"This book arose out of my despair at the narrow-minded approach of virtually all other books on drink. This book is about pleasure; it is about sensuality; it is about the cultural, social and political influences that determine what we chose to drink, where we choose to drink it, and with whom. Its purpose is to try to understand why we drink what we do. If it is the aim of history to assist in our understanding of the present by examining the past, then this book is a social history of drink. But it is not only history; it is also polemic. It uses history to make judgements on issues of current political controversy... by arriving at a better understanding of our attitudes towards drink, it is possible to arrive at a better understanding of the world in which we live." (Preface)


Preface - Current Controversies
Introduction - Drink and Drugs
Chapter 1 - The Civilization of British Taste
Chapter 2 - Food, Drink and Sensual Pleasure
Chapter 3 - Noble Rot
Chapter 4 - Bars and Boozers
Chapter 5 - For All The Tea In China
Chapter 6 - 'Drink Water and Die'
Chapter 7 - 'The Bane of the Nation'
Conclusion - Wassail!
Read On - Drink: A Social History of America
Read On - Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication
Read On - Other Works


The popularity of alcopops fitted readily into the development of easy-drining, fruity alcoholic mixtures that made alcoholic drinks increasingly popular among young people in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. For all that was written about underage drinkers of alcopops, there is very little evidence that they were deliberately targeted at children. They were marketed at a premium price, which surely would not have done had they been intended for consumers who relied for their income principally on the pocket money they received from their parents. They were packaged in bright colors and promoted with child-like imagery, not in order to appeal to children but in order to reflect the drug-influenced symbols and culture of young people who had already attained legal drinking age. The drinks industry was very concerned in the early 1990s about the popularity of drugs and the rave culture because young people who spent their weekends in a trance had neither the time nor the money to spend on alcoholic drinks. Alcopops, it hoped, offered a means of winning back a lost generation of drinkers.

The fuss over alcopops did create a very good excuse for young people who had been up to no good. Alcopops provided a convenient scapegoat for the problems of juvenile drinking and juvenile crime in just the same way as 'lager loutism' had done in the 1980s. Alcohol does not cause crime, but it suits criminals to attribute their behaviour to alcohol as it excuses them from taking responsibility for their own behaviour. And it suits campaigners to blame alcohol for juvenile drinking and juvenile crime, not only because it provides a quick and easy answer to a complex question but also because it appears to absolve parents, teachers and society at large from responsibility for the misbehaviour of the next generation.

The vast majority of serious alcohol-related accidents involve drivers with a level of blood-alcohol at least two or three time the limit. The lesson to be learnt is not that the limit should be reduced but that current drink-driving laws should be better enforced. If the maximum blood-alcohol level is reduced, enforcement of the law will likely become worse, as the police will be compelled to spread their time more thinly.
If the Government really wants to reduce the number of deaths and injuries on the roads, it should devote some of the money it spends fulminating about drink-driving to warning people about other causes of serious accidents. People who are bombarded with messages that they should not drink and drive are less likely to drive responsibly when they are sober. How many people drive while under the influence of narcotic drugs? How many people continue to drive while they are taking a course of prescribed tranquilisers or anti-depressants? How many people drive while they are ill? How many people persist in setting out on a journey when they are so tired that they may well fall asleep at the wheel? Do people stop driving when they know that their reactions have been slowed as a result of old age? The Government ignores these issues partly for fear of popular resistance, which it does not have to confront when it targets alcohol, and partly because intoxication can be readily measured by means of a breathalyser, unlike illness or tiredness or narcotisation.

None of this is intended to decry the damage that has been caused by drunken drivers. Nevertheless, the excessive emphasis of alcoholic drinks as a cause of death on the roads does indicate a tendency to blame alcohol for much more complex social problems, of which alcohol is a symptom rather than a cause. This tendency tells us a great deal not only about attitudes to alcohol but also about our attitudes towards society.


For ten thousand years, ever since human beings settled down to the cultivation of cereals and vines, alcohol has played a fundamental role in society. It has been served as an object of religious ritual, a focus of secular ceremonies and a lubricant of social intercourse; it has been employed as an aid in the digestion of food, as a means of slaking thirst without risk of contracting disease and a source of nutrition in its own right; it has been used in the treatment of wounds and disease and as both a stimulant and a sedative - as well as being valued for its taste.

In the first half of the 17th century most northern European countries had adopted laws forbidding trading in tobacco, or smoking it, or both; in most cases the penalties were relatively small fines, but Russia tried more severe measures, prescribing at various times whippings, slit noses, torture, deportation to Siberia, and death. These measures did not work. Instead, the English experience was repeated: prohibition of tobacco did not work, so why not legalize it and tax it instead? By the end of the 17th century, tobacco was legal throughout Europe.

There is little evidence of the consumption of spirits for recreational purposes before the 17th century, when gin became increasingly popular in England, the Netherlands and Germany, brandy in France, vodka in Russia, and whisky in Scotland and Ireland. They were not necessarily drunk neat however. In England gin was often combined with beer, to make a drink then known as 'purl'.

Authoritarian governments were afraid of their subjects when they drank coffee... in France, the coffee houses continued to pose a threat to the government in the 18th century, and it was from the coffee houses of the Palais-Royal that the French Revolution was initiated... Authoritarian governments have had good reason to be more afraid of the people when they think than when they drink.

The idea that coffee sobers up people who are drunk prevails today. If it has this effect, it is for psychological not pharmacological reasons.

The experience of Prohibition (in America) also demonstrated the fact that Westerners have in general preferred to take alcohol rather than narcotic drugs for recreational purposes. Since this was a period when the trade in alcoholic drinks was no less illicit than the trade in narcotic drugs, there was no reason for responsible citizens to prefer drink to drugs on grounds of legality. There is in fact no evidence that narcotic drug use did increase during the 1920s. The recreational use of opium and cocaine had been banned only a few years before, in 1914.

The terminology can be confusing. The plant is hemp, its Latin name cannibis. The other three terms that one encounters are simply those used in different continents: ganja in India, hashish in the Middle East and marijuana in America.

