An Alcohol Timeline
No one knows the exact moment, year, century or even period when alcohol was first discovered. It's believed that alcohol has been around since at least 10,000 BCE because archaeologists unearthed Stone Age beer mugs from the Neolithic period.
Long before the dawn of the Common Era, ancient civilizations around the world brewed and distilled alcohol using whatever ingredients were available to them. The Chinese made wine as early as 7000 BCE, and rice-based sake spread through Japan around 200 BCE. The Babylonians recorded their recipes for beer on 92 stone tablets in 4300 BCE, and rice and barley beer were brewed in India by 800 BCE.
Archaeological evidence suggests that alcohol was an important part of ancient life. People depended on it for commerce and celebrated deities like Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
Ancient people also recognized problems associated with alcohol consumption. Alcohol had its first brush with the law in 50 BCE when King Burebista of Thrace became the first to ban alcohol. Religions from Christianity to Hinduism to Buddhism encouraged drinking in moderation, and Islam forbade it altogether.
Water into Wine
Alcohol became a common drink, but apparently it wasn't as plentiful as one happy wedding couple in Cana would have hoped. They ran out of wine for their guests, and Jesus of Nazareth performed a miraculous transformation of water into wine.
The fall of the Roman Empire brought changes to all of Europe. Infrastructure crumbled, but trade still allowed new techniques and products to circulate. Around 900 CE, Viking ships disguised as barcos rabelos—wine merchants' vessels—entered the Douro River in Portugal. Monasteries became the keepers of alcohol; they had the resources to uphold the labor-intensive process of making it. French monks, forced inland by Viking raids, cultivated Chardonnay grapes and made Chablis wine circa 800 CE.
Persian and Arab alchemists pioneered the conventional process of distillation in the Middle Ages, and the new types of alcohol it produced were used for medicinal purposes at first.
During the Black Plague epidemic in the fourteenth century, some people believed that drinks made from juniper berries (gin) could save them. Others believed consuming alcohol in moderation was the key to warding off the plague.
In the 1400s, so many alchemists were distilling alcohol that England's King Henry IV ruled only the monasteries could continue the practice. Meanwhile, German brewers perfected the lager method, and the first export of Russian vodka was recorded in the sixteenth century.
Alcohol in the New World
Alcohol played a large role in travel and exploration. In the New World, Columbus found Native Americans making beer from corn and black birch sap. Ferdinand Magellan, captain of the first ship to sail around the world, spent more money on sherry than weapons when stocking his ship for a voyage to the New World. Sir Walter Raleigh brewed the first beer in Virginia and then sent a request for better beer back to England. Colonists made wine from strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and elderberries. They also planted non-native apple trees, which yielded cider.
The Aztecs used the blue agave plant to make alcoholic beverages long before the Spanish discovered the plant and created tequila. The first tequila distilleries opened in Mexico in the seventeenth century.
The brands we know today began to appear on the scene in the eighteenth century. In 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease for a brewery in Dublin. The Guinness Storehouse welcomes tourists, and a tour of the Storehouse culminates with a complimentary pint of Guinness in the Gravity Bar, which provides a 360-degree view of Dublin. Richard Hennessey founded Hennessey Cognac in 1765, and across the Atlantic, the Reverend Elijah Craig created a new whiskey formula of corn, rye, and barley malt, and established the Jim Beam distillery in 1789.