Cheap gin meets dire straits! The Liquid Vampire runs rampant in the 18th c.

William Hogarth, Beer Street, 1751.
William Hogarth, Beer Street, 1751.

European countries expanded their activities establishing colonies around the world during this period. In addition, there were important scientific discoveries, political revolutions, and social developments.

Medicinal purposes only, my little chickadee.

The popularity of alcohol as medicine was very high throughout the century in Europe. Alcoholic beverages played a major role in European diets, especially in providing much needed calories.

In the early part of the century, English Parliament actively promoted gin production to utilize surplus grain and to raise revenue. Encouraged by public policy, very cheap spirits flooded the market at a time when there was little stigma attached to drunkenness and when the growing urban poor in London sought relief from the new found insecurities and harsh realities of urban life.

Cheap gin meets dire straits.

Gin was the first modern drug, the original urban drug.

Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751
Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751

For 31 years, from 1720 to 1751, cheap gin reigned supreme in the slums and alleys of London, which at the time, was the largest city of Europe. It was home to a vast population of impoverished ad unruly immigrants; their behavior, a source of constant worry to the people who governed them and employed them. This was nothing new, but with the introduction of cheap gin the late 17th-ealt 18th centuries, their behavior took a decided turn for the worse.

Thus developed the so-called Gin Craze. Cheap. potent, and readily available, it met the needs of the urban population, numbing countless thousands tot he fatigue, hunger, and cold that were the lot of London’s working poor. In 1685, consumption of gin had been slightly over one-half million gallons. By 1714, gin production stood at two million gallons, double that of 1696. In 1727, official (declared and taxed) production reached five million gallons; six years later the London area alone produced eleven million gallons of gin.

At the heart of the debate over gin, and all those deviant indulgences and frightening activities that followed, was a debate over the nature of cities and the different types who inhabited them. 18th c., London started to look, and act, very much like a modern city. This shocked and frightened a good many people.The sheer density of the population, the public debauchery on the streets due to a lack of privacy, the constant influx of new workers from elsewhere, lent to the scene the look of an epidemic.

The negative effects of this so-called gin epidemic may have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, Parliament passed legislation in 1736 to discourage consumption by prohibiting the sale of gin in quantities of less than two gallons and raising the tax on it dramatically. However, the peak in consumption was reached seven years later, when the nation of six and one-half million people drank over 18 million gallons of gin. And most was consumed by the small minority of the population then living in London and other cities; people in the countryside largely remained loyal to beer, ale and cider. After its dramatic peak, gin consumption rapidly declined. From 18 million gallons in 1743, it dropped to just over seven million gallons in 1751 and to less than two million by 1758, and generally declined to the end of the century.

In the 1720s, the profits of vintners in France increased as the demand grew for both inferior and good wines. This increased rural prosperity enabled peasants for the first time to drink alcohol daily in viticultural areas.

Houston, We have a problem!

A number of factors appear to have converged to discourage consumption of gin. These include the production of higher quality beer of lower price, rising corn prices and taxes which eroded the price advantage of gin, a temporary ban on distilling, a stigmatization of drinking gin, an increasing criticism of drunkenness, a newer standard of behavior that criticized coarseness and excess, increased tea and coffee consumption, an increase in piety and increasing industrialization with a consequent emphasis on sobriety and labor efficiency.

In an attempt to to control drunkenness, English Parliament passed the Gin Control Act of 1729, which raised taxes on alcoholic beverage retailers; and when that wasn’t enough, they passed a harsh new Gin Act in 1736, which attempted to increase the taxes on gin so high that that it would virtually prohibit its purchase by poor people.


By mid-century, English sailors were given the option to take their daily ration of alcohol as a pint of wine or a half-pint of rum, instead of the traditional gallon of beer (1731); production of gin in Holland increased 400% between 1733 and 1792; English Parliament repealed the ineffective Act of 1729 because it had failed to stop what was seen as a gin epidemic, and in an act of defiance or realism, a society named the Golden Louse was formed in Bern, Switzerland, whose members were committed to becoming intoxicated every day of the week (1737).

Forget the law, let’s use a large dose of guilt trips and propaganda.

By 1743, John Wesley included a prohibition against drunkenness in the general rules of the Methodist church.