The ability of a society to mould a drug in its own image, and to obtain from it the effect it chooses, is demonstrated not only by the history of tobacco but also by more recent experiments with placebos which show that people's reaction to a drug is principally determined by their expectations of how it will affect them.

Psychologists at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s found that both alcoholics and social drinkers drank more when they thought they were drinking alcohol than when they thought they were drinking tonic water, regardless of what they were actually drinking... it was found that physical symptoms of alcoholism were alleviated among those people who thought they were drinking alcohol but not among those people who thought they were drinking tonic water - whatever they were actually drinking.

Similar studies found that men become less anxious and women more anxious when they thought they had been drinking alcohol, that men men become more aggressive when they thought they had been drinking alcohol, and that both men and women said they felt more sexually aroused when they thought they had been drinking alcohol. Again, it made no difference whether they were actually drinking alcohol or not. What mattered was perception, not reality.
The fact that men tend to become more aggressive when they think they have been drinking alcohol gives the lie to those people who would seek to put the blame on alcohol for various acts of violence, ranging from wife-beating to 'lager loutism'.

The suggestion that young men become violent as a result of drinking too much lager is certainly one that the young men themselves would prefer to believe. But might they not have drunk the lager because they intended to become violent? The Oxford Polytechnic psychologist Dr Peter Marsh has studied the matter in some detail. He is not convinced that there is a direct connection between alcohol and violence. "More often than not," he has suggested, "being drunk is simply an excuse for violence and belligerence. We expect people who get drunk to get aggressive, so that's what they do."

Alcoholic drinks do not cause people to loosen their inhibitions, they encourage people to loosen their inhibitions.


The 18th and early 19th centuries, when the upper classes drank themselves stupid on port and the working classes consumed excessive amounts of porter, may well mark the highpoint of alcohol consumption in Britain - although there are no statistics to indicate whether this might indeed be the case. What they do mark, however, is the point at which the popular forms of alcoholic drink were at their strongest and fullest-flavoured. Since that time, there has been a gradual transformation in the nature of the principal types of wine and beer drunk in Britain in the opposite direction: a general trend to lighter drinks, in terms of colour, taste and alcohol content. In the case of wine. the preference of the majority of consumers has been transferred from alcoholic, dark port in the 18th century to less alcoholic but dark claret in the later part of the 19th and early 20th century and then to light-coloured white wines in the later part of the 20th century; in the case of beer, consumers have converted from drinking alcoholic, dark porter in the 18th century to less alcoholic, lighter-coloured bitter in the 19th and early 20th centuries and even less alcoholic, even lighter-coloured lager in the late 20th century.

Not only has the development of artificial refrigeration encouraged the consumption of larger quantities of the sorts of drinks that are best drunk cold, but it has made these same drinks easier and cheaper for their manufacturers to produce. Indeed, improvements in the means of cooling beer and wine during the fermentation go a long way to explain the transformation that has taken place in popular taste from porter to bitter to lager and from port to claret to white wine.

During the 1970s British lager-brewers succeeded by means of advertising in implanting the idea into the minds of beer drinkers that, if they wanted their beer to be refreshing, they should choose lager. During the hot summers of 1975 and 1976 lager increased its share of the beer market by nearly 50%. Advertisements also played a major role in ensuring that lager became not merely acceptable to young men but the drink with which they most wanted to identify, by portraying lager as the laddish thing to drink... the association of draught lager with loutism led many of the people who had taken up drinking lager in the 1970s or early 1980s to turn back the clock and start drinking expensive bottled lagers with lime in them. The only difference was that the lime was now a fresh one and was wedged in the neck of the bottle rather than poured into the beer.

It was said in the second quarter of the 19th century that a man could land at Ostend and visit Brussels, Antwerp and Liege without seeing as many drunken men on the way as he could see in London in half and hour. Protestant missions in France were discredited by the drunken English navvies who helped build French railways in the 1840s, and by reports of English habits brought back by French visitors.
Evidently the reputation that has recently been created by English football hooligans and 'lager louts' is not a new one.

Resistance to attempts to market Coca-Cola after the Second World War was even greater on the Continent (than in Britain). In France, the Communist Party pressed for a Bill to ban Coca-Cola as a posion, and the newspaper 'Le Monde' compared its advertisments to Nazi propaganda. In Italy the rumour was put about the Coca-Cola turned the hair white and caused the disease called cocacolitis.

Tea's eventual victory over coffee in Britain came in the 18th century: in the late 17th century it was coffee that was the more popular of the two.


"Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis." (Times change, and us with them)

In the course of two centuries, social and economic changes have led to the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of the practice of drinking wine with food. Heavy drinking after dinner in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was replaced by drinking with dinner in the second half of the 19th century, by drinking before dinner in the first half of the 20th century and by drinking with dinner again in recent times.

Later in the 19th century, the abandonment by gentlemen of the practice of sitting around over the port after dinner was ensured by the growing popularity of smoking, and especially of cigarettes. In the first half of the century, when gentlemen had smoked, they had smoked only cigars and never in the presence of ladies or in the streets. Men put on smoking caps and jackets in order to prevent their hair and dress-coats from being tainted by the smell of smoke, which would have been considered ungentlemanly.
Attitudes to smoking began to change in the latter part of the century, when it became fashionable to take tobacco in the less pungent form of cigarettes - a habit that supposedly was introduced into Britain by officers returning from the Crimean War, where they had learnt it from their French counterparts.

Up until the late 19th century, meals had followed the same format as they had in Roman times, and as they do in China (and in Chinese restaurants in Europe) today. Two or three courses were served, each of them comprising a number of different dishes, all of which were laid on the table at the same time. This system, which was known as 'service a la francaise', was replaced between the 1850s and 1870s by the system that still prevails in restaurants today, when was then known was the 'service a la russe'. A major explanation for the change was precisely the fact that, because the dishes no longer had to stand on the table waiting for people to help themselves, dinners were over much more quickly; this was very much in tune with the new age of speed and progress.

The food that was consumed in classical Rome has been compared to some of the oriental cuisines of today, partly because some of the ingredients and dishes are similar, and partly because the seasoning was more important than the primary flavour... consciously or unconsciously, the food and drink that people consumed in Britain and much of the rest of Western Europe in the Middle Ages resembled what had been eaten and drunk in Roman times.

