History of Alcohol

Ever wondered about the History of Alcohol? The ancient Greeks had a cocktail hour in the late afternoon or evening, complete with hors d’oeuvres.

Martini with Alcohol of course
A recent joke has it that a man strolled into a crowded bar, examined the array of aperitifs, liquors, cordials, and mixers on the shelves, glanced up and down the bar at the rickeys, fizzes, gimlets, tonics, sours, and slings the patrons held in hand, then leaned forward and told the bartender: “I’ve got a tough one for you: ever heard of a whiskey?”

Hardly the funniest joke in the world, but it does make a point. Walk into any American bar today and you’ll find dozens of different kinds of spirits lining the shelves. You’ll also notice that very few of the patrons are imbibing their favored spirit straight from the bottle. To Americans, the mixed drink may seem quite a universal, time-worn tradition-but the fact is, the cocktail as such is an American invention, and a fairly recent one at that.

In America, the word “cocktail” may mean either a mixed drink, as opposed to straight spirits, or any alcoholic beverage sipped before lunch or dinner. In the second sense, the cocktail has been with us for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had a cocktail hour in the late afternoon or evening, complete with hors d’oeuvres. An Athenian gentleman would drop by a neighbor’s house during the “happy hour” with a goatskin of wine, and expect to be treated to an outlay of appetizers-the Greeks called them “provocatives to drinking”, that might include caviar, oysters, nuts, olives, shrimp, and pate. Compare that spread to today’s bar-fare of peanuts, cheese, and crackers and you’ll agree that in some ways we haven’t come very far in the last 2,500 years.

The cocktail in the sense of a mixed drink is a much more recent invention. In the past, not only wine and beer but hard liquor, too, was usually drunk straight, or at most diluted with water. As for tomato juice, tonic water, ginger ale, club soda, orange juice, and other mixers, few of these had yet made the trip from the grocery store to the barroom as recently as 200 years ago.

Alcohol itself, of course, has been with us since well before recorded history began. Alcohol still ranks as the oldest and most widely used drug on earth. Primitive man probably discovered the first alcoholic drinks by accident, since any sugar-containing mishmash left exposed to warm air will eventually ferment. Studies of alcohol use among various preliterate societies suggest that alcohol was used by prehistoric man primarily in conjunction with war, religious worship, and various rites of passage-births, marriages, funerals, and feasts.

The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, dating around 1750 B.C., set down regulations for drinking houses. Egyptian doctors frequently prescribed alcohol as a medicine. By studying the remains of the Egyptian and Babylonian cultures, we can conclude that alcoholism has been a problem for well over 4,000 years.

The Chinese have been distilling an alcoholic beverage from rice since at least 800 B.c., and the Arabs have swilled alcohol from palm sap for many, many centuries. The earliest alcoholic beverage in the West was wine, brewed either from grapes or honey. Mead, a sweet wine made from honey, was widely enjoyed in Poland as recently as the nineteenth century.

The Greeks made their wine from grapes, but usually drank it diluted with water. Thus, the wine Athenians quaffed during their cocktail hour was probably less than 8 percent alcohol, a weak beverage by modern standards. In fact, most of the wine the Greeks and Romans enjoyed would probably taste rather crude to the modern palate. After all, we live in an age when an avid oenologist paid over $14,000 for a single bottle of 1806 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild!

Hard liquor is a newer arrival in the West. Around the year 300, the Irish brewed up usquebaugh from oat and barley beer. Tenth-century Italians began distilling brandy from wine, and sixteenth-century Scots first made whiskey from malted barley. The first cognac was distilled by the French around 1750. But it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur’s research in the 1850’s into the action of yeasts and molds that Western man developed the controlled fermentation that makes for a consistently good alcoholic product.

Over the years, there were probably scattered incidents of man mixing hard liquor with a sweet beverage, but the cocktail did not become a popular drink until early in the nineteenth century. The origin of the word cocktail is uncertain. One claim maintains that it comes from a French drink served in New Orleans in the 1800’s, called a coquetier, named for the tiny egg-cup in which the drink was usually served to women.

