The true origin of the word “alcohol” as it is used today in the West is a matter of some debate, though it is commonly accepted that it was derived from the Arabic word الغول (pronounced “al-ġuḥl” or sometimes “al-ġawl”), first introduced into the English language around 1543. This early word for ethanol, or drinking alcohol, literally translates to “spirit”, since the early Islamic and Persian alchemists who first distilled the liquid believed its effects resulted from spirits entering the body as it was consumed. Thus today we see this same terminology still in use with regard to English liquors.
Ethanol is a colorless liquid with a mild odor, created via the process of fermentation using glucose produced from sugar in the presence of yeast in temperatures of less than 37°C. In addition to its use and consumption in the modern world, it is also known to have been a staple in the diets and religious ceremonies of many cultures throughout history dating as far back as 10,000 BC. In fact, the discovery of stone-age beer jugs suggests that alcohol may actually have predated the creation of simple breads in the diets of our early ancestors!
Before musicians and celebrities started going in and out of alcoholism rehabilitation programs, alcohol had other common uses. Aside from recreational drinking and religious practices, alcohol has also been consumed in the past for hygienic, dietary and medicinal purposes. As stated, pure ethanol was first isolated by Muslim chemists around the eighth century, who also invented the still, allowing for distillation of the liquid by heating to a boil, then condensing the vapor by cooling to lower temperatures without freezing. By the middle ages, moderate alcohol consumption was considered favorable, and even the various branches of the Christian church in Europe—Catholics and Protestants alike—considered it “a gift from God”, with many countries encouraging its use for economic reasons. For instance, in 1690 England actually passed “An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn” which would mostly be comprised of neutral spirits flavored with Juniper berries (what would become known as gin). By 1694, the production of distilled spirits in England was close to one million gallons annually. Nearly a century later, official production reached five million gallons for both declared and taxed spirits, and in another six years London alone was producing a record-breaking eleven million gallons of gin annually. At this time in English history, production of gin was beneficial in that it allowed the British to utilize surplus grain, as well as raise revenue altogether, hence its production was further encouraged through public policy. All was well, and simple folk and aristocrats alike continued to pound-back their hefty spirits in record amounts.
However, the combination of overcrowding and poverty in England, coupled with the availability of cheap liquor in large amounts, eventually would have its drawbacks. In fact, the period between 1720 and 1751 was actually dubbed “the Gin Epidemic,” and was blamed for the social unrest that crippled so much of the country’s resources. Today, there are actually many historians who refute the idea that alcohol consumption had much to do with the social and economic problems that were occurring at the time. Still, in 1751 it was more difficult to suggest otherwise to those in power, and the Tippling Act was passed, which prohibited distillers from selling their product with threat of imprisonment, torture and even deportation. As one might expect, alcohol consumption dropped to a mere two million gallons annually.
Fortunately, the great “Gin Epidemic” was about a century too late to keep the Puritans from bringing more beer than water with them to Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the Mayflower in 1620. The truth of the matter is that, much like the wine shared among the disciples in the days of Christ, the English knew that spirits were still much safer to consume than water at the time our Pilgrim brethren arrived in the New World. Such liberal consumption of alcohol would continue, and by the late 1650s the first rum distillery was operational in Boston, becoming colonial New England’s most prosperous industry within about a decade.
However, by May of 1657 the General Court of Massachusetts decided to make the sale of strong liquor illegal, citing that any spirits, “whether known by the name of rum, strong water, wine, or brandy,” were to be outlawed. Much like the British would experience back in the homeland during the early to mid 1700s, the early colonists began to see that alcohol, though “a gift from God”, was not so great in excess. Many even said that its abuse was the very opposite of Godly, and that drunkenness was actually devilish in nature. Therefore, when the suggestion of the church failed to sway drunkards from their vices, legal strangleholds were enacted instead.
Many in the medical community questioned this sort of constraint, favoring moderation as opposed to the nasty “p” word (prohibition, that is) due to the fact that alcohol was often used for medicinal purposes at the time. Dr. Benjamin Rush, who famously sent medicinal wine along with Meriwether Lewis on his overland expedition into the west with his companion William Clark, was the first to consider that drunkenness might not entirely be a self-made decision resulting from demonic influence. The good doctor was able to do pioneering research into therapeutic approaches for coping with addiction, and suggested that alcohol contained physical elements which led to a chemical dependency, proposing that excessive drunkenness could be reversed by “weaning” the afflicted patient off the stuff with substances of lesser potency.
In 1784, Rush made public his belief that the excessive use of alcohol was indeed capable of damaging one’s mental and physical facilities, and though he had never advocated prohibition himself, many were influenced by the respected doctor’s views. Within a few years, an association of around 200 farmers in Connecticut formed one of the earliest US temperance associations, with many that would follow elsewhere in the states well into the next century.
By the mid 1800s, preachers like Reverend Mark A. Matthews were expending temperance propaganda linking liquor-dispensing saloons with prostitution. Matthews once referred to the typical saloon as “the most fiendish, corrupt, hell-soaked institution that ever crawled out of the slime of the eternal pit… It takes your sweet innocent daughter, robs her of her virtue, and transforms her into a brazen, wanton harlot… It is the open sore of this land”. By the early 1850s, temperance activists began forcing laws into existence that prohibited sale of all alcoholic beverages that weren’t used for medicinal or mechanical purposes. Beginning with the state of Maine in 1851, twelve states had opted for total prohibition by 1855, stirring opposition and unrest among the working class, especially immigrants. On June 2, 1855, a riot erupted over the Maine law, which would ultimately become a deciding factor in the repeal of the law the following year.