If Victorian tastes in combining food and wine differed from modern ones, it was largely because their food and wine tasted different, even when they bore the same names as the food and wine that are consumed today. Although champagne, for instance, was drunk with food, it was not simply because the aperitif did not exist then. The dry champagne that was imported into Britain in the second half of the 19th century tasted different to from the champagne that is imported today... it was a fuller-bodied wine.

Since it is the presence of acidity in wine, and its absence from beer, that is the principal explanation for the modern preference for drinking wine rather than beer with food, it is likely that Victorian beers would have been much better suited to drinking with cheese than modern ones.

Food has changed, and so have people's attitudes to it. In the 19th century, to be fat was a mark of prosperity, a sign that ibe would could afford proper nourishment... thinness has come to be esteemed because it shows a self-restraint, an ability to rise above the common gratifications of the table; it shows that one can afford to consume expensive, delicate food rather than relying on a simple calorific diet based on starch and fat.

The British also continue to shy away from the expression of open sensual pleasure to in drink. It may appear to be contradictory that a nation whose inhabitants take care to avoid public indulgence in sensual pleasure has been able to acquire the international reputation of being the home of wine connoisseurship. But what the British have done is to treat wine as an intellectual rather than a sensual pleasure: as something to be analysed rather than something to be enjoyed... clarets can be understood in terms of their structure, balance, weight and length.


"We don't sell wine, we sell luxury. We sell the image of the cobbled streets of Beaune."
        - Robert Drouhin, Burgundian merchant

The French have come increasingly to rely on their cultural heritage to sell their wines as a result of comparitive tastings in which clarets (red Bordeaux) and burgundies have been outperformed by wines from California and Oregon.


In the early hours of Saturday 12 October 1991 groups of youths went in the town of Caceres in western Spain went on the rampage. Wearing balaclava helmets and armed with rocks and stones, they smashed a number of shop fronts and attacked three banks before breaking into the offices of central government and setting fire to the main hall... it had been in response to one of the governor's edicts, introducing closing hours in the city for the first time, that the riot had occured. Having been brought up to regard it as their inalienable right to drink till dawn, the youths were protesting at the requirement that bars now close at 3 am.
No such event could possibly occur in Britain. Far from considering it their right to go out for a drink whenever they want to, Britons have been taught to accept that they cannot drink after about eleven in the evening, and are lucky to be allowed to drink in the afternoons or at any time on Sundays.

From the First World War until the 1960s, pubs in much of Australia - and all of New Zealand = were forced to close for the night at 6pm... it suited the liquor trade rather well. After all, people did not drink any less, but they did drink rather more quickly, so that landlords' overheads were reduced. The social consequences of 6pm closing time were disastrous. The Six O'Clock Swill, the hour of frantic drinking after work, was a disgusting spectacle.

In England and Wales, as in Australia and New Zealand, the licensed trade was perfectly happy with a system that encouraged heavy sales in the period immediately before closing time while at the same time exempting publicans and their staff from the necessity of working late into the night. Once the shorter hours had been introduced during the First World War, it was in the interest of publicans to see that it stayed that way.

Peter Marsh, a lecturer in social psychology at Oxford Polytechnic, suggested that the licensing laws served to increase the likelihood of disorder late at night. The 11pm closing time created a problem, because people had to drink faster, and at closing time they had nowhere to go to discharge their energies and were more likely to fight. He recommended that licensees should be allowed to determine their own closing hours, so that the phenomenon of large numbers of people converging on the streets would be replaced by a more orderly pattern of drifting home. He pointed out that 'free closing' had experimentally been introduced in a number of towns in the Netherlands since 1987, with a resulting decline in street disorder.

Extending the closing time to midnight would not solve the problem of violence at closing time but simply shift it by one hour.

The reason why the rules of social intercourse in pubs require a drink to be - or appear to be - alcoholic in the drinking customs of pre-industrial artisan society. Labouring men drank together in order to affirm that they belonged to a group. It was through drink that the loyalty of an apprentice to the group he had joined was ensured.
With the coming of capitalism, the workplace lost its social function. Its purpose now lay solely in maximizing production. The social values of the workplace, and the drinking customs that had affirmed them, were transferred to the pub. The pub afforded a retreat for the working classes from the interference of their social and economic superiors... their old ways could continue. For the last century and a half, the drinking customs of the pub, and especially the buying, giving and receiving of rounds of drinks, have preserved the values of pre-industrial male artisan culture.
Not only does the history of the practice of round-buying explain why people drink alcohol in pubs, but it also helps to account for their drinking more of it than they might otherwise have wanted.

The most important developments in the nature of the pub during the course of the 20th century have begun to occur at the end of it. The public house is in the process of being transformed from a place that men go to on their own in order to drink into a place that welcomes women and children, into a venue to which families go together, often in order to eat. For the greater part of the 20th century, not only have pubs generally alienated women and excluded children, but they have offered drink without any food to absorb it... pubs began to serve food largely because of the growth of competition from, and the experience of, wine bars.

It may well have appeared reasonable, at the beginning of the 20th century, that children should have been protected from the worst excesses of pub life in this way. By the later part of the century, however, the law excluding children from bars was proving socially detrimental. It served to marginalize drinking from normal society; it prevented children, while still under parental control, from gradually becoming used to seeing people drink alcohol, and it made pubs seem more desirable and dangerous to children than they really were.


Despite its present-day identity as a quintessentially British drink, tea was in fact introduced into Europe by the Dutch, was first popularized in Holland. The Dutch East India Company had begun importing tea from Japan as early as 1610... in England, tea did not fall significantly in price until the second decade of the 18th century; it was at this point that it became popular among the middle and lower classes.

The poor quality of most of the coffee that was brewed in England in the 19th century was certainly one of the factors that contributed to the triumph of tea, but equally it was one of its consequences. Andrew Kirwin, writing in the 1860s, explained that English servants 'are insensible to the true flavour of coffee, and as they do not themselves partake of the beverage, become indifferent to its preparation'.

In a strange cafe or unknown restaurant, or when visiting a private house for the first time, it remains a much safer policy to ask for tea rather than coffee.

