The history of alcohol's social acceptance

Where did alcohol originate, and why is it legal compared to similar drugs?
17 January 2023

Interview with 

Jane Peyton, School of Booze


A pint of beer.


Before we can look to the future of drinking, we must understand its past. Alcohol has been a staple of society for thousands of years, and is available in hundreds of forms, from beers to liquors to wines. But where does the origin of alcohol lie? And how has it remained socially acceptable when other drugs are illegal? Will Tingle spoke to Jane Peyton, principal of the School of Booze.

Jane - Alcohol has been around ever since there were sources of sugar that could be fermented, so if you think of fruit or roots or sap from trees. So the earliest alcoholic drinks wouldn't have actually been drinks. There would've been fermented fruit that had fallen off the tree onto the ground rotted and the animals would have eaten it. The hominids would've eaten it. So we're talking about in the last 100 million years, that's when fruit bearing trees came about.

Will - It's good to think that the first drunk animals were probably dinosaurs then.

Jane - <laugh>. You know what, I've never thought of that. But it could be if they were fruit eating. Absolutely.

Will - And it took a fair amount of time, but finally humans started to consume alcohol. At what point were these alcohols like beer and also wine, at what point did they become more popular?

Jane - Well, we have to look at the historical record of written records and in prehistory there were very few written records. So you look at archeological evidence, the archeologists find evidence of winemaking in the Caucasus. That's the earliest evidence of purposely making wine and having a wine industry around 6,000 years ago in the country of Georgia in the Caucasus. So if you look at the archeological evidence, you can date it back. That doesn't mean it started then. It only means that the evidence dates back to that time. So it would've been several hundred, maybe thousands of years before what we know of the date. When people started purposely making alcoholic drinks wine, for instance, beer in China 7,000 years ago. This archeological evidence of a drink made from rice, grapes, honey, and another fruit. So that was a combination that's like a cocktail actually. But we know for sure that by the time writing came about, cuneiform in what's now Iran and Iraq, we know that there are written records and evidence of people enjoying wine, high status people, drunk wine, beer was the drink for everybody. So beer and wine were the two drinks that we definitely know about because of the written evidence.

Will - Clearly alcohol has had a tremendous longevity amongst humans. If you were to speculate, what do you think is the reason behind alcohol's longevity as a socially acceptable or legal drug compared to other more contraband substances?

Jane - Alcohol is made from a food source. So every single alcoholic drink that we drink started as something that could be eaten as food. So therefore that food source was commonplace. It was in the home, it was in everybody's house. Everybody needed that food to turn it into alcohol as a way of preserving that food or getting enhanced nutrition from it. Fermentation enhances nutrition in food. It's called biological ennoblement. But there was another factor as well. And because it was a magical supernatural transformation from food to something that gave you this intoxicated buzz, this gentle buzz, there was a connection between this supernatural element and deities. So if you worshipped a God or a goddess, you often worshipped them by drinking alcohol and you'd get into an altered state and you could commune with your deity. So it became this socially acceptable and, in fact, mandatory thing to do. If you were a true disciple of your deity, you had to drink alcohol. Alcohol was considered to contain godly essence. So if you're talking about gods and deities and goddesses, then that's a very powerful motivator to drink alcohol. So it became this socially acceptable thing to do. You know, drunkenness was socially acceptable. In fact, it was expected. If you were at a festival to worship your deity, you had to get drunk, basically. Things like wine were restricted to high status people to the rulers. So they would give rules and they would give directives on who was allowed to drink wine. So therefore it became this thing that higher status people drank and so you were proud to drink it. So it becomes part of society. Something else really important as well as the religious element of it, is the alcohol in those days, I'm talking several thousand years ago when humans really started to industrialize the consumption of alcohol. In those days, the level of alcohol was fairly low. Distilled spirits didn't exist by the way. Wild yeast will ferment up to a certain level of alcohol. So you may be lucky to get up to 10%. Really lucky if you could get 10%. so you don't get completely obliterated like you would with some illegal drugs, some hallucinogenic drugs for instance, or nowadays it would be crack, something like that. So you don't get blasted, you just get gently intoxicated and it makes you feel good, but it also makes you sociable and that's really seductive. So you're doing it sociably. You're not just doing this internal intoxication like heroin would be, or hallucinogenic trip would be all about what's happening in your brain. With alcohol, it's all about what's happening in the group and what you're doing with your friends and just be really sociable. Alcohol is a social lubricant and it's been used as a tool for millennia, actually, to bond people together, to bring them together as a community. And it still is actually. You know, we don't think of that, but it really is when you go to a business networking event and most people will have a drink of alcohol and that makes you feel a bit relaxed, you're more likely to be sociable with the new business person who you're meeting. It helps you relax. So all these things together, they're the reasons why alcohol is the drug that we use legally and is the preferred drug.


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