Between 1750 and the early 1800s, Alcoholic mutual aid societies (sobriety “circles”) were formed within various Native American tribes. Some circles later become the basis for temperance societies.

Life was still brutish, and short.

In a world of feast and famine, plague and pox, alcohol could be counted on to supply adequate nutrition. In the 1750s, wine provided the third largest source of calories in most French boarding schools.

Guinness Advertising.
Guinness Advertising.

Alcoholic wealth and Nation-building

1754 | “there were about 700 inns that served alcoholic beverages in Stockholm in 1754. This meant one inn per 88 citizens, which can be compared with today’s one restaurant per 700 citizens.”

1759 | Arthur Guinness established the Guinness brewery in Dublin.

1763 | Frederick II, king of Prussia, imposed a high tax on coffee in order to increase brewing, from which he derived substantial revenue.

1767 | Catherine the Great (1762-1796) of Russia, established a system of alcohol monopoly franchises (otkupa) in specific geographic areas to increase profits to the state.

1769 | Wine cultivation was introduced into California from Mexico and wine making became its oldest industry.

1770s | “The Wilderness Road, the northern route over the Alleghenies from Virginia, had whiskey for sale at strategic points along its length when it was little more than a path through the forest” and “…stills were the largest, more complex, and most valuable man-made objects to be carried over the mountains.”

1774-1783 | “The [U.S.] War of Independence was to have its effect on drinking habits. With the breaking of commercial links with the West Indies, which remained under British jurisdiction, there was demand for substitutes for rum. The new domains to the west of the Appalachians produced whiskey from their growing of maize; rye whiskey became more popular and a large estate in Kentucky began to make Bourbon.”

1777 | George Washington was his new nation’s first large distiller. He wrote to John Hancock that the “benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed.”

1776 | In Basil, Switzerland, a commission investigated the damage caused by abusive drinking.

Post-1783 | “…rising nationalism in the post-revolutionary years led American drinkers to switch from rum, a product dependent on supplies from Europe’s Caribbean colonies, to whiskeys distilled from domestically produced grains.”

1784 | Dr. Benjamin Rush published his pamphlet “An Enquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society.” He promoted his ideas that alcoholism is an “odious disease” for which his recommended cures included “whipping the patient severely,” blistering the ankles, bleeding, and purging with toxic substances. Parenthetically, he also promoted his belief that being black was a result of a curable skin disease, which he called negroidism. Intermarrying, he argued, help spread the disease.

1789 | The first Kentucky whiskey was distilled by the Reverend Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister.

1789 | After the French Revolution, vineyards owned by the churches, abbeys and nobles were confiscated, divided into small plots, and distributed to many owners. French law divided property equally among heirs, which additionally subdivided vineyard property into ever smaller parcels of ownership. In Burgundy this led to the the rise of negociants or wine brokers who buy wine from many owners, blend it, and then market it under their own names.

1789 | Folk hero Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) began wandering the northeastern U.S. planting seeds from apples. Being sour, the apples were not intended for eating but for the production of hard cider.

1790s | “Happy hour” began at 3:00 p.m. and cocktails continued until dinner.

1790 | Parliament made it illegal to pay wages in liquor.

1791 | A licensing reform allowed grocers in England to retail spirits.

1791 | The Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791 (the Whiskey Tax) imposed a tax on all distilled spirits produced in the US.

1792 | The new South Wales Corps “exerted control over the importation and distribution of alcohol in Australia, until they had a monopoly”.

1795 | Alcohol had become the ‘recognized medium of exchange in Australia. So much so, that even labor could only be purchased with spirits.

1793 | During the Whiskey Rebellion that occurred in Pennsylvania, federal troops established the federal government’s ability and willingness to impose its power by arresting those who refused to pay taxes on their products.

1795 | Every signer of the American Declaration of Independence, without exception, drank alcoholic beverages.

Late Eighteenth Century | “Alcohol was virtually unknown in Australia until Europeans began arriving in the late eighteenth century.”

End of the Eighteenth Century | Absinthe began as a tonic in Switzerland at the close of the 18th century.


  • Craze: Gin and Debauchery on the Age of Reason / Jessica Warner, 2002.
  • History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World /  by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

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