The types of alcohol and the patterns of its consumption vary across the countries. Historically, the attitude towards it was changing depending on the socio-political and the economic situation. Europe and the United States belong to the same Western civilization, and it is understandable why many processes associated with this matter were similar in both areas. Nevertheless, the history of alcohol in the U.S. differed primarily from the fact that the country did not have the previous centuries-long experience of wine and beer production. Moreover, the public thought regarding drunkenness and its effects pushed the government to adopt prohibiting laws that were more restrictive than in European countries.
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Early Modern Times
The difference between the patterns of alcohol consumption between the European countries and the United States was predicated by cultural and political aspects that formulated after the Middle Ages. Firstly, religious traditions played a very significant role in the lives of people from the Old World. For instance, the Catholic church used wine during services as a necessary part of rituals. As the European Christian world became split after the Reformation, territories in the north, including Britain and Scandinavia, began losing the importance of wine consumption. Beer in those areas was the primary choice among citizens.
The common feature between different European territories was that fermented drinks were the most popular option. At the same time, the wine was produced only in southern regions where the climate was suitable for grapes to grow and ripe. Thus, countries like England and Denmark had to import it. Beer, on the other hand, was brewed everywhere and mostly consumed at the area of its production. These alcoholic beverages were perceived as a better alternative to water, the safety, and taste of which was questionable in the seventeenth century. Doctors claimed that wells and rivers might be carrying contaminants causing diseases.
The quality of water was an issue when trying to transport in by sea. Stored in barrels, it became spoiled during a long journey. To keep it safe, sailors added portions of rum, which served as a moderate disinfector. This type of alcohol was radically different from wine and beer, which were a part of the historical European culture. It was a strong spirit distilled from sugar produced mostly in the Caribbean region. Importing it to Europe was rather expensive, so America became the primary market for rum.
On the overall, the United States remained a territory without a culture of consuming wine and beer. Importing it from Europe was expensive, and the local vineyards and breweries were not developed enough to satisfy the demand of the entire country. As a result, it became a place for distilled spirits, one of which was madeira. This port, originally a product of Portuguese winemakers, soon became consumed as a premium drink among upper-class Americans.
Distilled spirits soon gained popularity in Europe, as brandy, whiskey, and gin started to enter the national markets. In the beginning, they were perceived as medicine and prescribed correspondingly in small amounts. Doctors argued that older people, for instance, should drink spirits to restore inner heat. However, citizens soon developed a taste for strong liquors, and the industry experienced significant growth. Partially, it happened due to the actions of governments, as it was in England. There, the laws allowed low taxes on production and no licensing for retailers.
While most of the United States enjoyed rum and whiskey, the patterns of spirits consumption in Europe differed. France was primarily the place of brandy production, as it was made of wine. Gin, along with other alcohol made of cereals, became the most popular spirit in England. It even became a major issue, as many people, specifically the male population, were frequently seen drunk, causing legal problems and social disruption. The Gin craze among the poorest English citizens was a great concern to the country’s officials. The government tried to fight it by issuing several laws focusing on production rather than retail. Although the Gin Acts eventually failed, they were one of the first attempts to control alcohol consumption.
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In the United States, the government was also worried by the heavy drinking of among the citizens. However, unlike their English colleagues, American officials decided to make a profit out of this situation. After the War for Independence, the country experienced a shortage of finances, and whiskey seemed like a source of income. The new taxes imposed on its production mainly targeted farmers and depended on the volume of distilling appliances. Producers had to pay the government before even receiving any profit. This, as well as other positions of the Acts, led to the so-called Whiskey Rebellion.
In the countryside, drinking alcohol was not seen as a major issue both in Europe and the United States. Farmers, mostly males, gathered in public houses to interact while sipping a beverage. However, this type of leisure activity transformed within cities, becoming the source of social disruption. The Industrial Revolution made hundreds of people flow to the economic centers of their countries. Life conditions of laborers were harsh, as they had to work many hours for little pay, and alcohol for them was a source of deprivation.
At that time, there were more differences in consumption patterns between people of different income levels than between the countries. Thus, middle- and upper-class representatives in both the U.S. and Europe enjoyed wine and other fine liquors, while workers engaged in heavy spirits drinking. In general, England showed the increase in alcohol consumption over the 1800s, while the trend was negative in the U.S. starting from the 1840s. At the same time, poor workers in both countries drank far more than even the norms of those times claimed as acceptable. While the European communities developed their drinking habits over the centuries, the United States was subject to the outer influence caused by immigration. For instance, large groups of newcomers from Germany and Ireland carried their cultural background, including alcohol preferences. Gradually, rum in the U.S. was replaced by whiskey, the latter becoming the most popular beverage.
