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History of Alcohol Use

Moonshine. The word "moonshine" is generally assumed to have originated in the USA, meaning whiskey illegally made by moonlight. However, the word was also used in eighteenth century England to describe brandy illegally smuggled in by moonlight, as in the story of the moonrakers. Moonshine can also mean "foolish talk", because of the belief that the moon can alter mental states. For whatever reason, there seems to be a poetic connection between the moon and alcohol. The word "honeymoon" originates from the custom of drinking mead for a month following a wedding.

Mead. Here is an old recipe for mead, from an eighteenth century recipe book:

"To 13 gallons of water put 30 Ib of honey; boil and scum it well; take rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and sweet briar one handful altogether; boil it an hour, put it into a tub with a little ground malt; stir it till it is lukewarm; strain it through a cloth, and put it into a tub again; cut a toast and spread it over with good yeast, and put it into the tub also; when the liquid is covered with yeast, put it in a barrel; take of cloves mace and nutmegs, an ounce and a half; of ginger sliced an ounce; bruise the spice, tie it up in a rag, and hang it in the vessel, stopping it up close for use." If you don't own your own brewery, you will probably not want to make the quantities described! Soft water is supposed to be best for mead. Mead likes to ferment at 65-80 degrees F. When fermentation has stopped, the mead should be left for a month, bottled, and then left as long as possible (up to 7 years!). Special yeasts for mead are available, but ordinary brewers yeast will do. Some experts would define this recipe as Metheglin, rather than mead, because it contains herbs and spices. More modern recipes for mead use 3 or 4 pounds of honey per gallon, depending on whether liquid or crystalline honey is used. Flavorings for mead and metheglin include rosehips, cloves, orange and lemon juice and rind, cinnamon, marjoram, balm, meadowsweet (originally spelt medesweete), rue and hops. 

Metheglin. John Reid Gives the following recipe for metheglin: "To have good metheglin, take one part of clarified honey and eight parts of pure water, and boil well together in a copper vessel till the consumption of one half; but while it boils, take off the scum, and when done boiling, and it begins to cool, turn it up, and it will work of it self; as soon as done working, stop very close. Some advise to bury it under ground three months, and that to make it lose both smell and taste of honey and wax, and taste very like wine. I used to add dry rosemary and sweet marjoram in boiling: some barme it as ail, which I have practiced very effectually"

In the past, honey contained far more impurities (such as dead bees) than the honey available today. These impurities were a source of nutrients for the yeast. For this reason, it would be advisable to add some sort of yeast nutrient. The following is ideal for mead, but any commercial yeast nutrient will be adequate: For 1 gallon of mead: 1/4 pint water 1 level tablespoon of sugar 1/4 level teaspoonful of tartaric acid 1/4 level teaspoonful of marmite 1/4 level teaspoonful of ammonium phosphate To activate the yeast, boil the water, sugar, acid and the marmite. Pour slowly into a clean bottle, cover and allow to cool. When cool, add the ammonium phosphate, and shake to dissolve. Add it to the yeast when lukewarm, and place a clean cotton wool swab in the neck of the bottle (which should be about 2/3 full). Stand in a warm place for 48 hours before adding the yeast to the must

Beer. *Though this may offend many beer drinkers, the addition of hops to alcoholic beverages, may not have originally been purely for the flavour (hops are an acquired taste, if ever there was one), or for their preservative qualities. Hop plants are vines which climb clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere, guided by the sun. They also resemble grape vines. Hops became widely used in brewing in Britain in the 16th century, and this was extremely controversial, as it meant that brewing became more commercialized and controlled by the hop growers. A writer in the era of Henry VIII described hops as: "A wicked weed that would spoil the taste of the drink and endanger the people." However, the saying: "hops, reformation, bays and beer, came into England in one year [1524]" is not entirely true:

Hops were grown in Anglo-Saxon times. The village of Himbleton in Worcestershire is a corruption of "hymel-tun", meaning a hop yard. An Anglo-Saxon translation of the "Herbarium" of Apuleius describes how a "wort" could be prepared from the hop, which was considered "That degree laudable that men mix it with their usual drinks." I once read an Anglo-Saxon recipe for mead, which included hops, although I don't know how authentic it was. It has been claimed that hops were introduced to Britain by the Romans.