With the advent of the Civil War, temperance movements lost momentum, and many laws were marginalized or altogether abandoned. Alcohol played a role as medicine among field medics during the Civil War, who also used drugs like the opium-based painkiller laudanum and morphine. Of course, purchase of alcohol for recreational consumption was forbidden to US soldiers at the time, but stories of infantrymen sneaking hollowed-out watermelons filled with whisky into camps late at night would continue nonetheless. In fact, some sources describe desperate concoctions being improvised on-the-spot, recipes for which included ingredients like turpentine and lamp oil, to which soldiers would sometimes (if they were smart, or if it was available, whichever came first) add a bit of sugar to sweeten the brew. Rumors also existed of Union General Ulysses S. Grant drinking on the job in many instances, as reported in 1863 by newspaper reporter Sylvanus Cadwaller.
With the war ending in 1865, within four years a Prohibition Party had been founded, followed in 1873 by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which in spite of the use of “temperance” in its name actually lobbied for flat-out prohibition. In 1881 Kansas became the first US state to outline in its Constitution an outlaw on alcohol, as well as the home of one of the WCTU’s most famous supporters. Mrs. Carrie Nation had moved to the town of Medicine Lodge, Kansas, in 1889, where she founded a local branch of the WCTU, and became a celebrity of sorts as a result of her anti-alcoholic antics, which often involved vandalizing bars and saloons in broad daylight with a hatchet. Nation’s rather odd spiritual direction apparently stemmed from a long night of prayer, after which she claimed she was “awakened by a voice which seemed to me speaking in my heart… I was impressed with a great inspiration, the interpretation was very plain. It was this: ‘Take something in your hands, and throw at these places in Kiowa and smash them’.” Needless to say, she moved forward with haste, entering bars and using large stones and her trademark hatchet to destroy bottles of spirits that stocked the local Kansas saloons. Other (less destructive) ways activists tried to halt liquor consumption and sales involved singing, praying, warning and urging saloon owners and patrons, and making an overall nuisance of themselves in order to run away the potential clientele. Such activity began to take hold especially in the Southern United States, where many religious groups saw saloons as corrupt institutions serving bottled-sins to willing recipients.
Neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party expressed a particular stance on the idea of prohibition, and during the 1916 election neither candidate chose to make an issue of it. However, rising cultural tensions leading up to World War I continued to press the matter, and in January of 1917 the 65th Congress convened, during which “dries”, those favoring prohibition, outnumbered “wets” in both parties. By January of 1919 an Amendment was ratified by thirty six of the then total forty-eight states. Complete Prohibition began on January 16th, 1920, with a total of 1,520 Federal agents being tasked with enforcing the new law.
Manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol was forbidden, though Section 29 of the Volstead Act, introduced on October 28, 1919 (in spite of a veto by President Woodrow Wilson), allowed for quantities less than 200 gallons of wine and cider from fruit to be made annually in homes. Beer was not allowed, and many medical doctors took issue, which lead to Congressional hearings regarding the medicinal benefits of beer used by practicing doctors; many of whom also favored use of liquor for similar reasons. Meanwhile, corrupt (and nonetheless powerful) gangs took control of the illegal sale of black-market alcohol, especially in metropolitan areas, creating a costly problem which the Federal government could sometimes do little to enforce effectively. This, coupled with the loss of revenue from tax on alcohol sales, led to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, thus crippling many organized crime outfits with the reintroduction of low-priced, legal liquor sales.
Indeed, when looking at the long, convoluted history of alcohol consumption here in the United States, one will notice a good bit of time is spent on the subject of Prohibition. This is primarily because Prohibition’s lasting effects in America were mostly negative; the majority of the goals intended by Prohibition in the US were not achieved, and if anything, the result was only an increase in many of the problems it was intended to target. Wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr, stated of Prohibition that after its repeal that he had “hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
Many connoisseurs of fine mixed drinks would point out one final disservice which stemmed from the Prohibition period. This involves the creation of many odd drink recipes which, created during a time when liquors of poor quality were all that were available, relied too heavily on mixing a horde of different liquors and flavors. Of such beverages, Patrick Gavin Duffy, author of the classic manual The Bartender’s Guide, said, “The majority… of cocktails are wholesome and well-concocted, but we cannot approve of those which include Gin, Scotch, Brandy, Vermouth and Cream in one drink.” Along these same lines, the famous chef James A. Beard commented that “the ideal cocktail is a blend, not a conflict of flavors. Strange mixtures were common in speakeasies, partly because bartenders were forced to conceal the poor quality of their liquors.”
Quite the contrary to drinks featuring distasteful “conflicts of flavors”, the beverage trends of today focus especially on drinks like the martini. “There is something sophisticated about the martini that attracts customers to the drink, especially for the younger adult market,” says Angela Koepfer, a journalist specializing in commercial and institutional food service management. “The more creative the martinis become, especially with garnishes, the more likely they are to draw the attention of patrons.” This observation of course references trends toward the “flavored martinis” of today, which include specialty beverages like the Cosmopolitan, the apple martini, lemon-drop martinis, as well as traditional drinks like Gimlets, the Rob Roy and the Manhattan cocktail being served in the popular long-stem martini glass. Key elements that remain consistent among nearly all these beverages include a mere two or, occasionally, three liquid ingredients, topped with some eye catching garnish.
Indeed, it seems that mixed drinks, as a matter of taste, have returned to their roots of simplicity with the availability of fine liquors from all over the world. But whatever your tastes may be, rest assured there will be a preferred liquid-libation which you’ll find discussed here on this website, and it is my sincere hope that it will be to your interest and enjoyment. To that, I invite you to raise your glass with me in celebrating this wonderful Culture of Spirits.