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Alcohol occupies such a central place in the human experience that Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, once compared wine to sunlight itself. The history of liquor can be traced back to the earliest stages of human evolution, running through the story of human civilization and coming to occupy a place that is both sacrosanct and controversial in human society today.
As many as 10 million years before modern humans began to cultivate alcohol, the evolutionary ancestors of homo sapiens developed a taste for alcohol, according to Live Science. In Alcohol and Role in the Evolution of Human Society, author Ian Hornsey explains that it has long been held in the fields of archaeology and anthropology that “man’s ingestion of alcoholic beverages may well have played a significant part in his transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist,” a form of society that we would now recognize as farming.
So much of the human story is woven around alcohol; everything from religion, nutrition, medicine, quenching thirst, improving the taste of food, inducing relaxation, social bonding, mating rituals, and “generally enhancing the quality and pleasures of life” has been touched by liquor for thousands of years, according to Alcohol: Science, Policy and Public Health.
Given the extent to which the prevalence of alcohol impacts human behavior and society, the exact place of the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages has been hotly debated. Governments have passed (and rescinded) laws that control the production of alcohol, and even in societies where alcohol is permitted, there still exists a plethora of opinions on whether alcohol is a harmless indulgence, a necessary evil, or a legal poison.
In a 2017 feature on “our 9,000-year love affair with booze,” National Geographicwrites that a group of researchers have put forward the argument that alcohol could be among “the most universally produced and enjoyed substances in history – and prehistory,” with evidence strongly suggesting that human beings enjoyed alcohol even before they developed the concept of writing. As far back as 9,000 years ago, the early Chinese created wine from a mixture of fruit, rice, and honey. Between the Caucasus Mountains of Georgiu and the Zagros Mountains of Iran, natives domesticated grapes and made wine almost 7,400 years ago. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania told National Geographic that from as early as the Stone Age, the psychological effects of liquor could well have been the catalyst for any kind of rudimentary expression in everything from music to dancing, from religion to language itself. The most significant milestones in human evolution, such as the development of farming to the origin of writing, could potentially be linked to alcohol.
As far back as 9,000 years ago, the early Chinese created wine from a mixture of fruit, rice, and honey.
There is enough evidence to suggest that human cultures from all over the world consider alcohol important, and even the cultures that reject consumption do so because of the fear of how alcohol could prove destabilizing. In Islam, for example, drinking liquor is forbidden because of the belief that doing so weakens the conscience and convictions of the faithful; nonetheless, some Muslim majority countries have created their own alcoholic beverages. Turkey, for example, produces raki (the country’s national drink, according to CNN, made from twice-distilled grapes and aniseed), which was driven underground because of government laws that prohibit the advertising of alcoholic products.
Research has pointed to the love affair with alcohol being hardwired into human evolution, a trait that sets our species apart from nearly all other animals. To understand this, it is necessary to look at what makes liquor tick.
The active ingredient in all alcoholic beverages is made by yeasts, single-celled organisms that exist on the microscopic level. Yeasts eat sugar and leave behind carbon dioxide and ethanol, the only form of alcohol that is safe to drink. This process is known as fermentation. Today, the manufacturers of beer, wine, or sake (Japanese rice wine) use cultivated varieties of a single strain of yeast.
However, there are many different kinds of yeasts found in nature, and they have been fermenting ripe fruit ever since fruit first appeared on Earth, as many as 120 million years ago.
To modern humans, ethanol is what makes us feel good (through the release of neurotransmitters that induce feelings of pleasure and reduce feelings of anxiety and tension). But for our pre-human ancestors, the ethanol released in rotting fruit had other properties. Ethanol has a very distinctive smell, making the fruit easy to locate. Fermentation makes fruit easier to digest, which allowed early hominids to get their precious caloric intake, a process much easier now than it was then. Lastly, the antiseptic qualities countered the microbes that might sicken a proto-human primate with a weak immune system. A biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College explained that all it took was for one such primate, millions of years ago, to keep helping itself to the fallen and rotting fruit; this preadapted its billions of descendants for the consumption of liquor.
This theory has a name: the “drunken monkey hypothesis,” which The Atlanticsays “explains our taste for liquor.” The process of smelling the ethanol and getting to the fruit before a competitor is evolutionary in nature; it gave that one primate an advantage over the other animals. Not only would it be most likely to attract the attention of a mate (and, therefore, succeed at reproduction), but it would also experience a gentle rush of stimulation in its primal brain, compelling the primate to look out for another piece of rotting fruit.