An old Germanic legend says that hop beer was invented by a Flemish king named Gambrinus. Gambrinus seems to be a corruption of Jan Primus, or Jan the first, Duke of Brabant, who died in 1294, and was a patron and protector of the Flemish brewers guild. Nowadays, hops are found growing wild in Britain, but they may or may not be native. They are apparently considered native everywhere south of York, but not further north.

Previously nettles, bog myrtle, ground ivy and ivy (one of only three woody vines native to Britain, the others being honeysuckle and clematis) were used as flavorings. (Ivy often chokes out grape vines, and an ivy bush on a pole was used in the past as a sign outside of inns, implying strong beer. Another herb used in brewing was the bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), which was also known as the moonflower. Ipomea alba and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna are also sometimes called moonflowers. Ivy is mildly toxic, and so ivy beer is probably not a good idea.

Alcohol Timeline

6000-4000 BCE

Viticulture, the selective cultivation of grape vines for making wine, is believed to originate in the mountains between the Black and Caspian seas (modern Armenia).

c. 3000-2000 BCE

Beer making flourishes in Sumerian/Mesopotamian civilization (modern day Iraq) with recipes for over twenty varieties of beer recorded on clay tablets.

3000-2000 BCE

Wine production and trade become an important part of Mediterranean commerce and culture. Ships carry large quantities between cities.

2200 BCE

Cuneiform tablet recommends beer as a tonic for lactating women.

3000-1000 BCE

Beer is unrefined and usually drunk through straw because it had large quantities of grain and mash in it.

c. 1800 BCE

Beer is produced in quantity in northern Syria.

1500 B.C.

Wine is produced commercially in the Levant and Aegean.

900-800 BCE

Extensive, large scale vineyards laid out in Assyria (modern Iraq) produced over 10,000 skins of wine for the new capitol at Nimrud by Assurbanipal II.

c. 800 BCE

Distillation of barley and rice beer is practiced in India.

c. 50 BCE

Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes "the Gauls (french) have no knowledge of wine.. but used a foul-smelling liqueur made of barley rotted in water (beer)."

c. 500

Wine making reaches Tang China along the Silk Road.


First specific reference to the use of hops in beer from the Abbey St. Denis in France by King Pepin le Bref.


Alcohol distillation is documented by the medical school at Salerno, Italy. The product of the distillation is named 'spirits' in reference to it being the extracted spirit of the wine.

Middle Ages

Distillation of grain alcohol in Europe follows the earlier distillation of wine.


German Beer Purity Law ("Rheinheitsgebot") makes it illegal to make beer with anything but barley, hops, and pure water.

Early 1500's

Benedictine, a cognac-based alcohol with added herbs, is developed at the monastery in Fecamp, Normandy.


England. Excessive use of distilled spirits first becomes apparent.


Viticulture spread through Peru, Chile and Argentina.


The term 'alcohol' is now used specifically to refer to distilled spirits rather than its previous general meaning of any product of the process of vaporizing and condensing.

1550 - 1575

England. Thomas Nash describes widespread inebriety in Elizabethan England; drunkenness is mentioned for the first time as a crime, and preventive statutes multiply.

17th Century

Use of hashish, alcohol, and opium spreads among the population of occupied Constantinople

1600 - 1625

England. During the reign of James I, numerous writers describe widespread drunkenness from beer and wine among all classes. Alcohol use is tied to every endeavor and phase of life, a condition that continues well into the eighteenth century.


England. Parliament passes "The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness".

17th century

America. Massachusetts laws attempt to control widespread drunkenness, particularly from home-brews, and to supervise taverns. At the same time each town is ordered to establish a man to sell wines and "strong water" so that the public will not suffer from lack of proper accommodations (1637); inns are required to provide beer for entertainment (1649).