The issue of drunkenness in the cities was beginning to be recognized by many officials and public activists. However, alcohol remained the most popular drinking option, as industrialized cities could not supply people with fresh water. As a response to the issue, governments in the U.S., England, France, and other countries developed systems of engineering solutions like pipes, wells, and fountains. They were designated for carrying water from where it was not polluted by people. For instance, the systems of New York took it from the river thirty miles away. This way, by the beginning of the XX century, many Western cities became supplied with potable water, which increased the level of its consumption.
As the cities became crowded with drunk workers causing legal trouble, officials and the public on both continents became highly concerned about the issue. Various temperance movements started to appear, aiming to control alcohol consumption among people. The common thing about them in both Europe and the United States was the extent to which they wished to go. In general, one group of temperance supporters wanted to restrict the amount of alcohol consumed, while the other opted for the complete abolishment of it.
However, there was a difference in perceptions of what exactly should be regulated. Thus, in Europe, the traditions of drinking wine and beer were so strong that many temperance activists did not see these beverages as necessary to restrict. On the contrary, they assumed it to be good alcohol, which did no harm while consumed reasonably. The idea was especially supported in Catholic states, where wine was an important part of religious activities. Thus, the fight was targeted mainly on spirits, which were claimed artificial products of industrial development, as opposed to the naturally fermented beverages.
In the United States, a different opinion dominated society, marking all types of alcohol as a source of many social problems. In the early 1800s, a vast campaign against alcohol took place in the country. For instance, in Massachusetts, selling less than fifteen gallons of spirits was banned from 1838, and other states followed with restrictions on retail. In 1851, Maine became the first state that entirely prohibited the production and sale of alcohol on its territory.
English activists, on the other hand, did not have the same attitude towards prohibition. The primary concern within British temperance societies was the civil liberties granted to people by the law. The government was perceived as a guarantee of freedoms and taking them away was not supported by masses. Alcohol consumption was seen as a personal choice, and even moderate restrictions like limits on Sunday drinking were not popular. On the other hand, the late XIX century became the point where the British government created a series of acts determining the minimum legal drinking age and being targeted at child protection.
War and Prohibitions
Army in both Europe and the United States was also one of the places, where the issue of spirits prevailed. In the middle of the XIX century, as the campaign against alcohol in the United States became widespread, the question arose regarding the negative aspects of soldiers receiving spirits as a part of their regular provision. Many doctors and researchers started to claim that alcohol consumption leads to a decrease in performance in such areas as marksmanship. Moreover, drunk soldiers became undisciplined and unwilling to follow orders, which undermined the core ideas of the army as a structure. As a result, in 1863, a new policy was adopted, which substituted the soldiers’ provision of alcohol with tea and coffee. As a result, the first dry army in the West appeared, at least officially.
The different situation was in Europe, where alcohol was still a part of soldiers’ regular provision. At the beginning of the XX century, as the World War began, specialists in England started to research the effects of spirits on the army. They claimed that countries who adopted prohibition in the military had better discipline and results among their troops. The issue was especially important as most of Europe was at war, and there was much evidence of soldiers entering battles when being drunk. As a result, European countries such as England, France, and others, began to substitute spirits with tea and coffee among their troops.
At the same time, the prohibition in both Europe and the United States was taking place away from the battlegrounds. The first thirty years of the XX century in the U.S. were marked by intensive prohibition campaigns, resulting in the massive illegal business of alcohol retail. Europe also passed laws to restrict spirits consumption, yet they appeared to target mainly women, children, and old people, as young men went to the war. On the overall, during the following years of the century, most of the Western world experienced the tendency of normalizing alcohol while caring for public health at the same time.
The United States and Europe used to have a similar problem of heavy drinking within their populations, especially among low-income male adults. At the same time, the consumption patterns differed, as the U.S. relied mostly on spirits like rum and whiskey due to the absence of wine and beer brewing culture. The temperance movements in the U.S. also appeared to be more restrictive than the ones in England and France, often opting for the complete abolishment of alcohol. As a result, some of the outcomes were the first prohibition campaigns and a dry army in the Western world. Other European countries were not as supportive of the idea, especially the Catholic states, where the wine culture was an important part of social life.