The history of alcohol is as long and complicated as the history of human civilization. While a lot of people love their alcohol, very few are familiar with its past and the risks involved with the tasty beverages. Here is a glimpse into alcohol, its history, and its effects on nearly every aspect of human life.
The earliest records of brewing come from Mesopotamia
The earliest records of how to make beverages derived from malted cereal grains, including beer, come from the Sumerians, although there's some uncertainty about whether these beverages actually contained alcohol. The Sumerian poem "Hymn of Ninkasi" glorified the process, praising the goddess believed to be responsible for brewing. Since the Sumerians, virtually every advanced civilization, from ancient Greece to modern Mongolia, has taken up drinking.
The Code of Hammurabi regulated alcohol transactions
The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi regulated drinking establishments, although it didn't mention drunkenness. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the code required fair transactions — under the threat of drowning — involving beer. The law also punished tavern owners who allowed conspirators against the state to meet within their business. It also banned priestesses from opening a tavern. (Babylonians didn't have a problem with priestesses drinking, but they objected to them opening a tavern.)
The 13 colonies imported wine and exported rum
Colonial America, particularly New England, was known for its production of high-quality rum — and its exports to Europe and the rest of the world made up a huge part of the early Colonial economy. In return, colonies imported a lot of wine from Europe, which was similarly known for some of the best wine in the world.
Before Prohibition, most states banned alcohol sales
In 1920, the United States passed the 18th Amendment to ban the production, sale, transportation, import, and export of alcohol. But in 1917, before enough states ratified the constitutional amendment, all but three states already prohibited alcohol or let local governments restrict it, according to family research firm Mocavo.
Prohibition is widely considered a policy failure by historians. Economists Jeffrey Miron and Jeffrey Zwiebel estimate alcohol consumption was 30 to 40 percent lower a few years after Prohibition began. But Prohibition also led to a flourishing underground market that financed violent criminal organizations, leading to increases in violent crime, according to Miron. By 1933, public outcry against Prohibition led to the policy's repeal through the 21st Amendment.
17 states run their own alcohol stores
Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, states kept the ability to permit or ban alcohol sales. In time, all states legalized alcohol — but how they did so differed. By the latest count, 17 states maintain an alcohol monopoly that lets them tightly regulate and restrict production and sales in state-controlled establishments. The rest of the states privatized sales, with Washington most recently doing so in 2012. Previous research indicates that state-controlled liquor stores tend to produce better public health outcomes through higher prices, reduced access to youth, and lower overall levels of use — which is why some experts want the same approach with marijuana as it's legalized in more states.
Very few counties are dry
After Prohibition, counties also kept the power to ban alcohol sales within their borders. As this map shows, very few counties have wielded that power outside of the South. While the dry counties ban alcohol sales altogether, the semi-dry counties only prohibit sales depending on city or town laws or the type of alcohol in question.
The percentage of Americans who drink has been very stable
Since the 1940s, two-thirds of Americans have steadily identified as alcohol drinkers. But that doesn't mean American drinking habits haven't changed over time: Americans in 2014 told Gallup they drank about 4.1 drinks on average in the past week, up from 2.8 in 1996 and down from 5.1 in 2003. In the same time period, Gallup found that — perhaps unsurprisingly — Americans are much more likely to drink on the weekends.
American teens are drinking less than before
During the past couple of decades, teen alcohol use has plummeted. Public health experts and policy officials generally credit stricter enforcement of ID checks, better education, and anti-drug campaigns for the drop. The drop in drinking is a public health win for all sorts of reasons: Studies show alcohol may damage the developing teen brain, people who drink earlier in life may be more likely to have alcohol problems later on, and young drivers are more likely to be involved in alcohol-related car crashes. A 2013 analysis from Mothers Against Drunk Driving found that just 32 percent of underage-drinking deaths were traffic-related; 30 percent were homicides, 14 percent were suicides, 9 percent were alcohol poisonings, and 15 percent were due to other causes.
New England teens drink a lot
Teens in New England and some states in the West seem to have an easier time accessing alcohol. In some instances, particularly in New England and some parts of the South, about 10 to 15 percent of these teens were able to purchase their drinks by themselves. Sometimes, adults or a lack of adult supervision may be to blame: in a 2005 survey from the American Medical Association, two in three teens said it was easy to get alcohol from their homes without their parents' knowledge, and about four in 10 said that they could obtain alcohol from their parents or friends' parents.
