Addiction A-Z

Alcohol use (history of)

While few know very much about the history of alcohol, it has made a complex and diverse journey that began in ancient times. Despite the passing of thousands of years, alcohol continues to be a source of controversy today. Not only do different attitudes exist towards alcohol in different cultures, but also among different classes within the same culture as well.

Throughout history, alcohol has played a major role in nearly every country in every corner of the world.

Ancient Egypt

Alcohol’s presence in Egypt dates clear back to the Stone Age. Archaeologists have found ancient containers that were known to be used for fermented beverages. These have been regarded as evidence that alcohol was part of the Egyptian culture as early as the Neolithic period of 10,000 BC. Ancient Egyptian pictographs also show evidence that brewing alcoholic beverages was a central practice in their civilization. Wine appears to have been introduced there around 4000 BC.

The Egyptians believed that the god Osiris, a highly revered entity, was responsible for the invention of beer. They believed the bitter beverage was an important part of life and should thus be brewed at home every day. Not only were beer and wine used for pleasure, but they were also part of ancient Egyptian religious rituals. The Egyptians believed these two alcoholic beverages offered nutritional value, and they were placed in tombs at burial for the deceased to enjoy in the after life.

Ancient Egyptian culture does not provide many indicators that they regarded drunkenness as a problem. That being said, they did emphasize the importance of moderation.


Like many other cultures that have had a connection between alcohol consumption and their religious practices, the Chinese considered it to be a very important part of their rituals. The use of wine in China has been traced back to 7000 BC. Around 1116 BC, a Chinese imperial edict expressed the belief that using alcoholic beverages in moderate amounts was “prescribed by heaven”.

Chinese history is replete with stories about wine. In China, alcoholic beverages are consumed with food. Wine is an important part of Chinese culture today for people from every walk of life. However, there are no elegant events to accompany drinking and the idea of moderation has unfortunately given way to one of heavy drinking.


In the Indus Valley Civilization, a Bronze Age civilization that existed between 1300 to 2200 BC in the western region of the Indian Subcontinent, alcoholic beverages first made their appearance. Unlike many other cultures, the Indian culture describes alcohol as being both beneficial and detrimental – having consequences such as intoxication and related diseases.

Today, the people of India continue to ferment a large portion of the crops they grow. This allows them to nourish themselves with the beverage that they brew from rice meal, wheat, sugar cane, grapes, and many other fruits.


Greece has a rather unique history in their use of alcohol and the types of alcohol they brewed. Mead, a beverage that was made using honey and water, was then fermented with yeast. It became popular before wine making became common by 1700 BC. Once it gained popularity, it was used in religious rituals. The Greeks also used alcohol as a part of socializing and medicine. Alcohol became an important feature of daily meals, where it was served warm or chilled in addition to being mixed with a variety of other ingredients.

The Greeks had rules that stressed moderate drinking – they didn’t believe in excessive use of anything. It was a rarity to see habitual drunkenness although special occasions often set the stage for intoxication. Today, there are numerous wines available in Greece.

The country’s trademark alcoholic beverage is Ouzo. Ouzo is a strong drink that has a slight licorice taste.

Greeks drink as a social practice and consume great amounts of alcohol overall. Drinking is considered a way to enjoy Greek culture and tradition.

Native Americans

There is probably no other culture in the world that has been more affected by the use of alcohol than that of the Native American. Alcohol wasn’t introduced into most of Native American culture until European settlers came to America. There were, however, some tribes in the Southwest that were already using a fermented corn beverage for rites of passage rituals. The Pimas and Papagos Indian tribes created alcohol from a type of cactus. They used it in their rainmaking rituals. However, these drinking rituals were altered when the Europeans introduced their liquor.

Theory has it that alcohol was introduced to the Native Americans during the middle of the Seventeenth Century as a bargaining tool for fur trading. Both the French and English colonists had brandy and rum that was distilled from sugar grown in the West Indies. The preference of rum by the Native Americans kept the English and French in competition. Similar to many other cultures, the Colonists in America had a tendency to think of alcohol as a gift from God while the abuse of it was of the devil.

