Alcohol, the starter of fun nights and achy mornings, has been around causing trouble for thousands of years, but the word “alcohol” is relatively new. First seen during the medieval era, the word “alcohol” comes from an Arabic word “kahala” which originally meant “to stain” or to “paint.” This word was eventually associated with another Arabic word “al-kuhul,” which was a word that described a cosmetic powder designed to darken your eyelids. This word made its way into medieval Latin as “alcohol” and described “powdered ore of antimony.” Antimony was a brittle silver metal that was one of the few metals you could find in a pure state in nature.
In 1540, the earliest English definition of alcohol was “powdered cosmetic.” During the 1670s, this definition was broadened to “the pure spirit of anything,” which now would include liquids. The first appearance of a modern definition of alcohol wasn’t recorded until 1753 and was an abbreviation of the term “alcohol of wine,” which meant (as you might have guessed) the pure stuff that made wine fun to drink. Soon after that, this definition was further defined as “the intoxicating element in fermented liquors.” Finally, in 1850, the term was extended to encompass all fermented liquors and similar compounds, and the rest, as they say, is less-than-sober history.
Even though alcohol has only been known as “alcohol” for roughly 160 years or so, that hasn’t stopped our ancestors from using it. Although the first human encounter with alcohol has been lost to pre-recorded time, historians say that we probably created it by accident and that early humans eventually learned how to control the fermentation process and develop it. But we do know which brew was first: Beer. The first written evidence of alcoholic beverages comes from around 3200 B.C. and was a guide carved in Sumerian describing how to brew beer. There are also stamps on Mesopotamian clay vessels that share similarities to this first beer-brewing guide that date back to earlier than that (around 4000 B.C.), so it actually may be even older than that, but there isn’t really enough hard evidence to prove it. Still, it’s been theorized that beer-drinking actually preceded the eating of bread as a staple part of the human diet. Evidence of wine production and drinking was also discovered in this area from around 3000 B.C., but in this region, beer remained the beverage of choice, being featured in temple rituals and carvings for more than 2000 years.
Wine rose in popularity in ancient Greece around 350 B.C. Plato, Socrates, and many other philosophers would often drink wine socially and as an intellectual exercise prior to getting the assemblies together to discuss moral and political issues. In India, archeological evidence confirms the regular use of distilleries around 500 B.C., with written evidence of fermentation practices dating back to 1200 B.C., including the production of a beverage called soma, which was made from fermented mushrooms and was quite strong. Egyptians also practiced beer-brewing early on and were one of the first cultures to recommend abstinence or moderation in drinking practices, with written evidence of this dating back to 1400 B.C. However, the ancient Romans must not have read much of the Egyptian writings, as they regularly practiced ritual intoxication during their Bacchanalia, a festival of drunkenness to honor their god of intoxication, Bacchus, until 186 B.C.
For a long while after that, wine, beer, and variations like ale and mead were the drinks of choice. Hard liquors were not created until much later. Alcohol distillation first occurred in the 11th century in an Italian medical school, and the product was first called “spirits,” as the distillation was considered an extraction of the spirit of the wine. During the Middle Ages, distillation of grain alcohol (the first moonshine) soon followed this first experiment, but it’s not until the 1500s that Benedictine, the first cognac, was developed at a small monastery in France.
Use and development of distilled spirits steadily grew and spread through Europe, especially England, South America, and places in the Middle East like Constantinople. Eventually, in the early 1600s, alcohol made its way to North America, and its popularity was curtailed by various legislation forbidding drinking. Eventually, politicians in the U.S. saw it as a source of tax revenue, removing the prohibitive measures and taxing its sale until Prohibition in the early 1900s. When this didn’t stop people from drinking and increased the crime rates, politicians rethought the idea, and Prohibition was officially repealed in 1933.
Alcohol has made its way through every country in the world and has had a profound effect on world history, economies, and cultures. It has been the go-to social lubricant as far back as recorded history can tell us. The history surrounding its development and integration into our society is littered with humorous stories, profound innovations, and shockingly infamous tales.
If you want to find out more about this fascinating topic, visit some of the links below for additional information:
- Online Etymology Dictionary: Alcohol
- Origin of the Word “Alcohol”
- History of Alcohol Use
- The Origin of Alcohol “Proof” (PDF)
- Bubbles and Brews-Alcohol Facts
- Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking
- Roman Bacchanalia
- Intoxicating Drinks and Drunkards in Ancient Indian Culture
- History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World
- Spirits of the World (PDF)
- Origin of Alcohol Consumption Traced to Apes
- Temperance and Prohibition
- Archeological Guide to Alcohol Bottles
- History and Origins of Alcohol Consumption Patterns