History Of Things: The Fascinating Origin Of Alcohol Goes Back WAY Further Than You Might Think
Alcohol. It’s one of our most cherished products. But where did it all begin? Wine goddesses were worshipped in Babylon as early as 2700 BC, but our ancestors may have begun figuring out how to make booze as long as 10 million years ago. Yeah, that’s 10 with a million next to it.
That’s a long time for humanity to have been getting drunk, but it’s only been through constant evolution that we’ve developed the alcohol game we have today. Let’s take vodka. Our first records of vodka come from Poland, where they pop up in court documents in 1405. Of course, evidence suggests that it was consumed as far back as the early middle ages.
But that pales in comparison to the production of wine, which we know was made as early as 7000 BC in Jiahu, China. From there, the production of wine and other spirits spread throughout Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Assyria, and was almost certainly used in ceremonies and as a traded product in Egypt around 3000 BC.
So, we’ve been at this a good long while. In fact, one of the rooms of the tomb of the badass named king Scorpion the First, was found with 700 jars of wine. That’s a lot of wine to take with you into the afterlife, but our boy Scorpion apparently had a thirst that couldn’t be quenched by simple water.
The Italians finally got into the game around the 8th century BC, and then they quickly spread their wine making knowledge to France via the port of Marseille. From there, beer and wine production spread north to Germany sometime around the 5th century BC, and from there the production and distribution of wine exploded thanks to Roman and Greek trade routes.
From there, we have Rome taking over the wine game, developing and cultivating grapes in the Mosel valley of Germany and France. Meanwhile, an ocean away, the Mayans were drinking balche and chicha, which became popular and more widespread throughout the Americas as found in the chicha beer in Tiwanaku in South America. And then finally, in the 16th century AD, wine production began moving from the monasteries into the hands of merchants, who have made it a staple ever since.
Whiskey first pops up in the written record sometime around 1400AD when the Irish and the Scots both began writing about it. Whoever first popularized it remains up for debate between Irish and Scottish fanatics. Meanwhile, around the same time, the Dutch began tinkering with something called genever, which would soon be shortened to gin.
A couple of centuries later, a few plantation slaves in the Caribbean began fermenting rum, which soon became a staple of the trade, leading to the infamous triangle trade which saw rum being traded for slaves in Africa who were then taken to the West Indies where they were sold for more rum which was then taken to New England where the whole nefarious cycle could start anew.
Around the same time, tequila began being produced in the city of the same name from the agave plant. From there, the King of Spain granted the Cuervo family the license to make and distribute tequila.
And all this time, beer was being made around the world, as far back as 5,000 BC in Egypt where the first documented papyrus scrolls were put down describing the process. Which was only 2,000 years after the Chinese had done something similar.
So as you can see, alcohol has long been a staple of our worldwide trade, whether it was Chinese rice mead 7,000 years ago or Indian mead 4,000 years ago. We’ve been at this a long time. Just ask the Weihenstephaner brewery, which started turning out beer in 1040 AD.
That’s a long time to be in the beer game, but what’s a thousand years in the grand scheme of things? Don’t start throwing around those crazy numbers to the people of Obara, Japan, who have been brewing sake for 870 years.
As for around here, the Molson brewery in Montreal dates back to 1786, which makes it the baby of the brewing business, especially compared to its European cousins, who have been at it for a good thousand years.
But through all these many years, the one thing we do know is that we have liked to get drunk as hell whenever possible. 8,000 year old Georgian wine is a testament to this, as is the 7,000 year old Chinese “fermented beverage” which is about a generic term as you could ever come up with, but that’s what happens when it gets down to rice and grapes.
All in all, it’s clear that the history of alcohol is a long and winding one, filled with tales of illicit trade and pirate booty gone wild. Any time you start talking about history in terms of tens of thousands of years, it’s easy for the details to get lost. But what shouldn’t be lost is that we have been at this a long time and 10,000 years from now, someone somewhere will be writing about the history of something generic like “beer” trying to figure out where in the world we could ever come up with such a name. But by then they will probably be drinking all manner of crazy drinks we couldn’t even begin to comprehend today.
After all, 50 years ago, we would have never heard of something like Long Island Iced Tea, but ever since it’s creation in 1972 by a dude named Robert Butt (yeah, really) it’s become a staple of every bar. Or the Alabama Slammer which dates to a similar time. The point is that we’ll always be coming up with new and crazy names for those drinks that get us drunk. Today’s Long Island Iced Tea is tomorrow’s Havana Punch and so on and so on.
It’s all just a fancy way of saying “fermented beverage,” with each new name designed to sell more drinks and tee-shirts and sponsorships of wet tee-shirt contests. So, whether you’re a good Scottish whiskey man or a Cuervo connoisseur, you’ve been branded along with the rest, so wear your colors proudly, hold up your favorite fermented beverage and let the world know that you’re down with the history of our beloved alcohol.