the English mentioned drunkenness as a crime.1
In 1600, during the reign of James I, writers described the widespread intoxication among all classes. Alcohol use was integrated into nearly all phases of life. In 1606, the English Parliament passed The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness.1
In 1643, Britain began taxing distilled spirits, which in turn spurred the growth of the moonshine trade. Holland developed gin around 1650. The growth of the English gin industry was not far behind, after the drink was introduced to British soldiers fighting in the region. Soon thereafter, in 1700, both Scotland and Ireland began to attract attention for their premium whiskeys.1
Natives in other parts of the world, such as South America during the Inca days, experimented with their own alcohol recipes. In these regions, natives used maize to make a drink known as chicha.9
When the English first immigrated to America, they were unaccustomed to drinking water and believed it to be contaminated and unsafe, as it often was. Because it was free, they also condemned it and consumed it only when they couldn’t afford anything else. By the 1630s, however, colonists began brewing their own beer using malted barley shipped from England.10
In 1654, Massachusetts reaffirmed laws against homebrewing. However, a law banning alcohol as payment resulted in an extreme labor strike.1
The Founding Fathers had an affinity for alcohol, and colonial Americans drank throughout the day, preferring cider, beer, and eventually rum.11 By the end of the 17th century, Americans began heavily consuming rum, as molasses was distilled in New England, which soon became home to more than 140 distilleries. By 1790, Americans consumed an average of 5.8 gallons of alcohol per person each year; by 1830, this figure peaked to 7.1 gallons (compared to 2.3 gallons today).11,12
The Whiskey Tax of 1791 led to the Whiskey Rebellion of Pennsylvania, in which distillery employees protested and refused to pay the tax. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson repealed the tax. In 1860, just before the Civil War, the United States produced approximately 88 million gallons of liquor each year.1
19th and 20th Centuries
Alcohol played a significant role in the Civil War. Nurses and doctors used it for medication and sedation, and chaplains used it in their ministries. During the war, alcohol also had an important part in celebrating major events such as the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.13
However, due to high rates of abuse, many soldiers acted irresponsibly and dangerously when under the influence. Liquor was associated with violent war crimes, such as rape.13
The Temperance Movement began in the early 1800s and picked up steam throughout the century. The initial intention was to reduce alcohol intake due to concern about the harmful effects of drinking to excess. By the 1820s, members pushed for total alcohol abstinence. People joining this movement became part of the Cold Water Army.14 The movement served both religious and social purposes, as some people strived to achieve societal and individual reform.
Soon, in 1862, the US Navy removed the half-pint rum ration for sailors, and by the late 19th century, support for Prohibition (banning the manufacturing and selling of alcohol) gained popularity. It became the 18th Amendment in 1919.12 In 1919, The Volstead Act specified that alcohol could only be produced or sold for medical or religious reasons, and it could only be consumed in one’s home if bought legally.1
However, Prohibition did not ban the actual consumption of alcohol. Many Americans purchased and drank it in speakeasies and with the help of organized crime. In the early 1930s, many believed that legalizing alcohol would help boost the economy, and the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933.1,12
Education and treatments for alcoholism emerged soon after. Bill Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Bob Smith (Dr. Bob) formed Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935 and published Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. In 1940, The Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol began publication.15
In 1948, the properties of disulfiram (Antabuse) were discovered, and the potential for its use as a drinking deterrent and adjunct in the treatment of alcohol addiction were recognized. Around this time, physicians also started prescribing barbiturates and amphetamines for treatment. 15
In 1952, the American Medical Association first defined alcoholism. In the years that followed, though the AMA stopped short of declaring alcoholism a disease, they did recognize alcoholics as a distinct, legitimately treatable group of people. They revised the definition of alcoholism as a complex disease in 1967, and treatment through counseling and education became more common.15
Despite a better understanding of the harms of alcohol use, excessive drinking continues to be a pervasive problem. In 2016:16
- 136.7 million Americans over age 12 reported using alcohol within the past month.
- 488,000 adolescents aged 12–17 had an alcohol use disorder (2% of this population).
- 3.7 million adults 18–25 had an alcohol use disorder (10.7% of this population).
- 10.9 million adults over age 26 had an alcohol use disorder (5.2% of this population).
Fortunately, people struggling with alcoholism have several treatment options, including:
- Medical detox.
- Inpatient treatment.
- Outpatient treatment.
- Medication-assisted treatment.
- Individual or group therapy.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
If you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Recovery can be difficult, but you don’t deserve to suffer. Help is always available, so make the first step towards a new life today.
- Loyola Marymount University. (2017). History of Alcohol Use.
- Gately, I. (2008). Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. New York: Penguin Publishing.
- Rosso, A. (2012). Beer And Wine In Antiquity: Beneficial Remedy Or Punishment Imposed By The Gods?Acta Medical History, 10(2);237—262.
- Mark, J. (2017). Beer in Ancient Egypt. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
- Martin, S. (2014). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
- Murcia, F. (2017). Wine, Women, and Wisdom: The Symposia of Ancient Greece. National Geographic.
- Klimcak, N. (2016). Alcohol for the Ancients: The Oldest Drinks in the World. Ancient Origins.
- Heath, D. (1995). International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Ohio State University. (N.D.). The Origins of Chicha.
- Barr, A. (1999). Drink: A Social History of America. The New York Times.
- Crews, E. (N.D.). Drinking in Colonial America. Colonial Williamsburg.
- O’Brien, J. (2015). The Time When Americans Drank All Day Long.
- The Washington Times. (2006). Liquor Lifts Spirits, Helps Wounded.
- Teach US History. (2003). Temperance Reform in the Early 19th Century.
- William White Papers. (1998). Significant Events in the History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.