Alcohol created many problems for the Native Americans, as most had never had alcohol in prior to that time. Young natives were especially affected by it. The young natives were often the ones in control of the furs and skins that were traded. It was not uncommon for them to trade them for alcohol.

Sadly, the problems that stemmed from increasing alcohol use, such as poverty, led to the eventual demise of many Indian communities. The trend of trading furs for alcohol created many issues, and as a result both sides attempted to limit the practice. However, the Euro-American officials wouldn’t allow the link to be severed because of the important role alcohol played in fur trading.

When the alcohol trade continued in the West after the American Revolution, the federal government intervened. The government created a provision that granted authority to the president to stop the sale of alcohol to the Native Americans. This was part of the 1802 Trade and Intercourse Act.

Despite the government’s efforts, attempts to stop the sell of alcohol were ineffective since they were confined to Indian Territory in 1834. There, traders could easily target the natives and there were always those traders who were willing to corrupt the Indians in order to get what they wanted.

When the Native Americans were no longer able to hunt and the buffalo supply had been depleted, they became, in essence, wards of the state. Confined to the area that is now Oklahoma, their use of alcohol quickly turned into an epidemic of abuse that sparked a stereotype of the “drunken Indian”. This stereotype continues today. Many products related to the use of alcohol have been printed with images of Native Americans. Sadly, they have often been portrayed in movies and stories as nothing but drunks.

Today, alcoholism is still a problem for Native Americans. The stereotype associated with alcoholism is particularly dominant within certain tribes. Although many people had long regarded the situation as a “weakness” in them that was brought about by the downfall of their culture, modern science and the study of genetics suggests that the Native American’s vulnerability to alcohol addiction had a much deeper cause.

In recent history, there has been a significant amount of research performed on the topic of addiction. Some research suggests that certain people are predisposed to addictive behavior. Native Americans in particular may be more prone to the effects of alcohol because of their unique DNA structure. This is particularly evident from the variation in the effects of alcohol between different tribes.

Although the white man didn’t gain the reputation for alcoholism that the Native Americans did at that time in history, there is also evidence today that some people are more prone to addiction than others, indicating the possibility of an addictive gene. Many people have become addicted to alcohol, as well as other substances, after a single exposure. This would certainly lend credibility to the idea that there is a genetic predisposition towards addiction.

Some people, including scientists and behavioral experts, refute the evidence of an addictive gene. Rather, they believe that alcoholism is the result of learned behavior. Since modern day alcoholism does seem to run in families, it is easy to credit this explanation for the reason that children follow in their parent’s footsteps and overindulge in their consumption of alcohol.

However, the same evidence can be used to support either theory. It is more difficult to interpret the behavior of the first Native Americans to develop alcoholism as acting on learned behavior since there was no precedent for their alcoholism.

Colonial America

When the Puritans sailed to America, they brought more wine and beer on the Mayflower than they did water. The water they had access to in Europe was normally polluted with sewage and trash which they considered to be less safe for consumption than alcoholic beverages. Their ancestors had drunk beer and ale for generations due to its analgesic effects and because they felt it improved their quality of life.

It is also significant to note that their beer was not the same as the beer being produced today. Back then, beverages with an alcohol content of 3% to 5% actually contained only about 1% alcohol. Also, many of the settlers brought along a ration of various distilled spirits that kept even better than the beer or water.

Once the colonists were in the New World, drinking beer with meals was a common and acceptable behavior for both men and women of all ages. Trying to import the alcohol they needed from their native England was unfeasible so they began brewing their own. This was where the “X” degree of labeling that corresponded to alcohol content originated. The colonists used a variety of fruits to make their wine. It wasn’t until after 1650 that rum became available, after having been imported from the Caribbean. A few years later, Boston became home to a rum distillery. Not long after, that became New England’s greatest and most prosperous industry.

The famous sentiments of Increase Mather, a Puritan minister who helped to govern the colony and who was also involved in the Salem Witch Trials, not only express the common attitude towards Puritan America but also those of many other civilizations during different periods of history. He said, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil.”