There are, however, dozens of other theories. According to some, the first cocktail in this country was served in a tavern in Elmsford, New York, where cockfights were often held. The story has it that Betsy Flanagan, a barmaid, decorated the bar with the tail feathers of some of the deceased combatants, and inserted one in a mixed drink when an inebriate requested “one of those cocktails.” Another story tells us that as a publicity stunt, the proprietor of the tavern regularly inserted the tail feathers of fighting cocks in his mixed drinks, the feathers to be used as swizzle sticks.

Still another claim traces the name of the beverage to England, where in the Yorkshire dialect the word “cocktail” referred to foam spilling over a glass of ale. By the way, another word for beer froth was “barm,” which gave us the term “barmy” (in America, “balmy”) for tipsy or feeble-minded.

Washington Irving maintained that the cocktail was a Dutch drink popular in New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.
An etymologist with a sense of humor proposed that the word came to us from Mexico, taken from the inventor of the drink, a daughter of King Axolotl VIII whose name was Xochitl or Coctel!

In any case, the first mention of the cocktail in print appeared in an 1809 issue of the Hudson, New York, Balance, which described the concoction as a “stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

Speaking of bitters, angostura, the most popular modern variety, have been with us since 1824, when a German doctor living in Venezuela prepared them as a tonic for his ailing wife. He reportedly learned the recipe from sailors, who frequently added bitters to rum as a cure for seasickness. When angostura bitters became part of the Manhattan cocktail, their place behind the bar was established forevermore.

The cocktail party is thought to have originated as an outgrowth of the aperitif hour before dinner. As the “hour” gradually lengthened, a buffet of some kind became necessary to allay the appetites of the imbibers. Psychologists attribute the popularity of the cocktail party, and the before-dinner cocktail itself, to their function as a separation between the working day and the evening relaxation. In recent years, many other countries have followed the American example and have adopted both the cocktail hour and the cocktail party.

In the United States, a well-stocked cocktail bar must include dozens of different spirits to provide for the varying tastes of American drinkers. But as a rule, tipplers in most other countries prefer a beverage produced from a native product-in effect, the “national drink” of that nation. For instance vodka, an unaged spirit obtained from potatoes or grain and filtered through vegetable charcoal, is the overwhelming favorite in Poland and the Soviet Union, where the raw materials are plentiful. Vodka, by the way, has recently replaced bourbon as the most popular liquor in America.

Bourbon, America’s contribution to the whiskey world, accounted for about one-fourth of all distilled spirits consumed in this country during the 1960’s. But that figure has now decreased to about 15 percent, while vodka consumption has doubled over the same period. Vodka drinking now accounts for about 20 percent of the total American alcohol intake. Consumption of scotch whiskey, meanwhile, has held steady at about 12 percent.

Named after the county in Kentucky which may have been its birthplace, bourbon is distilled from a mash that by law must contain at least 51 percent corn. But Jack Daniel’s whiskey, which many people consider bourbon, is technically a sour mash whiskey, or a Tennessee whiskey, and not a bourbon at all. Jack Daniel’s, produced for over a century in the small Tennessee town of Lynchburg, is filtered through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal to remove some of the harsh esters. The Federal government decided that this filtering process changed the whiskey’s character so much that the drink could not be called bourbon.

Whiskey is usually distilled from the fermented mash of grain usually oats, barley, rye, or corn. Whiskey is produced primarily in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. Rum is obtained from fermented sugar cane or molasses, and produced primarily in the Caribbean.

Brandy is distilled from wine or the fermented mash of fruit-grapes, cherries, apples, plums, apricots, peaches, blackberries, or whatever. Tequila is distilled from the sap of an agave plant indigenous to Mexico, not from the mescal cactus, as so many people believe. Flavored spirits like gin, aquavit, and absinthe are produced by redistilling alcohol with a flavoring agent. Juniper is used to flavor gin; caraway seeds to flavor aquavit.

In the Orient, millet and rice are most commonly used for distilling spirits. “Ng ka py” is how you order a shot in Peking. It’s made from millet, with various aromatics added. Sake, a beverage made from rice, is the favorite in Japan.

Spirits differ greatly in alcoholic content. Most wines contain from 8 to 12 percent alcohol, with certain aperitif and dessert wines, like vermouth and sherry, as high as 18 percent. The strength of beer ranges from a weak 2 percent brew produced in Scandinavia to about 8 percent. Four or 5 percent is the average in the United States. Most hard liquors contain from 40 to 50 percent alcohol, with cognac as high as 70 percent. Cordials and liqueurs contain from 25 to 40 percent alcohol.