Thanks to the economic dependence of the East India Company on the tea trade with China up to 1833, and the desire of both the Company and the Government to encourage the development of the Indian tea trade after that date, the incipient taste for coffee was aborted.
Trading interests not only explain why Britain became a tea rather than coffee-drinking nation but they also explain why it did not, until very recently, become a significant wine-drinking one.

"British Government policy toward excise duties on alcohol can be expected to collapse before long from its own weight and internal contradictions."
        - Dr Barry Bracewell Miles, Adam Smith Institute associate

If the British Government learned anything from the experience of the gin age, it was how to make use of the vices of the population. By the 19th century it was regularly deriving between 30% and 40% of its total tax revenues from customs and excise duties on the import, manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks.
It was not until the First World War that the importance to the Government of the revenue derived from taxes on alcoholic drinks began to decline... alternative forms of raising revenue were exploited, notably income tax.
The conversion of the Government from relying on indirect taxes, principally on alcoholic drinks, to depending on direct taxes, exerted a profound effect on society as a whole. The changes that were effected during the First World War turned the individual into a citizen, upon whose labours the well-being of the state depended. It was now more important for the Government that its subjects should be healthy and hard-working than that they should swell its coffers by the unhealthy consumption of large quanitites of alcholic drink. The new dependence of the state on income tax did not mean, however, that it was no longer concerned to raise revenues from taxation on alcoholic drinks.

If cider has long since fallen into decline, and its manufacturers have long since abandoned their aspirations to produce the 'wine of England', it is largely because cider was given to agricultural labourers as part of their wages and came in time to be identified with them. In order to encourage the consumption of this domestically-produced agricultural product, cider was generally exempt from excise duty of any kind; instead of increasing its popularity, this only served to lower its image still further as the favourite drink of those segments of society who were too poor to afford any other form of alcohol. This image survives today.

At the third attempt, it seems that Australian wines have established a permanent place on the tables of the British public, and this time the increase in sales owes absolutely nothing to any kind of help from the Government. It must be accounted one of the ironies of vinous history that the greatest period of popularity in Britain for the wines of a colony or former colony should have occured at a time when, far from benefitting from a preferential rate of duty, they are in fact discriminated against in favour of wines coming from Britain's former trading rivals on the Continent of Europe.


For thousands of years, wine has been used as a medicine. In the Old Testament it is described as being mixed with oil and balsam in order to serve as an antiseptic and wound dressing, and prescribed as a treatment for disease. The Talmud describes wine as 'the foremost of all medicines; wherever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary'. And the Apostle Paul expressed the contemporary medical view of wine when he advised Timothy to 'Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities'... Islamic law has long been interpreted to permit the use of wine as medicine, on the grounds that necessity makes it lawful.

Not only was wine used as a medicine as well as a beverage, but spirits were regarded as medicines long before anyone thought of drinking them for pleasure. Given the limitations of medieval medical knowledge, it is easy enough to understand why doctors in this period should have regarded spirits as being of medicinal value. It was demonstrated by practical observation that they gave the people who drank them a feeling of warmth.

The principal reason for the disappearance of alcohol from medical practice at the end of the 19th century, however, was that new methods took its place. For example, for hundreds of years the only antiseptic successful in preventing infection without injury to tissue had been alcohol, applied directly to wounds. By 1900, new medicines were appearing, such as aspirin, vitamins, hormones, antibiotics and tranquilizers.

The fact that beer was considered to play a fundamental part in people's diets placed a major obstacle in the way of teetotal compaigners in the second quarter of the 19th century. Earky teetotallers, like pioneer vegetarians, were thought to be throwing away their lives as surely as motor-cycle despatch riders or promiscuous make homosexuals today. When, in 1840, Robert Warner, a young Quaker, applied to a London life insurance company to take out a policy on his life, he was told that as a total abstainer he would have to pay an additional premium.

If, before the late 19th century, people who were simply in search of liquid refreshment were forced to choose between hot drinks such as tea and coffee and alcoholic drinks such as beer, it was because they did not consider plain, unboiled water to be a healthy option. Tea and coffee shared the advantage that the drinker did not need to fear that the warer they contained might be contaminated, because it had been sterlized by boiling. In the manufacture of beer too, the wort, or water, was boiled before fermentation; and, after the yeats had done its work, the finished beer was sufficiently high in acidity to prevent the growth of any harmful bacteria.

It was not in fact necessary to boil the water before adding it to the wine. The fact that water could be made safe to drink by adding wine to it was known to the Roman armies that conquered much of Europe in the first century AD; indeed, this knowledge was central to the organization of their campaigns... although the bactericidal power of red wine depended largely upon the process that made it alcoholic, it remained largely independent of its alcohol content. Alcohol did kill bacteria, but only in much higher concentrations; despite their much greater alcoholic strength, spirits were not necessarily as effective as red wine.

Not only was Perrier, the world's most popular brand of mineral water, shown to contain a carcinogen, but it was revealed that the water had to be filtered in order that this substance should be removed. It might have seemed that this would damage the popular belief in the naturalness of natural mineral water - but it did not. Perrier may not have regained the dominance of the natural mineral water market that it held before the benzene scare, but sales of other waters continued to increase enormously.

The average cost of the mineral water that is purchases in shops in Britain is now 43p a pint. It seems absurd today that so many people are prepared to pay more for a bottle of water - much of it imported from the Continent of Europe - than for a bottle of domestically-produced milk.

Like the changes in attitudes to milk, the secular changes in medical attitudes to tea have been cyclical in nature. As has been suggested by Denys Forrest, a specialist writer and authority on the history of tea, they have in fact followed a standard cycle for new foodstuffs: first they are promoted, when still little known, as a panacea; then they are denounced, when showing signs of popularity, as a health menace; only then can they be promoted, when universally accepted, on various hygenic and dietary grounds. He points out that the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia are still in the first phase and drink tea as a prophylactic against influenza, while Mexicans are at the second stage and consider it ruinous to the nerves.

By the beginning of the 1990s the evidence in favour of the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption had become irresistable. It was now much stronger and better attested than, for example, the evidence that linked the consumption of increased amounts of cholesterol with an increased risk of contracting heart disease. For researchers to deny the existence of a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of heart disease on the grounds that the correlation was merely statistical rather than causal was beginning to appear as perverse as the continued insistence of the tobacco industry that the link between smoking and lung cancer was also simply a statistical coincidence.