The top 10 percent of American drinkers have 10 drinks per day
The top 10 percent of drinkers account for more than half the alcohol consumed each year. This level of consumption is typical for any market: The Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule, states that "the top 20 percent of buyers for most any consumer product account for fully 80 percent of sales," Philip Cook, who conducted the analysis on different drinkers' consumption levels, told Wonkblog's Christopher Ingraham. The problem with this market is that alcohol is a dangerous drug that can lead to liver damage, violent behavior or other behavioral issues, and other health problems. But the alcohol industry is encouraged to market to these heavy — and likely problematic — drinkers, since they make up so much of the industry's profits.
Americans love beer
For at least two decades, America's alcoholic beverage of choice has been beer. But wine has been catching up in the past two decades. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson in 2013 provided a few possible reasons for this trend: Americans are more health-conscious about their drinks; lower-class white men, who prefer beer, are getting crushed by the poor economy; liquor ads, which began running on US televisions in 1996, are working; and Americans are increasingly realizing that wine is both delicious and affordable.
Favorite beer by state
This map, based on Blowfish's nonscientific survey of 5,249 Americans, shows a surprising number of states favor the Colorado-based Blue Moon, which has only been in production since 1995. But these states' love for Blue Moon doesn't necessarily translate to America's overall preference, since many of the states that like Blue Moon are relatively small. California, where Corona is more popular, and Texas, where Bud Light is, carry a lot more weight population-wise than many of the Blue Moon states combined. Also a person's favorite beer isn't necessarily the one he or she consumes the most.
Favorite shot by state
According to Blowfish's nonscientific survey of 5,249 Americans, a plurality of states prefer lemon drops, with Jägerbombs a close second. Shot preferences can vary a lot even among neighboring states: While lemon drops are popular in most of the East Coast, New Jersey is an outlier in the region for its love of Southern Comfort Lime and Rhode Island for its love of tequila shots, which are mostly popular in states with high Latino populations.
The wealthiest countries tend to drink more
People 15 and older on average drink 26.2 cups of alcohol each year, according to a 2014 report from the World Health Organization. Unsurprisingly, the wealthiest countries tend to drink more — a sign that alcohol is still a relatively expensive luxury for much of the world. But in some cases, higher rates of drinking can be a result of cultural norms that encourage and glorify excessive alcohol consumption, which the World Health Organization argues is a serious problem that needs to be taken more seriously by policymakers. For example, a previous study published in The Lancet found that binge drinking, particularly of vodka, significantly contributed to the 25 percent death rate of Russian men ages 54 and younger.
Other countries have fewer drinkers, but they drink a lot
The World Health Organization's data suggests some countries have very few drinkers as a percentage of the population, but that the people who do drink happen to do it a lot. In Chad, almost nine in 10 adults abstain from drinking, but its 780,000 drinkers consume almost 34 liters of alcohol each — more than double what US drinkers consume on average. On the other end of the spectrum, Pakistan has very few drinkers, and those who drink reportedly consume less than 3 liters of alcohol each year.
Each country's booze preference
The world's booze preferences aren't very surprising. The United States likes beer, France loves wine, and Russia favors spirits (vodka). Still, some countries hang on to their preferences much more than others. Throughout the typical week, the average Frenchman drinks 10 glasses of wine for each one and a half pint glasses of beer and three shots of spirits, and the average Russian drinks nearly seven shots of spirits for each two glasses of wine and three pint glasses of beer. Americans, meanwhile, drink slightly more than three pint glasses of beer, more than two glasses of wine, and barely more than three shots of spirits each week — a considerably closer trend.
The Great Recession hit alcohol sales
This chart suggests the alcohol industry isn't quite as recession-proof as the conventional wisdom suggests. Even members of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States acknowledged this fact when they told the Associated Press they see the spirits industry as "recession resilient," but not immune to economic downturns. In general, it seems Americans drink less — or drink cheaper brands — during economic hard times. And, based on one study from market research firm Mintel International, they also tend to take their drinking home.
Wealthier Americans are more likely to binge drink
It seems there's some economic inequality in binge drinking, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. More than one in five Americans with an annual salary of $75,000 or more report binge drinking, while just 16.2 percent of those who make less than $25,000 do. But lower-income binge drinkers seem to have more drinking episodes and drinks: Binge drinkers who make less than $25,000 reportedly have five episodes and 8.5 drinks during each occasion, compared with 3.7 episodes and 7.2 drinks among those who binge drink and make $75,000 or more.