The satisfied response to the ethanol in fermented fruit seems limited to humans and apes. One theory is a critical gene mutation that occurred in the missing link that connects primates to homo sapiens, which occurred at least 10 million years ago. Whatever caused the mutation in the ADH4 gene, primates after that point were able to digest ethanol 40 percent faster than their predecessors and suffer fewer of the ill effects.
Archaeological excavations in southeastern Turkey led researchers to believe that alcohol convinced the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Stone Age to not only give up their weapons in favor of farming tools, but also to create communities based on rudimentary religion and mythologies where alcohol was used as an elixir of communication with the world beyond.
In order to attend tribal gatherings more easily, people settled down in and near their fields, creating small settlements, which grew into towns. This shift in paradigm is known as the Neolithic Revolution, which National Geographic suggests was “lubricated” by alcohol.
Beer may have played a bigger role in bread to inspire Neolithic humans to domesticate grains, which the American Society of Plant Biologists says “marked a dramatic turn in the development and evolution of human civilization.” Early farmers came upon the idea of selectively breeding wild grasses, leading to the barley, wheat, and other grains that are commonplace in today’s agricultural markets. Indeed, “the domestication of plants is driven forward by the desire to have greater quantities of alcoholic beverages,” says a biomolecular archaeologist, and such a process was vital in the progression of human civilization.
Such is the importance of liquor in human history that Antarctica is the only continent where alcoholic beverages, and the agriculture behind them, were not cultivated. For over thousands of years, almost every plant that has some form of sugar or starch (agave, apples, cocoa, bananas, corn and even cacti, rice, sweet potatoes, peach palms, pumpkins, pineapples, and, of course, grapes) has been fermented to produce alcohol. Even in regions where the land is bare, such as the steppes of Central Asia, nomads compensate for the dearth of fruit and grain by fermenting horse milk. The resultant drink, called koumiss, has the alcoholic content of a weak beer.
For over thousands of years, almost every plant that has some form of sugar or starch has been fermented to produce alcohol.
Although alcohol’s role in religious and tribal ceremonies is well established, the undeniable truth of its central presence in almost every human culture is the fact that people simply like the taste and effects. In that way, it is no different than why primates ate fermented fruit. The ethanol produced by yeast fights off the other microbes trying to survive inside rotting fruit, and the strength derived from the victory benefits the drinker. This is why, until the development of modern sanitation, beer, wine, and other fermented drinks were often safer and healthier to consume than water, which was likely to be polluted with cholera, among other harmful microbes. Indeed, The New York Times called alcohol “an ancient medicine,” because of this and also because alcohol is a mild antiseptic. Furthermore, brewing alcoholic beverages is a form of sterilization (by way of boiling), to the point where early peoples who drank fermented drinks could live longer and reproduce more than people who got by on dirty water. Over centuries, this habit led to descendants and future generations developing a deeper taste for alcohol.
The process of fermentation yields more than alcohol. Yeasts produce a number of nutrients, including folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine. In ancient Western Asia, beer was almost a kind of “enriched liquid bread,” providing vital calories and vitamins, with hydration to wash them down with.
Archaeological work has unearthed “industrial-scale breweries” in Ancient Egypt, producing enough liquor to supply the slaves who constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was completed in 2560 BC. In The Private Lives of the Pyramid Builders, a British archaeologist explains that the standard rations for a worker was 10 loaves of bread and a measure of beer. Supervisors and people of higher statuses received not only hundreds of loaves, but “many jugs of beer a day.”
So important was beer to the ancient Egyptians that their royals were entombed with small breweries, to better enjoy the comforts of the afterlife. It was considered a “necessity of life,” and wine was believed to be an elixir of renewal that was reserved for the nobility. Both beer and wine were key components in the ritualistic life of the ancient Egyptians, playing vital roles in personal health and communal religion, but also covering everything from pleasure and medicine to nutrition and remuneration.
National Geographic suggests that it would not be inaccurate to credit the nutritional benefits of beer for the development of writing and the formation of some of the earliest cities in the world. The nutrients produced by the fermentation process provided access to basic vitamins that were otherwise absent in ancient diets; without these early grains, the Mesopotamian civilization might never have flourished.