The strongest spirits that can be produced are raw rum and certain vodkas, which contain up to 97 percent alcohol. Polish White Spirit Vodka is the strongest liquor sold commercially, packing a wallop of 80 percent alcohol.

Ever wondered about the History of Alcohol? Here’s Part 2 in the series.

Beer with 5 percent Alcohol
Most liquor bottlers identify the alcoholic content of their product by “proof.” The term dates back to the earliest days of liquor distilling when dealers would test the strength of an alcoholic product by soaking gunpowder in the beverage, and then igniting it. Spirits with enough alcohol to permit the ignition of gunpowder were considered to be 100 proof-the idea being that the gunpowder test was “proof” that the juice was strong.

In England, 100 proof was established as eleven parts of alcohol by volume to ten parts of water. In the United States, the proof figure was set as double the alcoholic percentage. Thus, 86 proof whiskey is 43 percent alcohol, and pure alcohol is 200 proof.

Just as nations have their favored beverage, most have a favored toast as well. The term originated in the custom of dunking a slice of toast in a glass of wine, for reasons unknown. Englishmen like to toast with Cheerio, Cheers, or Down the hatch. Scandinavians say Skoal. Prosit is a German favorite, though the word is Latin. Italians clink glasses to the tune of Cin cin. The Spanish favors Salud, and the French Culs secs. Americans have coined the likes of Bottoms up, Here’s mud in your eye, and Here’s looking at you-as well as some more indelicate expressions from the frontier West.

While we’re on the subject of word origins: the word booze does sot, as widely believed, come from a liquor bottler named E.C. &oz. The word is quite old, originating perhaps in the Dutch word buyzen, to tipple, or the Middle English bouse, to drink deep.

America has nevertheless contributed quite a number of terms to the barfly’s dictionary. In the Old West, rotgut whiskey was referred to by such affectionate terms as old pine top, skull varnish, tarantula juice, Taos lightning, snake water, bug juice, and red-aye.

Today, the names of popular cocktails are somewhat more flattering. The origins of some are obvious; others, lost in history. The Mickey, for example, is said to be named after a certain Colonel Ric-key. The word Julep comes from the Arabic julab. The Black Russian is named for its primary ingredient, vodka. (It’s not black, but it’s certainly Russian.) The Grasshopper, consisting of green creme de menthe, with creme de cacao, and cream, owes its name to its green color. The Martini, Tom Collins, and Alexander are named after individuals. The origins of the Fizz, Sour, and Stinger shouldn’t be hard to imagine. As for the Zombie, you won’t need three guesses-the talk is that three Zombies will turn you into one.

But the names of modern cocktails are certainly not lacking in color. Witness the Red Devil, Sitz Mark, Bourbon Fog, Hurricane, Barbed Wire Fence, Rhett Butler, Cable Car, Sombrero, Tequila Sunrise, Pink Lady, Pink Elephant, Godfather, Harvey Wallbanger, and a warm wine-and-brandy concoction billed as the Instant Cold Cure.

Among the less exotic-and more popular-cocktails we find the Old Fashioned, a mixture of whiskey, sugar, bitters, and club soda. The Screwdriver combines vodka and orange juice; the Bloody Mary, vodka and tomato juice. A Daiquiri includes rum, lime juice, and sugar. A Mint Julep usually includes bourbon, mint leaves, sugar, and water. A Margarita combines tequila, salt, lime juice, and Triple Sec. A Manhattan is made with whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. And the ever popular Martini includes gin, a dash of vermouth, and an olive.

For those who are all thumbs when it comes to cocktail craftsmanship, the Schenley company offers 6.8-ounce bottles of premixed drinks called “Cocktails for Two.” The sixteen cocktails now available include the Black Russian, Apricot Sour, Strawberry Margarita, and Extra Dry Martini.

Speaking of the Martini, there’s the tale about the South Seas explorer whose friend gave him a bon voyage packet containing bottles of gin and vermouth and a jar of olives. A tag attached to the gift said, for insurance against loneliness. When on the high seas, the explorer opened the present. Inside the package, a card contained the following: “I have never yet seen anyone start to make a Martini without someone else coming along and telling him how to do it.”