Domestic beer sales are slumping
Domestic beer sales rose by just 0.8 percent in 2013, compared with a 6 percent rise in imported beers that same year. The Atlantic explained that much of the imported beer market's gains are attributable to Mexican beers, which grew by a whopping 11.1 percent in 2013 largely thanks to an aggressive marketing push. (Who isn't familiar with Dos Equis's "Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials at this point?) Still, the domestic beer industry maintains about five times the US sales of imported brewers, so Bud Light and Coors Light definitely aren't going anywhere any time soon.
Beer is a lot cheaper in the US
It takes someone making the median wage in India nearly an hour of work to be able to afford a beer, while an American worker needs to be on the clock for just five minutes and a German worker needs to clock in seven minutes. This shows that on a global scale, alcohol is still very much a luxury good that many people in developing countries simply can't afford. But even among developed countries, there can be some stark differences due to the varying costs of beer around the world: the 2011 retail price for 500 milliliters of beer in Japan was $4.15, compared with $1.80 in the US and $1.90 in Germany.
Alcohol is the second deadliest drug in the US
Every year, alcohol directly causes more deaths through various health complications, such as liver damage, than all illicit drug overdoses. This chart doesn't even include the more indirect causes of death, such as alcohol-related car accidents, which drive up the total death toll to more than 88,000 each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This doesn't necessarily indicate that alcohol, by itself, is deadlier than a harder drug like heroin. If heroin was as available and used as alcohol, its death toll would almost certainly be higher. But stats like this do show that alcohol is a much more dangerous drug than America's cultural norms — and its legality — suggest.
Some researchers consider alcohol to be the most dangerous drug
British researchers in 2010 sought to identify the most dangerous drugs, both to society and individuals. They looked at all sorts of variables, including drug-induced health effects, changes in behavior, and impacts on violence and crime. They found the most dangerous drugs were alcohol, heroin, and crack. Alcohol's prominence was partly attributable to how accessible it is, since it’s legal and highly commercialized. But it also placed highly because it can lead to several serious problems: direct health issues like liver cirrhosis, aggressive behavior that can lead to violence and crime, and a seriously increased risk of accidents and car crashes. Although other experts see various problems with the rankings, they generally agree that alcohol can be a dangerous drug — to the point that it would likely be better for society as a whole if marijuana supplanted it.
Alcohol increases the chance of an accident by more than 13 times
Perhaps the most well-known risk of alcohol is its very negative effect on a person's ability to drive. Not only does alcohol increase the risk of a fatal accident by 13 times — more than any other drug tracked by researchers — but it also massively raises the risks of other drug use. Alcohol can exacerbate other drugs' negative effects off the road, too. As Notre Dame University's McDonald Center for Student Well-Being explains, alcohol can increase the sedative and intoxicating effects of marijuana, heighten the risk of heart attack and stroke while on cocaine, raise the chance of overdose while on opiates, and reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics, among many other health issues.
Fewer people are reportedly driving under the influence
The good news is that fewer Americans are reportedly driving drunk than before. This saves thousands of lives each year: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates 10,322 people died due to drunk driving in 2012, down from 15,827 in 1991. But NHTSA estimates drunk driving still leads to 31 percent of all traffic deaths each year — a sign that much more work is left to be done.
Excessive drinking causes 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults
Excessive drinking is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found one in 10 deaths among adults ages 20 to 64 are due to alcohol, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. The results varied among states: in New Mexico, 16.4 percent of deaths among working-age adults are linked to alcohol. In Maryland, the rate is only 7.5 percent. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the premature deaths imposed major economic costs through losses in productivity and potential earnings. In 2006 alone, the CDC estimated excessive drinking cost the United States $223.5 billion.
More than one in three Americans blame alcohol for family problems
Although the number of heavy drinkers is down, more Americans — more than one-third of all surveyed US adults — told Gallup that they blame alcohol for family problems. Gallup acknowledged the reports of more family problems also could be due to greater awareness. Since people better understand alcoholism now than they did three decades ago, they might be more willing to discuss and stigmatize excessive alcohol consumption within their families.
Washington state has the highest excise taxes on spirits
While Washington's high taxes on spirits probably aren't popular among consumers, they happen to be the favorite approach of public health experts, criminologists, and economists for addressing problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that higher prices on alcohol generally reduce consumption — and alcohol-related fatalities and assaults as a result. Since self-reported surveys of incarcerated criminals suggest that about 36.8 percent of state-level violent offenders and 20.8 percent of federal violent offenders were drinking at the time they committed the crime for which they were incarcerated, the reduced rates of consumption could go a long way to fight crime.
