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  • Writer's pictureKim May

A (very) brief history of alcohol

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Alcohol use in Austin, TX

During the coronavirus pandemic, non-essential businesses have had to shift to working from home or close altogether. This made me curious. What businesses are considered essential?

Cities all over the nation, Austin included, have determined that liquor stores are indeed essential. Nationwide, alcohol sales are way up since March. Online alcohol sales were up 243% as compared to this time last year. Texas restaurants are even permitted to temporarily sell alcohol to-go. A google search on “Quarantini” yielded 97,800 results. This made me curious about our national relationship with alcohol and how alcohol quite literally became “essential” to us.

This isn’t the first time alcohol has been considered essential

Breweries can be traced back 6,000 years to ancient Egypt and Babylonia. Wine based medications were written as far back as 2200 B.C. In medieval and renaissance England, adults and children were allotted 1 gallon of beer per day. George Washington even insisted that soldiers be provided with whiskey every day as part of their rations. (Fun fact, whiskey is a Gaelic word which roughly translates to “water of life”.)

Why alcohol has been considered essential is complex and beyond what can be covered here. However, its combination of euphoric effects, pain killing properties and alternatives to unclean drinking water are certainly key components of it staying power.

Onward toward prohibition

Colonial Americans drank quite heavily, but even then, habitual drunkenness was not widely tolerated. However, many fundamentalist groups of the time were in stark opposition to drinking. Temperance and anti-saloon movements began spreading and by 1855 roughly one-third of U.S. states had prohibited alcohol.

A similar movement was occurring in County Derry, Ireland around the same time. This was led by a Catholic priest who established the Total Abstinence Society. However, the drive to use substances can indeed be powerful and some people in Ireland found a work around. Ether. They began consuming ether which provides a similar effect to alcohol, although with some unintended consequences. Aside from the horrible smell, bad taste and excessive drooling, ether is also highly flammable. Severe burns in regrettable places were a common hazard, brought on by the intense belching and flatulence it caused.

Back in the U.S., the anti-alcohol movement was continuing to gain traction and by 1920 the Constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol was enacted.


Just as the people in County Derry would not be stopped from getting their buzz, people in the United States were also determined. Although there are many types of alcohol, only ethanol is safe for consumption. However, during prohibition Methanol was used in many home distilleries and with terrible outcomes, including blindness. (This is where the term blind drunk originated from). During the 13 years that prohibition lasted, it gave birth to organized crime in the United States. Murder rates increased during prohibition; by the year of the repeal, there had been an almost 50% increase.

Although it is true that fewer people drank during prohibition, the rates of alcoholism increased among the drinkers. Additionally, thousands of people were killed by government attempts to curtail drinking. The Coolidge administration ordered manufacturers to add pollutants to industrial alcohol to attempt diversion to bootleggers. In 1926 in New York City alone, 1,200 people were sickened, and 400 people died from purposefully contaminated alcohol.


It eventually became clear that prohibition was not enforceable and ultimately it was counterproductive. Prohibition came to an end on December 5, 1933. Many people were left wondering, if alcohol was so bad that it had to be banned, why are we lifting the ban? Around this time, both the disease model of alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous were founded. Whereas before, alcohol was viewed as the totality of the problem, this new way of thinking encouraged people to view excessive drinking as a symptom of a larger problem. This decision also allowed the government control of alcohol and tax money, thereby taking it back from organized crime.

Alcohol today

Countries with the highest abstinence rates also tend to have the highest rates of alcoholism. In the U.S. approximately 45% of the population are abstainers, yet we have a 15% rate of alcoholism. We maintain this ambivalent relationship with alcohol in many ways. We have the highest drinking age in the world, something we share with only 11 other countries, including: Iraq, Mongolia and Oman. Most countries (approximately 116) have drinking ages at 18-19.

In 2018, the United States spent $253.8 billion on alcohol. (For the sake of comparison, we spend about $35 billion annually on vitamins). All that spending and yet in many parts of the south, there are still dry counties and townships. Around the nation, sales of alcohol on Sundays is still prohibited. So, in Texas anyway, liquor stores are essential business…just not on Sundays. Hmmm.

Just like the U.S. has an ambivalent relationship with alcohol, many individuals do as well. If you are ready to explore your relationship with alcohol, work toward moderation or begin a plan towards abstaining, Substance Use Therapy is here to support you.


Denning, P. (2000). Practicing Harm Reduction Psychotherapy: An Alternative Approach to Addictions. The Guilford Press.

Denning, P., & Little, J. (2017). Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide to Controlling Your Drug and Alcohol Use. The Guilford Press.

Hari, Johann. (2015). Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2019). Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. W.W. Norton & Company.

Linden, D. (2011). The Compass of Pleasure. Penguin Books.

Szalavitz, M. (2016). Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Picador St. Martin’s Press.

About the Author:

Kimberly May, LPC, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, gambling, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.

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