An archeologist notes that “nutrition was very bad” in cities like Uruk, founded in the 4th millennium BC; but “as soon as you have beer, you have everything you need to develop really well.” Mesopotamia is “the birthplace of civilization,” says The Guardian, where civilized life took place well before the ancient Greeks and Romans came into being.
So intrinsic is liquor in the history of the human race, that “humans were made to drink alcohol,” in the words of Patrick McGovern, the University of Pennsylvania biomolecular archaeologist. The drinking reflex is, for most humans, initiated in the first few minutes of life through the act of breastfeeding. But even as those humans grow, their sensory organs are already developing to sniff out fermented beverages. The evolutionary trait goes back to the first drunken monkey and then to the humans who came out of Africa, the Middle East, and China. In the main cradles of civilization, “alcohol is central to human culture and biology,” says McGovern, “because we were probably drinking fermented beverages from the beginning,” and the popularity of alcohol today – everything from children being given sips of wine at dinner in Europe to Super Bowl commercials – is derived from that start.
Even in religion, which has had a love-hate relationship with liquor for centuries, alcohol has been a central component in one way or another. Most of the world’s religions make provisions for alcohol or make customs explicitly forbidding its use. The process of fermentation, itself mysterious to early humans, complements the mysticism of religious ceremonies quite well. McGovern suggests that early shamans and priests associated the mind-altering effects of alcohol with supernatural forces, perhaps as a form of communication between the mortal coil and the great hereafter.
Beyond religion, even medicine would not be what it is today, if not for alcohol. Every major Chinese work on herbal prescriptions and medicine is based on alcohol remedies, with the earliest examples of organized medical literature discussing cases that called for the consumption of liquor as treatment, with discussion of side effects and the potential for abuse.
Most of the world’s religions make provisions for alcohol or make customs explicitly forbidding its use.
On the other side of the world, physicians in classical Greece prescribed wine for everything from physical wounds to cancer. Wine was also used to improve halitosis and cure diarrhea. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, thought of wine as an appropriate form of treatment for many conditions. The drink was also popular for its use in pathology and treatment, and dosages were regulated based on the patient’s age, sex, medical ailment, and lifestyle. Even in those days, people understood that alcohol is inherently healthy; moderate drinking kills harmful bacteria. The empirical scientists of the age realized that the members of their community who drank alcohol were healthier and lived longer (and were seemingly happier) than those who drank raw water. Says McGovern, “the earliest medicines from the Romans and Greeks involve a lot of wine.”
Of course, alcohol is a double-edged sword, and for every example of how the history of liquor is so closely interwoven with the story of the human experience, there is a corresponding example of how alcohol has been directly (or indirectly) responsible for damage and death. At an archeological site in France, the former town of Corent was home to 10,000 people in the first and second centuries BC. With a marketplace, taverns, a temple, a theater, and hundreds of private dwellings, alcohol was a social lubricant, a status symbol, and a cultural glue; but the power of the neighboring Roman empire brought with it Roman wine, and violence and chaos soon followed.
Wine was at the center of almost every communal ritual across the Europe of the Roman Empire, and not everyone knew when to stop drinking. Prisoners and slaves were often sacrificed, and sword fights quickly broke out over the most trivial of quibbles, egged on by a drunken audience.
It is estimated that the Celtic people living in that region of what is modern-day France drank up to 28,000 bottles a year of Roman wine.
In the same way that drunken monkeys and Neolithic farmers may have created our taste for alcohol, the excesses that soon followed might also have planted the genetic and neurochemical seeds for compulsive drinking.
Even though many societies grew around the numerous benefits of alcohol, a number of other societies have gone back and forth on how to properly control what liquor can to do human passions. The ancient Greeks themselves serve as a good example of this dichotomy. Wine was a catalyst for much of the spiritual and intellectual sides of Greek life, but limits were (mostly) recognized; Greek hosts would serve their guests only three bowls of wine (one for their health, the second for pleasure, and a third to induce sleep). When the third bowl was served, it was understood that that would be the last bowl of the evening. However, it was not unheard of for the more raucous parties and events to serve more bowls. In the fourth century BC, the comic poet Eubulus warned that “the fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence”; the fifth bowl belonged to uproar, the sixth to drunken revelry, and the seventh to personal injury. There was even an eighth bowl, which would see police summoned; the ninth bowl led to vomiting, and the 10th bowl culminated in “madness and the hurling of furniture.”