First Attempts to Control Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol intoxication quickly became a serious problem in colonial America. The first attempt to control its over-consumption and the undesirable behaviors it had been shown to cause began with the Puritans. As early as 1633, more than 2 pence worth of spirits were not permitted for anyone other than newly arriving strangers. By this time, they had observed the affects alcohol had on some of the colonists, not to mention the dangerous behaviors they saw and feared in the Native Americans.

Massachusetts passed a law to prohibit drinking “healths” in 1638 but it was quickly abandoned. Once they discovered that they could use liquor laws to generate revenue, their interests changed. With the turn of the 18th century came liquor associated fines, license fees, and excise taxes.

The attitude towards alcohol began to change after 1750 as the ministry took notice of the evils they associated with drunkenness. In 1760, John Adams noted in his diary a concern that taverns were “becoming the eternal haunt of loose, disorderly people.” In 1791, a tax was put in place to be paid on distilled liquors, an idea adopted by Alexander Hamilton. A year later, a license fee was instituted for alcohol that was fermented from materials obtained from foreign countries.

These fees and taxes angered the farmers, and led to the mobbing of revenue collectors as a way of expressing their resistance to the government. Known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”, the militia was used to end the violent resistance. This event showed that the alcohol industry in the U.S. would be an ongoing issue with which the government would have to contend.

Temperance Takes Hold

During the late 1700’s, the Methodist Church expressed its protest of the sale and consumption of liquor except in cases when absolutely necessary, an exception that was excised five years later. This, along with the 1802 Trade and Intercourse Act, led to the eventual development of the American Temperance Society (ATS) and the temperance movement. Organizations began to crop up that excluded those who drank alcohol and, although no one knows the exact origin of the ATS, the turn of the century saw its spirit gain vitality. Several different churches were involved in the temperance movement. Members of the society, which quickly grew to 170,000 within five years, pledged to abstain from consuming any type of distilled beverage.

Temperance was not always a movement geared to turn everyone into a teetotaler. Beer and wine were frequently exempt in sermons and treatises alike. It wasn’t until Father Theobald Mathew of Ireland came to the United States on tour in 1849 that the new temper of the movement was increased. During his U.S. stay, from 1849 to 1851, he administered the pledge of total abstinence to 600,000 people across 25 states, bringing temperance into a new era. By year ten, membership in the ATS had grown to over one and a half million – all pledged to abstinence.

Prohibition Begins

The first Prohibition law was put into effect in the territory of Oregon in 1843. In 1847, Maine followed with a wave of statures following over the next few years. In some instances, these laws were repealed or deemed unconstitutional shortly after being enacted. Different states that passed Prohibition laws were met with different fates including the veto from governors, repealing by legislatures, and invalidation by supreme courts.

Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws was difficult at best because of a lack of support from much of the population. Only one state failed to repeal the statutes of the 19th century. It didn’t stop the temperance organizations from growing in number to 8,000 in 1835. At the time of the Civil War in the 1860’s, both sides had hardened in their positions and the line was clearly drawn between those in the temperance movement and those who opposed it after the Civil War had ended in 1870.

There was a second wave of Prohibition laws from 1880 to 1890 but they again failed to satisfy advocates of temperance and six states were all that ended with state-wide prohibition either by statute or constitutional amendment. Other states enacted the local option, allowing towns to go dry or stay wet of their own choosing. However, the dry towns weren’t protected from wet communities and were hardly kept dry.

National Prohibition

As U.S. cities developed, so did people’s mistrust of the incoming flux of immigrants. Misreading the prevailing temper, the U.S. Brewers Association became friendly with the German-American Alliance as a way of going against temperance advocates. It was also a way to guard themselves against “German Kultur” in the U.S.

World War I provided new ammunition for the cause as those brewing and legally selling liquor were looked upon as going against the American soldiers. This was because raw materials and labor were being taken away from the war effort while providing for the alcohol industry. Many believed the alcohol industry was debilitating the nation and hindering its ability to maintain a strong defense. Protests were made that liquor was causing Americans to give beer priority over their country, leading to the passage of the Wartime Prohibition Act in 1918.