And then there’s the one about the man who ordered a Martini in a bar, drank down the cocktail in one gulp, and then began biting the glass. When he’d nibbled the glass down to the top of the stem, he left it on the counter and walked off.

“Did you see that?,” a man who had been standing next to the Martini drinker exclaimed aghast to the bartender. “He’s nuts!”

“Yeah, he must be,” the bartender responded. “He left the best part!”

The production of alcoholic beverages in the United States now stands at over 100 million proof gallons per year, with an estimated half-billion proof gallons in stock. Not bad for a nation in which about one-third of the population are teetotalers.

Today, about 77-percent of adult men and 60 percent of women are regular consumers of alcoholic beverages. Studies have shown that the wealthy and better educated are more likely to be numbered among the drinkers. But in France, where there are few abstainers, those who do swear off the grape are more likely to come from the well-educated, monied classes.

France is the nation with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol: 22.66 liters of pure juice per year, more than twice the American figure. Italians are the highest per capita consumers of wine, downing on the average 153 liters to the American’s mere 8. West Germans are the number one swillers of hard spirits-barely beating out the Americans in that category. The Germans are also far and away the leading drinkers of beer and ale, with the average German consuming 182 liters of brew per year. There is a claim, however, that the residents of Australia’s Northern Territory far outpace the Germans.

We have no reliable figures for the communist nations, but vodka consumption in the Soviet Union is thought to be extremely high, and Czechoslovakia is said by some to surpass all nations in per capita beer consumption. At the other end of the scale, the citizens of Iceland and Israel rank as the smallest consumers of alcohol.

The above figures may surprise those who think that “light wine” countries such as France and Italy consume less alcohol than “hard liquor” nations like Great Britain and the United States. Great Britain, famous for its whiskies, is often thought to be high on the list of alcohol imbibers, but Britons actually consume less alcohol per capita than the citizens of any country in the West.

That hasn’t stopped jokesters from commenting on the soft spot the Scotch have for their famous export. Perhaps you’ve heard the one about the elderly Scotsman who, while carrying a bottle of whiskey on his hip, slipped and fell on a path of ice. Climbing to his feet and feeling something wet trickling down his leg, he murmured: “I hope it’s blood.”
Dewar’s, incidentally, is the best-selling non-premium scotch in America, Chivas Regal the best-selling premium. In Scotland, Bell’s is the most popular domestic scotch whiskey.

With all that drinking going on, it’s no surprise that alcoholism is a major problem in many societies. In the United States, an estimated five million people are alcoholics, and perhaps another four million are problem drinkers. In France, estimates of alcoholism put the figure as high as 9 to 15 percent of the total population!

Religious proscription has done little to thin the ranks of the dipsomaniacs. The Koran forbids alcohol use. Devout Buddhists and Hindu Brahmins also spurn the grape. And many Christian sects have forbidden drinking-with mixed results.

As for legal prohibition, the longest on record is a wee twenty-six years, in Iceland, from 1908 to 1934. Russia tried to illegalize the grape early in this century, but the attempt lasted a mere ten years. Our own “noble experiment” lasted only thirteen years-much too long in the many minds of many people.

For our point of view regarding man’s oldest and most popular intoxicant, we may turn to the Bible. The Good Book mentions two drinks: “wine which gladdeneth the heart of man, and water, which quencheth the thirst of jackasses ” (Psalm 104).

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

4 thoughts on “History of Alcohol”

  1. The Polish White Spirit Vodka is not the only liquor sold commercially at 80%! For a very long time the is a rum in Austria that is also commercially sold at 80%. It is even injected in a tasty chocolate malt ball!

  2. Here in Texas they sell an interesting beverage called “Everclear.” It is 97% alcohol and should be termed the strongest liquor that is sold for drinking.

  3. everclear is 95%
    (unless it’s different from state to state — im in new orleans)
    190 proof.

    as far as the strongest liquor sold for drinking?
    just make sure you dont drink a shot of it without mixing it — unless you want your throat to feel burned for 3 days :)

  4. oh — and if you were trying to figure out what classification it falls under (vodka, rum, etc.) — its pure-grain alcohol.

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