In many ways, the history of liquor is perfectly captured in America’s own history and relationship with alcohol. Journalist Brian Abrams writes that alcohol has been a defining factor in the United States’ cultural, historical, and political development, everywhere from college campuses to the White House itself.
As in many places around the world, alcohol was cultivated by indigenous Americans for use in tribal and religious ceremonies, but it was not until the arrival and intervention of European colonists that Native Americans were introduced to recreational and abusive alcohol consumption. While this destabilized the native nations across the North American continent, it laid the foundation for the place of alcoholic beverages in American history. Even when leading the fight against the British Empire, General George Washington won the support of French generals by writing to them to discuss their favorite wines. When the United States and the Confederate States of America went to war over states’ rights and slavery, the Union Army received some funding by two tax increases on alcohol levied by General Ulysses S. Grant, who not only became the most heralded general of the Civil War but was twice elected as President of the United States. President Abraham Lincoln himself was said to have wanted to send a barrel of Grant’s favorite whiskey to his other generals. The Times Free Press notes that Grant’s favorite drink was Old Crow, a Kentucky bourbon whiskey that is still sold today.
Alcohol runs deeply in America’s veins. As far back as 1791, farmers rebelled against the attempted imposition of a federal tax, an attempt by President George Washington to drum up revenue for the price tag of the Revolutionary War. What was known as the “whiskey tax” was applied to all distilled spirits, and farmers were so resistant to the idea of sending a cut of their profits to the government that they held out against the government until 1794, often using violence and intimidation to keep federal officials away. It took an appearance from Washington (who had asked local governors to form a militia to enforce the tax) for the dissenting farmers to stand down.
The Whiskey Tax remained in place until the 1800s, but the incident served as an example of the extent to which alcohol served as a catalyst in the earliest days of American life. People who became intoxicated were thought to be of low moral fiber or character; it was not until Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a man recognized as “the father of American Psychiatry,” published a document on “The Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind,” that the first glimmers of understanding into how alcohol could be damaging in and of itself were first accepted.
Rush had attempted to convince the American populace that the people who suffered from the ill effects of alcohol were patients who needed medical care, not weak-willed libertines who needed punishment and prayer; but the sentiment that alcohol itself was the problem caught on and gave rise to the temperance movement of the 19th century. According to the American Journal of Public Health, existed social organizations based on the premise that alcohol was harmful had existed, but their messages were dismissed offhand. After Benjamin Rush made his position known, the anti-alcohol lobby became far more empowered, even though Rush himself advocated for moderateness in alcohol consumption. Whipped up by religious revivals, and the belief that the impending millennium of the 20th century heralded the end of the world, America was starting to turn on liquor.
The world didn’t end on January 1, 1900, but that did not stop groups like the Anti-Saloon League from continuing to spread their message. The influential organization went to politicians and the press to call for the cessation of alcohol production and consumption on the basis of morality. Religious leaders got behind the idea, and politicians soon followed. In 1919, the United States Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, which ended the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol in all 48 states in the Union. President Herbert Hoover noted that the Eighteenth Amendment, which would be known as Prohibition after the movement that inspired it, was “a great social and economic experiment” of noble motives and aspirational goals.
In 1919, the United States Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, which ended the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol in all 48 states in the Union.
Prohibition had the initial effect of cutting down on alcohol-related crime, but as history showed, Americans were not willing to give up their liquor easily. Organized crime syndicates made a killing (both financially and literally) in cornering the black market, while police either turned a blind eye or got in on the game themselves. Meanwhile, theaters and restaurants had to shut down because of the lost revenue, and unemployment skyrocketed as the entire alcohol industry was taken off the books.
State governments themselves suffered from not having any liquor sales to tax. New York made 75 percent of its revenue from alcohol tax. Even on the federal level, Prohibition stripped the United States government of $11 billion in potential tax revenue ($198.61 billion in 2016 dollars) while adding $300 million to government expenses just to enforce what was becoming a rapidly unpopular law. To cover the losses, state and federal governments both imposed an income tax to keep their budgets alive, a practice that continues to this day.