Struggles between the “wet” states and the “dry” states led to the establishment of a number of laws meant to protect the dry states from the wet ones. This gave temperance advocates the success they were seeking. Nine states were under stateside prohibition by 1913, while 31 other states were still under local option law. At this time, over 50% of the population in the United States was under prohibition.

The Volstead Act

alcohol-use-historyThe resolution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation, and importation of alcohol was approved by Congress in 1917 and, once approved, took only one year and eight days to secure necessary ratification by the 18th Amendment. The National Prohibition Act, also referred to as the Volstead Act, was enacted on October 28, 1919, with the liquor drought to start on January 17, 1920.

Bootlegging, Stills, and “Revenuers”

With their liquor taken away, citizens began stealing from government warehouses where liquor was stored. Prohibition agents had a dangerous job and many were killed during their service. Many illicit stills, distilleries, and fermentors were put into use and were frequently seized while their operators were arrested. The term “Revenuers” was used for the representatives of the Internal Revenue Service that hunted down illegal brewing operations.

Despite the efforts of the prohibitionists, the demand for alcohol was still very much present. As a result, the illegal trade of alcohol developed. Establishments referred to as “speakeasies” replaced saloons where bootlegged alcohol was sold. They were named such because the bartenders would caution customers to be quiet and “speak easy”.

Ironically, the Volstead Act resulted in two unexpected new trends in alcohol consumption: women began drinking alcohol freely and publicly, and men, on average, started drinking at a much earlier age than ever before.

Over time, more and more Americans became disillusioned with regards to Prohibition. Rather than solve any problems attributed to alcohol, it seemed to make them worse and create even more. A movement began with the goal of repealing the Prohibition amendment. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler, publicly declared his support for the repeal.

The final ratification of the repeal amendment occurred on December 4, 1933, but many of the practices involved in buying and selling alcohol in the early 1900s still exist today. For example, some states do not permit grocery stores to sell hard liquor, while other states do. Also, some states have mandatory closing laws that don’t permit liquor stores to operate on Sunday.

Warning Labels on Alcohol

Despite earlier efforts, it wasn’t until November 17, 1989 that warning labels were added to alcoholic beverages. (See alsoHistory of Warning Labels on Alcoholic Beverages)These labels warned women about drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy due to the increased risk of birth defects. They also warned that alcohol could impair one’s ability to drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery. Additionally, the labels mentioned that alcohol could cause health problems. Although different groups opposed the labels, the majority of people felt they were long overdue.

Alcohol Today

After all this time, with such a diverse country filled with people who have brought their traditions to America from their mother country, many things are still viewed exactly as they were throughout the history of alcohol. Moderate drinking is normally accepted by most groups while excessive drinking is considered a problem that should be stopped. Unfortunately, all the laws, warning labels, and religious tenets have done little to curb or prevent the rampant problem of alcohol abuse and addiction that damages or destroys the lives of so many.

Addiction to alcohol is more of a problem today than it has ever been in the past. Unlike a century ago, we are now aware of some of the very serious complications it can cause. For example, fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious problem that can develop in the fetus of women who drink during pregnancy. Serious medical conditions including liver disease, depression, cancer, and heart and respiratory failure can result from chronic heavy use of alcohol. Alcohol intoxication causes cognitive impairment, and is to blame for a significant number of car accidents and accident-related deaths every year. Although underage drinking is not permitted by law, it is a serious problem that has cost many teenagers their freedom or, in many cases, their lives.

For millions in America and throughout the world, however, alcohol is and likely always will be a requisite part of social gatherings, celebrations, and religious rituals. To some, it is the ambrosia sent to earth by God; to others it is the fuel that feeds the fires of hell. As is the case with many other debatable indulgences, “All things in moderation” is, and always has been, the key to keeping the consumption of alcohol in perspective.

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