Alcohol: A History

Alcohol: A History

Alcohol: A History

Alcohol: A History


Whether as wine, beer, or spirits, alcohol has had a constant and often controversial role in social life. In his innovative book on the attitudes toward and consumption of alcohol, Rod Phillips surveys a 9,000-year cultural and economic history, uncovering the tensions between alcoholic drinks as healthy staples of daily diets and as objects of social, political, and religious anxiety. In the urban centers of Europe and America, where it was seen as healthier than untreated water, alcohol gained a foothold as the drink of choice, but it has been more regulated by governmental and religious authorities more than any other commodity. As a potential source of social disruption, alcohol created volatile boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable consumption and broke through barriers of class, race, and gender.

Phillips follows the ever-changing cultural meanings of these potent potables and makes the surprising argument that some societies have entered "post-alcohol" phases. His is the first book to examine and explain the meanings and effects of alcohol in such depth, from global and long-term perspectives.


Ever since humans began to consume alcohol, they have had a difficult relationship with it. Alcohol is a colorless liquid that has, in itself, no material, cultural, or moral value. But like many other commodities, it has been ascribed complicated and often contradictory sets of values that have varied over time and place, and that are interwoven with the complexities of power, gender, class, ethnicity, and age in the societies in which it is consumed.

All these values derive fundamentally from the action of alcohol on the human nervous system. Readers who have consumed alcohol will recognize one or more of the stages of intoxication that begin with the first sip of alcohol, whether it is beer, whiskey, wine, a cocktail, or a beverage made from the myriad commodities used to produce alcohol. A small volume of alcohol generally gives the drinker a sense of well-being, and further drinking can lead, in turn, to feelings of euphoria, relaxation of social inhibitions, loss of balance and coordination, slurred speech, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. Severe cases of alcoholic poisoning can be fatal.

Needless to say, not all consumers of alcohol drink so much that that they experience anything more than a pleasant and uplifting sense of well-being. Not only did that sense became highly valued and much sought-after, but the state of euphoric otherworldliness that came with further drinking has been, in some cultures, thought of as spiritual and as bringing the consumer closer to the gods. In other cultures, the potential of alcohol to harm its consumer produced dire warnings about excessive consumption and various punishments for becoming perceptibly intoxicated.

The result was a polarity of views toward alcohol. On one hand, alcoholic beverages have been widely employed as a social lubricant and adhesive in daily interactions, as varied as Russian workers drinking in their factories in the nineteenth century to women gathering at an all-female dramshop in London to drink gin in the early 1700s. Alcohol has historically played a role at marriages and funerals, and it has commonly marked . . .

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