Private citizens were forced to get creative when they wanted a drink, becoming registered pharmacists and regular churchgoers in order to exploit loopholes in the law that permitted the sale of whiskey by prescription for medicinal purposes and the use of wine in religious services. The grape industry sold kits of juice concentrate, with pointed “warnings” that leaving the concentrate for too long a period of time would induce fermentation, turning the juice into wine. Hardware stores freely sold the mechanical components for constructing a home distillery, and the instructions could be easily obtained from public libraries. Prohibition, which was devised and enacted to end liquor into America instead made Americans into experts.
The tide had turned so strongly against Prohibition that even some of America’s most influential voices spoke in favor of allowing liquor to return to public life. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a prominent figure in one of the most influential political and financial families in American history, had donated $70,000 of his own money to the Anti-Saloon League, but admitted in a letter to The New York Times that the efforts to make the country dry had failed “on a colossal scale.” Rockefeller never drank alcohol but lamented that some of the best citizens of the United States were regularly imbibing in alcoholic beverages, blatantly disregarding the laws of the land.
With Rockefeller’s public withdrawal of support, Prohibition limped to its eventual defeat, bereft of support from either political party. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised to overturn the Eighteenth Amendment if he were elected president, soundly defeated the incumbent Herbert Hoover in one of the most lopsided victories in presidential elections, winning 42 states and 57.4 percent of the popular vote; Hoover claimed only six states and 39.7 percent of the vote, leaving the White House after just one term in office. Two months after Roosevelt took the Oath of Office, he signed legislation that relaxed the legal definition of what constituted alcoholic beverages, helping himself to a beer as he did so. Eight months later, Prohibition was officially repealed by Congress, which allowed for the legal (and regulated) public manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol .
Historians remember the Eighteenth Amendment as the least-loved of all the Amendments to the Constitution, and the only Amendment to be repealed, speaking to the power of choice and the power of liquor in America.
The history of liquor is still being written, but there is no denying that the current chapter is a good one. More than 66 percent of Americans have an average of four drinks a week, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. Alcohol spending grew every quarter from 2010 to 2014, and Forbes magazine declared 2011 “the Year of Alcohol” because of how quickly liquor stores grew, a sign of returning consumer confidence after the Great Recession came to an end in 2010.
More than 66 percent of Americans have an average of four drinks a week, according to a 2012 Gallup poll
America celebrated the end of the Great Recession with $400 billion in economic activity for the alcohol industry; 3.9 million jobs were created, raising $90 billion in wages. In 2010, when economists declared the Recession officially over, state and local budgets added $21 billion in the production, distribution, and sales of alcohol – the same mediums that the Eighteenth Amendment sought to do away with.
In the same way that alcohol broke down social barriers between different tribes and castes of early humans, alcohol has also narrowed the gender gap in modern humans. Women are matching men in terms of drinking rates, spurred in part by greater social parity between the two genders (including a lack of stigma surrounding female consumption of alcohol), and by an advertising industry that has run 400 percent more liquor ads in the last 40 years, with many of those ads specifically targeting women to the point of influencing female consumers’ drinking choices.
So strong is alcohol’s continuing story in America that it is on par with healthcare and other necessities in times of strife. Talking to CNN, an alcohol industry analyst with Standard & Poor’s noted that when the economy is low, Americans will buy less alcohol and not go out to drink, but they “will continue to drink, regardless.” Another analyst observed that having access to alcohol is almost a basic need for most Americans.
As with the ancient Greeks noting that too much of a good thing could be a problem, alcohol’s (continuing) rise in America comes with a cost. Gawker magazine bleakly writes that alcoholics are the major driver of the liquor industry in the country, with only 10 percent of the country’s drinkers responsible for more than 50 percent of the total amount of alcohol consumed by the rest of the country, in a single year.
And while 2010 was a marquee year for the alcohol industry, the US economy took a direct hit as a result of all the celebrations; the Centers for Disease Control found that absenteeism caused by excessive drinking cost the workforce $250 billion in that year alone.
The next chapter in the story of liquor is already being written. Researchers are looking at ways for technologically advanced cars to shut down if the onboard systems detect an intoxicated driver. Alcohol manufacturers themselves have gotten into the game; Johnnie Walker is co-creating a cloud technology that can provide verification of the authenticity and age of an alcoholic beverage while still in the bottle. Further developments include the effects of climate change on consumer tastes and how new brands can emerge as a result of this understanding.
If the history of liquor is any indication, the future could be similarly seismic.