It may well be that all forms of wine are equally beneficial because the benefits of wine should principally be explained by social factors. It may be that wine is more salutary than other forms of alcohol principally because it is usually consumed regularly and slowly during meals, rather than irregularly and at uncertain speed on its own.

If doctors have generally rejected the medical benefits of wine and other forms of alcohol during the 20th century, it is because they have been obsessed with what can be analysed scientifically: they have wanted to retain, and enhance the mystique and inaccessibility of their profession. They have been hostile to alcohol because the harm that it causes has been so much easier to analyse than its benefits.


"It is an error to view a tax on [wine] as merely a tax on the rich. It is a prohibition of its use to the middling class of our citizens, and a condemnation of them to the poison of whisky, which is desolating their houses. No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitues ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey."
        - Thomas Jefferson (1818)

The fact that moderate alcohol consumption is (and was) positively beneficial does not mean that excessive alcohol consumption has not been positively harmful. The disease, degradation and death that was caused by the excessive consumption of gin in London in the first half of the 18th century has already been described in detail.

It was believed by those who promoted it that national Prohibition (in America) would be more effective... by turning the whole country dry, traffic across state borders would be prevented. This hope was not fulfilled. It was certainly not in the interests of the Canadian government to discourage smuggling across the border into the United States, since it made a great deal of money by taxing the liquor first... the revenues derived by the Canadian government from liquor taxes increased fourfold during thr period, while the consumption of spirits by the Canadian population virtually halved. It may safely be assumed that the discrepancy in the figures is to be explained by the transfer of most of the drink across the border.

Most of the alcoholic drink that was consumed during Prohibition, however, was in the form of spirits that had been illegally produced within the borders of the United States itself... Prohibition did not prevent people from drinking if they wanted to and could afford it. What it did was to cause them to do their drinking illegally.

Prohbition also served to turn people from table wines to spirits. The culture of wine-drinking, which had been growing in America at the turn of the century, was killed off by Prohibition and has barely revived today... this consequence of Prohibition is especially ironical given that the prohibitionist movement had originated in the early 19th century as an anti-spirits temperance movement, whose purpose had been to turn people from spirits to wine.

The extent by which Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption in America was much the same was the reduction achieved by the much less drastic control measures that had been introduced during the First World War in Britain. In this respect, Britain was a far more fortunate country than America, because the sort of licensing system that worked so wel in reducing alcohol consumption and drunkenness in Britain could never have been introduced successfully in the United States. Britain had a tradition of public order and regard for law; in many areas of the United States - which saw a boom in organized crime during Prohibition - this simply did not exist.

There is a problem of terminology because 'Temperance' is generally used only of a marginal group of campaigners who wish to see the use of alcohol abandoned altogether, while the majority of modern campaigners, who simply profess a desire that people should drink less, tend to be described as the 'anti-alcohol' lobby. Evidently these terms are used the wrong way round. In this book, 'temperance' has been used in its original sense of 'moderation'.

Temperance campaigners have also called for tighter restrictions on drinks adverising, on the grounds that this leads people to drink who would not otherwise do so. Again, this is disputable. For forty years after the introduction of commercial television in Britain in 1955, advertisements for spirits were absent from the screen... their absence from television screens did not harm spirits producers. In forty years spirit consumption trebled whereas beer consumption increased by only one quarter as much.
If the principal purpose behind the advertising of alcholic drinks were to persuade people to drink alcohol who would not otherwise do so, then the alcoholic drinks companies would club together in order to advertise their products generically. But they do not. They advertise individual products, because their aim is to persuade people to drink one brand in preference to another.

Statistics for alcohol consumption obtained by market research simply cannot be relied upon. People rarely tell market researchers the truth about their alcohol consumption... it may be that a more accurate method of obtaining statistics of drinking habits is by examing the contents of dustbins ('garbology'). In one survey in 1986 in Tucson, Arizona, 85% of people questioned said they did not drink beer, yet 75% of all dustbins inspected had beer cans in them.

The concept of 'safe limits' (of personal alcohol consumption) cannot medically be justified. Back in 1982 both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British Medical Journal's "ABC of Alcohol" were giving 56 units a week as the safe upper limit for male alcohol consumption. Yet, five years later, this limit was reduced to 21 units a week, without any reasons for the change being given, and without there being any substantive research to back it up.

The principal defect of 'safe limits', however, derives from the theory that inspired it... the Ledermann theory on which they are founded has never been proved, and must be looked upon with considerable skepticism. It is simply not possible to substantiate an argument that says that, in all societies, there is a direct relationship between average alcohol consumption and the level of alcohol-related disease. A priori, it is improbable that such a relationship should exist, since societies differ so greatly in the manner and frequency of their alcohol consumption. There is no reason, for example, why the incidence of alcohol-related disease in Scandinavia, where people tend to drink spirits in binges at weekends, should be related to its occurence in Mediterranean Europe, where most of the consumption of alcohol is of wine with meals.

It would be wrong to regard the fact that alcohol consumption has stopped increasing at the same time as the modern temperance movement has been conducting its campaigns as an achievement for that movement. At best, like the Maine Law of the 1850s, it has simply served to validate a change in social attitudes: it has symbolized the fall in the fashionableness of alcohol. At worst, it has proved a dangerous irrelevance.


One of the biggest problems faced by 19th century anti-alcohol campaigners was the part that was played by alcoholic drink, and especially wine, in the stories of the Bible and the rituals of the Christian Church. The fact that the Bible contained several hundred references to alcohol might have seemed an insuperable obstacle in an age when men took Scripture literally. In fact, various sophistical arguments were developed in an attempt to justify the theory that, where wine was mentioned in the Bible, what was intended was grape juice.

The Aztecs of medieval Mexico drank 'pulque', the fermented juice of the agave cactus. As in the case of wine in ancient Rome, this played such an important part in their religious ceremonies that young people who were found to have consumed so much of it socially as to be intoxicated were put to death. At religious celebrations, on the other hand, drunkenness was not merely permitted, it was obligatory. Worshippers were expected to drink to the point of insensibility, in order to avoid displeasing the gods.