Britain imposes an excise tax on distilled spirits. Along with a tax of alcohol came the development of the moonshine trade.

1650 - 1675

America. New England colonies attempt to establish a precise definition of drunkenness that includes the time spent drinking, amount, and behavior. Massachusetts laws against home-brews are reaffirmed (1654); a law forbidding the payment of wages in the form of alcohol results in a labor strike (1672). Increase Mather writes Wo to Drunkards (1673).

1650 - 1675

England. Gin is developed in Holland (c. 1650) by distilling grain with the juniper berry. gin can be produced cheaply and plentifully, and the gin industry grows rapidly in England after it is introduced by British soldiers fighting in the Low Countries.

1675 - 1700

America. The office of tithingman is established in Massachusetts to report on liquor violations in homes (1675). Cotton Mather blames growing irreligiosity on excess tippling (1694).

1675 - 1700

England. New laws encourage the distillation and sale of spirits for revenues and support of the landed aristocracy (1690). The production of distilled liquors, mostly gin, increases dramatically; so does use, particularly among the poor. Excessive consumption of beer and wine is still prevalent among the middle and upper classes.

Late 1600's

Western France develops a reputation as the producer of fine quality cognac.


Scotland and Ireland develop reputations for their quality whiskies.


Viticulture brought to Alta California. Within a century, it became one of the great wine-producing regions of the world.


The Act of 1791 (popularly called the "Whiskey Tax") enacted a tax on both publicly and privately distilled whiskey.


The 'Whiskey Rebellion' of Pennsylvania, during which government troops were used to make arrests of a handful of distillery leaders who were refusing to pay taxes on their products.


The 'Whiskey Tax' was repealed by Thomas Jefferson who called it 'infernal,' and 'hostile to the genius of a free people'.


A new alcohol tax is temporarily imposed in the United States to help pay for the War of 1812.

Early 19th Century

Development of the continuous still makes the process of alcohol distillation cheaper and easier to control.


1,138 legal alcohol distilleries were operating in the United States producing 88 million gallons of liquor per year.


Abraham Lincoln imposed a new tax on liquor (the Act of July 1) to help pay the bills from the Civil War. This act also created the office of internal revenue. The alcohol tax began at 20 cents per gallon in 1862 and had risen to $2.00 per gallon just over two years later.


Pure Food and Drug Act is passed, regulating the labelling of products containing Alcohol, Opiates, Cocaine, and Cannabis, among others. The law went into effect Jan 1, 1907

Dec 1917

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (prohibition amendment) is adopted by the required majority of both houses of Congress.

Jan 16, 1919

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (prohibition amendment) is ratified by the 36th state, meeting the 3/4 requirement. It goes into effect one year later.

Oct 1919

The Volstead Act is passed by Congress over President Wilson's veto. This clarifies and broadens the base of the 18th Amendment, and defines methods of enforcement. It specifies that production and sales of alcoholic beverages is illegal except for medical or religious purposes. Consumption and/or possession of alcohol was legal only in ones own home with legally acquired alcohol. Went into effect Feb 1, 1920.

Jan 16, 1920

The 18th Amendment (prohibition amendment) takes effect, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, import, and export of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.


The illicit alcohol trade booms in the United States.

Mar 22, 1933

The Volstead Act is modified, legalizing beverages containing not more than 3.2 percent alcohol. Roosevelt proposed this change to Congress nine days after his inauguration.

Dec 5, 1933

The prohibition of alcohol is repealed with the passage of the 21st Amendment, effective immediately.


Once the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the excise tax on alcohol began to climb again. In 1934 the tax was $2.00 per gallon, in 1940 it was $3.00, $4.00 in 1941, $6.00 in 1942, $9.00 in 1944, and $10.50 in 1970. At this point a moonshiner could produce and sell a gallon of alcohol for half the amount of the tax alone.

Oct 14, 1978

US President Jimmy Carter signs bill legalizing home brewing of beer for the first time since Prohibition.