Where you can drink in public
It can be hard to tell in some cities, but public drinking is illegal in much of the United States. As the Huffington Post’s investigation uncovered, many of these bans came about after states and cities repealed bans on public drunkenness. Many legal scholars argued the public drunkenness laws wasted police and court resources, were disproportionately enforced against poor black people, and were trying to address issues that are better left to health and religious institutions over the criminal justice system. Of course, public drinking laws have many of the same problems: In a review of a month's worth of public drinking tickets in Brooklyn, a New York City judge's staff in 2012 found that, as reported by the New York Times, "85 percent of the summonses were issued to blacks and Latinos, while only 4 percent were issued to whites" — even though 36 percent of Brooklyn's population is white.
States that restrict Sunday alcohol sales
Some states have always prohibited all sorts of activities — work, loud noises, and horse racing, as a few examples — on Sunday to uphold the day as a time of worship or relaxation. Many of those bans have been repealed or deemed unconstitutional, but some states still prohibit Sunday liquor sales. MinnPost's Briana Bierschbach previously explained the opposition to a repeal in Minnesota, which applies to other states as well: "Liquor store owners from across the state are organized by the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol. Mom and Pop liquor shops argue Sunday sales would force them to be open seven days a week but just stretch out same revenue they'd make over six days. Each year the MLBA joins forces with the Teamsters Joint Council 32 union and liquor industry lobbyists to squash efforts to repeal the ban."
Europe generally taxes wine at much lower rates
In general, the United Kingdom and Nordic countries have the highest taxes on alcohol, in large part due to historical problems with alcoholism. But not all types of beverages are taxed in the same way. Wine in particular faces a much lower tax than spirits and beer, even though the alcohol content in it isn't any less dangerous than other beverages. (Vox's Joseph Stromberg pointed out that red wine's supposedly "magic ingredient," resveratrol, doesn't even produce positive impacts on rates of heart disease, cancer, or mortality. Still, wine is associated with some long-term cardiovascular benefits, although it's unclear how or why.)
This map shows references to bars on Google Maps, but it also serves as a guide to population centers. All the big circles on the map — New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, and so on — represent major cities.
Some places have more bars than grocery stores
A surprising number of places in the United States have more bars than grocery stores. At first, this might seem ridiculous; food, after all, is far more important than alcohol. But Vox's Matthew Yglesias makes a convincing case for why this is okay: "[A] normal person should be perfectly satisfied going weeks, months, or even years while just shopping at one or two grocery stores. By contrast, when it comes to bars a person probably wants some variety. A great place to watch the game might not be the best place to catch up with an old friend. Sometimes you want a fancy cocktail, sometimes you want a cheap beer. A great grocery store will actually endeavor to cover all your bases — you can get fruits and vegetables and meat and fish and grains and eggs and yogurt and canned stuff and everything you could want all under one roof. But a bar that tries to be all things to all people is going to be a mediocre, annoying bar."
Tweets about beer and wine
America generally prefers beer, but the preference doesn't apply to every part of the country. Geographers from the University of Kentucky used social media data to gauge each region's preferred alcoholic beverage. The results certainly reinforce some stereotypes: The West Coast and New England tend to favor wine, while the Midwest and some parts of the South take up beer.
Some parts of Virginia and North Carolina call drive-through liquor stores "brew thrus"
There is, apparently, such a thing as a drive-through liquor store. Most of the country either has never heard of these stores or has no special term for them. But it seems a certain section of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina has taken to calling them "brew thrus."
People are much more likely to report UFO sightings during drinking hours
Drinking, it seems, greatly influences when people reportedly spot UFOs. Either that, or aliens are very considerate and respect earthlings during working and sleeping hours, as the Economist suggests. If UFO sightings are controlled for sobriety, they seem to be most common in northern states where Northern Lights are more more common — and perhaps being mixed up with visitors from outer space. It's a fun chart that communicates what everyone needs to know about alcohol: It can lead to entertaining, funny moments, but it can also lead people to do some ridiculous — even dangerous, although probably (hopefully) not with UFOs — things.
Alcohol and its history
Alcohol consumption in the US
Alcohol consumption around the world
Alcohol and the economy
- Editor: Sarah Kliff
- Developer: Yuri Victor