It is not just wine, but drinks of all kind that serve as symbols of human association; indeed, they serve much more effectively as a symbol of sharing than food does. With food, and especially with roast meats, which have been central to ceremonial meals, some people are given better pieces than others... with drink, on the other hand, everyone shares the same liquid. Indeed, in the past everyone drank out of the same vessel. Until the middle of the 16th century there was often only one goblet or glass for the whole table, which was why a man of good breeding would wipe his mouth with a napkin before drinking, and would empty the entire content of the glass in one draught. When people stopped drinking out of the same vessel they started clinking their glasses togther, to show that they were still sharing the same substance.

Wine, and indeed other fermented drinks, have played a fundamental role in the history of the western world. Without them, the civilizations of Europe and the New World could not have evolved in the way that it has.

>> Read Quotes from the American edition of the book.


Intoxication is a universal human theme. There are no recorded instances of fully formed societies anywhere in history that have ever lived without the use of psychoactive substances. In fact, the only one ever known to anthropology is the Inuit, for the very good reason that they were the only culture unable to grow anything. When the first European explorers discovered them, they introduced the Inuit people to alcohol, and a conspicuous biological anomaly in our species was forever erased. Whatever role intoxicants have played, whether it be an integral part of religious ritual or spiritual enlightenment, as a social fixative binding a group of people together, as aids to endurance in periods of stress, or as the preferred means of livening up a Saturday night, they are an inescapable feature of the way we spend a significant of our waking (and even sleeping) hours.

When we hear an old fundamentalist preacher like the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley refer to the alcohol being served in the numerous bars and dining-rooms within the Palace of Westminster as the "devil's buttermilk", we may smile at the gorgeous anachronism of it, as it there were the authentic voice of the last Victorian Salvationist in captivity. But when the Royal College of Physicians publishes a report on drink-related diseases entitled "A Great and Growing Evil", as it did in 1987, we are inclined to accept the stigmatization without demur, scarcely noticing the incongruity of the white-coated doctor donning General Booth's battle cap. Drunkenness must be a sin if its agent, alcohol, is a force for evil.

In Japan, the intensely toxic flesh of the puffer fish, fugu, is prized as a fine seasonal delicacy. So dangerous is it that only tiny morsels may be consumed under extremely controlled circumstances, and fatalities arising from heart failure after consuming an incautiously large amount are by no means unheard of. We may find it unfathomable than anybody should wish to take such a risk, but that is scarcely a reason to prevent them from doing so.

A culture of blame is now sweeping America, in which everybody who trips over a broken paving-stone must have somebody to sue, then it is entirely consistent that those with alcohol difficulties should be able to take the bourbon distillery to the cleaners. One day Homer Simpson will due the Duff brewery for making him fat.

Caffeine is now the most widely used legal drug in the world. The forms in which it is sold range from the jar on instant coffee and the box of teabags, through cans of cola, isotonic sports drinks, bars of chocolate, guarana capsules and linctuses, to tubes of Pro-plus, analgesics, and cold remedies. It is an immensely popular drug because it is a reliable and almost instantly effective stimulant. In patent medicines such as Anadin Extra, its function is to constrict the blood-vessels surrounding the brain, alleviating the throbbing feeling of some headaches, as well as speed the principal pain-killing components (aspirin and paracetamol) into the bloodstream, a relief for which the disastrously hungover will give much thanks on many a bilious Sunday morning.

Not all alcohol encounters, or by any means most of them, are about maximizing its throughput in the ruthless pursuit of intoxiation. For such a potentially hazardous substance, we have found a limitlessly imaginative spectrum of polite ways to take it.
For every deadbeat on the Underground, there is a GP tasting the Chablis in abistro, a PR executive toasting her newly acquired account with champagne, a retired firefighter pouring a G&T at 3:30 in the afternoon, an office boy being treated to a lunchtime pint on his birthday, a Prime Minister unwinding with a Scotch, an evening-class reflectively sipping California Chardonnay, a widow in a bungalow feeling the warmth of a Dubonnet go through her while the last-night news does its best to depress...

"Alcohol and tobacco are two eggs that have been scrambled. You can't unscramble those particular eggs."
        - Nigel Evans, Conservative MP

In legitimately attempting to minimize the harm that ignorant over-indulgence in some intoxicants can cause, world governments in the 20th century landed themselves with the most baleful disaster in legislative history. The drug laws worldwide have created a whole new category of unstoppable crime, the effects of which have been more virulently toxic to social harmony than any pinch of dirt white powder or adulterated pill could ever be.

Generally speaking, the higher the concentration of alcohol in the drink being taken, the more rapidly it will seem to take effect, but some studies have shown that there is an optimum level for absorption at about 30% by volume, which is why anybody who claims to feel tipsier slightly more quickly on a Scotch and soda, compared to the spirit taken neat at 40% is not necessarily fooling himself. Other factors that influence the rate of absorption are the speed at which one drinks, and the contents of the stomach. If food is being taken simultaneously, then the alcohol has to wait in line behind it, whereas if the drinking is happening on an empty stomach, it enjoys a free passage. Sparkling drinks seem to carry alcohol into the bloodstream more rapidly because the carbon dioxide acts to open ip the valve between the stomach and the small intestine.
The liver metabolizes alcohol at the rate of about one of the British Medical Association's units (a half-pint of beer, a glass of wine or a 25ml spirit measure) every hour, and so if the drink is taken at a faster rate that that, as it almost always is, the quantity of alcohol in the system awaiting metabolism backs up, which is what creates the feeling of intoxication.

Alcohol also activates two important neurotransmitters, glutamate and gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA). The latter slows down the firing of neural circuits, one of the results of which is to suppress the memory function. This explains not only why people are apt to forget some piece of information that has been relayed to them while under the influence, but also why some people appear to be affected by the blackout syndrome — not loss of consciousness, but inability to remember whole phases of the previous evening. Sleep patterns are also disrupted, especially in the second phase, so that, although one may sink very readily into deep slumber, repeated awakening from about 4 a.m. onwards is a dully familiar phenomenon to daily drinkers.

Certain drinks, such as the darker spirits, red wines and port, contain higher levels of substances called cogeners, which have a more powerful narcotic effect on the brain cells, and will result in a more purgatorial hangover than that caused by colourless spirits of white wines. Drinking plenty of water to rehydrate the system, swallowing a gram of either aspirin or paracetamol and perhaps coffee or tea to narrow those distended blood vessels with caffeine are the remedies.
These recourses may be rendered unnecessary if precautionary measures are taken before, during or immediately after a drinking spree: lining the stomach with lactic fat by drinking whole milk beforehand, using alcohol as an accompaniment to food, drinking plenty of water before sleeping, and taking a pre-emptive analgesic either before retiring or even before embarking on the first glass.

Intoxication is a Human Right. (Suggested T-shirt slogan)


"If by whiskey, you mean the water of life that cheers men's souls, that smooths out the tensions of the day, that gives gentle perspective to one's view of life, then put my name on the list of the fervent wets. But if by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that rends families, destroys careers and ruins one's ability to work, then count me in the ranks of the dries."
        - Noah S. Sweat, on whether Missouri should prohibit alcoholic beverages (1952)

In the Europe of the 16th century it was not the custom to drink spirits for pleasure. In the Middle Ages distilling wine made from grapes was done only by alchemists for medicinal purposes. Latin was their language and they described the product of the still as 'aqua ardens', burning water, which the Spanish turned into aguar ardiente amd the Portuguese into 'aguardente'. The English chose to call it burnt wine — brand wine or brandywine, and so 'brandy'. Because alchemists claimed that aqua ardens had the power of retaining the drinker's youthfulness and prolonging his life, they also marketed the precious spirit as 'aqua vitae', water of life. The French translated this into 'eau-de-vie', and the Scots into the Celtic 'Wisge Beatha', which became usquebaugh in Irish and whisky in English.
        - Hugh Barty King, "Rum: Yesterday and Today"

The story goes that one hot afternoon in August 1898 a US lieutenant entered what in those days was known as an 'American Bar' in Havana, and ordered a tot of Bacardi rum. He noticed some of his fellow officers at the end of the bar drinking Coca-Cola. He decided to mix his rum with Coke — the first Rum and Coca-Cola, which was christened 'Cuba Libre' in honour of the country's newly won freedom.
        - Hugh Barty King, "Rum: Yesterday and Today"

One of the most powerful arguments for drinking is that there is no misery more profound than being stone-cold sober in the presence of a drunken bore, who thinks that he is the wittiest and most charming fellow on the planet.
        - Tom Utley, "The Telegraph"

Want to curb teenage binge drinking? Don’t worry about the alcohol. Ban mixers. Mixers are the problem. Mixers are the menace. It is not Jack Daniels that is creating the cirrhosis generation. Nobody in his right mind under the age of 40 and not sitting gap-toothed on a stoop in Kentucky would drink neat bourbon. It is Coca-Cola that is the procurer, being the ingredient that makes it taste sweet. Go to any town centre on a Saturday night and the kids are not drinking alcohol. Not real alcohol. Not anything that actually tastes like alcohol. They are lusting after the same tang that has been their friend since pre-nursery school. Sugar. Alcohol lite. That is what kids drink. Problem being, it is not the content that is watered down, but the taste. Rum remains rum, but put blackcurrant in it and it tastes like Ribena. Take the Coke out of whisky and it would play as big a part in teenage existence as steamed broccoli or a nice sports jacket. The most morally bankrupt product on the market is the alcopop. If you are over 18 and your favourite drink is an alcopop, here is the message: you’re a wuss. Not because you don’t really like alcohol, but because you don’t really like alcohol and you haven’t the strength of character to say that to whoever is getting the round in. What price licensing laws when the latest Bacardi Breezer creation is 22 per cent alcohol? Bet it doesn’t taste that way, though. Bet it tastes like the best bubblegum in Willy Wonka’s sweetshop.
Opening times and licensing laws are peripheral to the problem. No mixers to be purchased with alcohol by anyone under the age of 21. You want vodka, you drink it straight. Now we’ll see what becomes of the binge.
        - Martin Samuel, "Get Tough on Lemonade" in "The Times"

The WHO’s International Guide for Monitoring Alcohol Consumption and Related Harm (2000) set out drinking ranges that qualified people as being at low, medium or high-risk of chronic alcohol-related harm. For men, less than 35 weekly units was low-risk, 36-52.5 was medium-risk and above 53 was high-risk. Women were low-risk below 17.5 units, medium between 18 and 35 and high above 36. Seven years earlier, in 1993, a study of 12,000 middle-aged, male doctors led by Sir Richard Doll and a team at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, found that the lowest mortality rates – lower even than teetotallers – were among those drinking between 20 and 30 units of alcohol each week.The level of drinking that produced the same risk of death as that faced by a teetotaller was 63 units a week, or roughly a bottle of wine a day. By 1994, five studies had been published which showed that moderate amounts of alcohol gave some degree of protection against heart disease. A year later, scientists at the Institute for Preventive Medicine in Copenhagen, who studied 13,000 men and women over 12 years, found that drinking more than half a bottle of wine a day – 50 units a week – cut the risk of premature death by half.
So what is the truth? Clarity is not aided by the fact that different countries use different quantities of alcohol to define a unit. In Britain one unit of alcohol is 8 grams of pure ethanol. In Australia and Spain it is 10 grams, in Italy 12, in America 14, and in Japan 19.75. Translate the respective countries’ levels into British units and you find that, for men, Britain’s supposed safe weekly limit of 21 is more than Poland (12.5), but less than Canada (23.75), America (24.5), South Africa and Denmark (31.5) and Australia (35). Some countries say that women should drink less than men, but others, including Canada, the Netherlands and Spain, make no distinction.
        - Andrew Norfolk, on the uncertainty over 'safe' drinking limits, "The Times"

Normal pain, such as an eye disease or toothache, is a lonely and solitary pursuit, but a group hangover is a problem shared and that seems to bring out the best in us. Like the blitz. Like when you’ve just stepped off a terrifying rollercoaster ride. Everyone’s in it together. And a problem shared is a problem pared. Of course, the trouble these days is that the binge drinking that is necessary to produce collective hardship is a complete nono... The point of binge drinking is that you drink and then you stop drinking. And this is the key. The real problem is when you drink – and you keep on drinking. This is known as alcoholism and that, so far as I can tell, is the worst thing in the world. There is nothing quite so pitiable and wretched as an alcoholic... These are the people whom the busybodies should be concentrating on. Not with stern words and dire warnings, neither of which will make the slightest bit of difference, but with help and understanding and patience. Seriously, by telling me that I’m an alcoholic because I binge drink on holiday and share a bottle of wine with my wife over supper every night is the same as persecuting everyone who breaks the speed limit. We need to make a distinction between someone doing 32mph and someone doing 175mph... Leave the normal people who do normal things alone. Forget about the people who drink for fun and worry only about those who drink to live.
        - Jeremy Clarkson, "The Times"

Those who shake their heads at newspaper photographs of alco-popped women unconscious on the streets may consider this: "One startling image from my family's memories of life in the slums… was of women fighting in the street," writes Gilda O'Neill. "The phrase that at first puzzled me when I was told about it was one woman taunting another with a roar of,'Come on, get your blouse off !' It had to be explained to me that the women having the fight might well possess just the one blouse and they would rather strip down and bare their bosoms to their neighbours rather than risk spoiling their garments."
  - from the Telegraph review of "The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London"

If language is to have any meaning at all here, you can't be using a powerful, old-fashioned word like 'binge' in an entirely misleading way, just to suit your agenda. As the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland points out, in some quarters, a binge is defined as five units of alcohol, which is roughly two pints of beer... Interestingly, we don't hear much about the most intelligent definition of all, which comes from a source of the highest standing, the British Medical Association. According to the BMA, there is no consensus on the definition of binge-drinking. The definition of a binge, according to the BMA, is that there is no definition.
        - Declan Lynch, "The Irish Independent"

Our accuracy at guessing someone's age depends on other factors, too. Some research suggests that clerks tend to underestimate the ages of people under 21 and overestimate for people older, while other studies find the opposite. We do best when we're attempting to peg the age of someone who is close to us in age and comes from the same racial background. And we're especially prone to overestimating the ages of teenage girls. In the British study, bartenders were shown pictures of people aged 13 through 22 and asked to guess their ages. They judged about one of every five 13-year-old girls to be over 18, while they correctly identified the 13-year-old boys 97 percent of the time.
        - Torie Bosch, "Slate Magazine"

It is perfectly true that one of the tricks the experienced drinker learns is to take a mild painkiller, such as paracetamol, when they come back from drinking, and before the headaches develop. The standard prophylactic remedy to prevent hangovers is to drink at least three tumblers of water, to take an antacid, and to take a painkiller before going to bed. Before going drinking, she needs to take some food.
The effects of drinking are greatly lessened if you have had something to eat before going out on the town, and are even less if you eat while you are drinking. A careful choice of food will also minimise the amount of inflammation experienced by your stomach wall. This is the purpose of the half pint of milk before drinking, or the seductive squares of cheese laid out on the bar. When going to a formal reception it is always as well to aim for the smoked salmon, cheese or grilled oysters on their biscuits, as these have the same effect as the milk. The hormone released by fat in the stomach is particularly efficient at reducing the rate of absorption of the alcohol.
The headache the next day can be helped by taking a mild analgesic, such as paracetamol, and by boosting the blood sugar. The traditional English breakfast is always recommended, but few can face it after a heavy night. What they can probably manage is some cereal and, above all, a little bit of porridge with some sugar and milk. This will calm the stomach and ease all the symptoms of hypoglycaemia — the irritability, headaches, shakes, sweating and general malaise.
        - Dr Thomas Stuttaford, on how to avoid a hangover, "The Times"

Q: I read last week that the size of drinking glasses has increased in recent years, thus leading unsuspecting drinkers to be over the limit - and also to people generally drinking more than they realise. How I can be sure to keep to a couple of moderate size glasses when I am either in a pub or restaurant, or especially, when visiting friends? Dylan Brand, Hertford.
A: Yes, the standard pub glass used to be 125ml (or cc). Now they are usually 175. Many pubs and restaurants will serve more than this and charge you accordingly. The glasses that the average host serves wine at his or her dinner table is usually larger than the standard 175 glass and may hold as much as the old fashioned goblet, perhaps three times as much. When I am drinking I try to estimate how many of the contents of the old fashioned 125 glasses, known in my household as garage glasses because they are the ones that used to be given away when buying petrol, would fit into the smarter larger glass in which wine is served by friends and some restaurants.
Drinkers also have to be aware that wine is now much stronger than it was. It is now rare to be given ultra low strength German white wines that were quite commonly served twenty years ago. Everybody should assume that a 125 glass of wine is of about 12.5 per cent alcohol strength, a few will have a higher alcohol content and one or two rather lower. The 125 glass of this strength wine is around 1.5 units, not one unit as they were twenty five years ago. The usual home measure is at least two units if not three units. There are twelve units of the standard strength wine (around twelve per cent) in a litre bottle, for those who measure their drinking by the half bottle rather than the glass.
Remember that the tot of spirits served in a pub is nothing like the measure that your friendly neighbour will give you. It is the pub tot that is one unit, not your neighbour's whisky. A home or friend's whisky is usually at least three units. Beers and lagers have tended to get much stronger over the years. The average beers used to be around 3.5 per cent, Foster's lager provided one unit, Carlsberg lager two units. Strong beers are around five per cent, the super special beers are almost three times as strong as the ordinary beers and lagers, look on the bottle to find out how strong the beer is.
        - from Dr. Thomas Stuttaford's Health column for "The Times"


Alcoholic: anybody who drinks more than I do.
        - WC Fields

Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
        - Ernest Hemmingway

She's acting single, I'm drinking doubles. I hide my pain, I drown my troubles.
        - Gary Stewart

"I was drunk" is a better excuse than "I was stupid."
        - PJ O'Rourke, with an excuse for drinking

Supposedly, being a researcher stationed in Antarctica is "like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but with more geopolitical significance and fewer axe murders". All that’s left to do is drink yourself silly.
        - Mark Hemingway

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