Menu Close

History of Alcohol

Providing Trusted, Evidence-Based
Treatment for Three Decades and Counting

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, we’re here to help.

One in 12 American adults struggles with alcohol use disorder.People who develop problems with alcohol might feel as though they’re completely alone and misunderstood, but the fact is, people who battle alcohol use are far from unique. As long as alcohol has been in circulation, someone has been known to drink a little too much for too long.

Let’s take a look at the historical roots of alcohol, as well as the history of society’s attempts to control alcohol consumption and treat those who drink to excess.

Making Alcohol

Brewmaster tasting beerProducers of alcohol use all sorts of terms to describe the products they make. They may say that the wines they make have “structure” or that they have “good legs.” Beer producers may wax poetic about the grass and hop notes in their products, and they may measure the foam produced when a bit of beer is poured into a glass.

Scotch producers, on the other hand, use terms like “peat” or “smoke” to describe their costly products, and they may swirl tiny droplets of their fluids about in glasses as they talk. It all sounds so lovely and dramatic, but the production of alcohol has something very unsavory at its core.

In essence, all forms of alcohol are just food products that have been allowed to rot at a controlled rate.

Alcohol is produced when glucose meets yeast. The glucose can come from fruits such as grapes or apples, or the glucose can come from grains like barley. Some producers of alcohol add commercially grown yeasts to their fermenting products, allowing them to exert an intense level of control over how quickly the products break down and what sorts of flavors are produced, but yeasts also float through the air, all on their own, and just exposing the products to the open air could make fermentation begin as well.

This process is likely what ancient producers of alcohol did, and it’s a move that some artisan alcohol producers are returning to as they attempt to make more “authentic” products for their discerning markets.

Tracing the History

Experts disagree about how alcohol was discovered and when it first came into widespread usage. Some experts suggest that alcohol was discovered as a “fortuitous accident” thousands and thousands of years ago, likely before the Neolithic period (around 10,000 BC). Obviously, no written records or recipes from that time exist, making precise knowledge difficult if not impossible, but wine vessels do seem to appear in ancient works of art, including Egyptian art, produced around 4,000 BC. The Bible and other ancient writings also include many references to alcohol and drinking.2

To fast-forward many years, alcohol played a key role in American history, as the country’s founding fathers had a taste for alcoholic beverages including hard cider, wine, and rum. Early colonists likely relied on alcoholic beverages, as they could be stored at room temperature without spoiling. Alcoholic drinks might have also taken the bite out of cold weather when the winter months came and heat was hard to come by.3

Prohibition Arrives

Prohibition speakeasyWhile alcohol might have been common in America, a temperance movement swept through the United States in the early years of the 20th century, and many states began creating laws that banned the manufacture and consumption of alcohol altogether. The law that came to be known as Prohibition was passed in 1919, and that law applied to all states in the union.

Prohibition brought about some very early successes, including a 30-percent drop in overall alcohol consumption, but people who wanted to drink alcohol only had to reach back to their ancestors to learn how to make their own alcohol at home.4

Some people made alcoholic beverages in their bathtubs or in sheds in their yards, while other people began making alcohol on a large scale and sending through a vast network of underground “speakeasies.” As the popularity of these clubs grew, and alcohol became associated with a young and hip crowd, experts began to realize that the laws weren’t effective at bringing down alcohol consumption. Instead, the laws seemed to be helping some criminals make money hand over fist. As a result of these pressures, lawmakers repealed Prohibition in 1933.4

Early Alcoholism Treatments

When alcohol is plentiful and easy to obtain, some people will choose to overindulge in their drinks and take in much more than they should on a regular basis. In the early days of alcoholism treatment, most experts viewed this inability to moderate intake as a mark of poor character.

Early 20th century alcohol treatment led with the belief that alcohol alone caused alcoholism, not the person’s life history, and that mental and physical “tenseness” stood at the core of alcohol disorders. Practitioners like this often encouraged their clients to pray, meditate or do good works in order to escape the clutches of alcohol. If these people had mental discipline, the therapists reasoned, the alcohol abuse would cease.

Not all practitioners who were active in these early days were so conscious of the idea of the mind helping the body to heal. Some early programs used draconian methods in order to heal their clients, employing:

  • Physical restraints
  • Incarceration in prisons
  • Immersion in cold water
  • Humiliation

The idea was to punish these people for their disorders and provide them with a strong reason to stop using and start living their lives in a new way. Interventions for alcoholism involved yelling and even physical abuse, and the treatment that followed used many of the same tactics. Perhaps some people were “scared straight” with these methods, but it’s almost certain that these methods also did a significant amount of mental harm to the people who endured them.5

Alcoholics Anonymous

In the early 1930s, a new way of treating alcoholism began to spread. This form of treatment, which is now commonly known as 12-step theory, started when two men began working together on their alcohol abuse problems, talking about their own cravings to use and abuse the substance, and the methods they had used to keep their own behaviors under control. In time, the two men began to codify the methods they had used in their informal meetings, and they began to reach out to others in need of the same type of help. In 1938, the book that would serve as the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous was written and the 12-Step movement was born.

The 12-Step movement was similar to treatments that had come before, in that no medications were used and the genetic propensities for alcoholism weren’t discussed. The movement differed, however, in the treatment of people affected. The people who went to AA meetings weren’t told that they were bad, weak, or somehow defective. Instead, they learned that they had a disease and would need outside help in order to heal. By helping others, they could also learn to help themselves. It was a much more humane way to address the problem, and many people benefitted.6

Modern Alcoholism Theory

The advent of structured research protocols, as well as sophisticated imaging technology has led researchers to know more than ever about how alcoholism works and how the disease can be transmitted. As a result, treatments have gotten much more sophisticated, and few people who work in the alcohol addiction field would ever suggest that their patients are somehow lazy or struggling with a character flaw due to their addiction issues. It’s simply not an opinion that can be supported, based on the available evidence.

Much of the breakthrough has come about as a result of genetic studies. Studies on identical twins have confirmed that about 50 to 60 percent of the risk for alcoholism is genetically determined. Some people develop a variant of a gene that makes them more susceptible to the intoxicating effects of alcohol, while others develop a variant of a gene in which they don’t feel drunk even when they drink heavily. Genes alone aren’t responsible for the development of alcoholism, as the right environment needs to be in place that could support the development of the behavior, but if genes do play a role in alcoholism, blaming a lack of will becomes almost inhumane.7

Current Treatments

People who are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder today are provided with a variety of different treatments that can provide real relief. Counselors can use therapy techniques to:

  • Increase the person’s motivation to change
  • Learn more about why drinking seemed attractive
  • Identify triggers that might lead to a relapse to drinking
  • Solve problems within the family that might lead to problem drinking
  • Treat any underlying or co-occurring mental health conditions

AcupunctureTherapy programs might also incorporate alternate models of care that could help to increase a feeling of relaxation and calm and decrease feelings of stress and discomfort. Yoga, meditation, tai chi, acupuncture, and visualization could all help people gain a mastery over their thoughts and develop a new and more positive way of thinking and living.

Medications might also play a role in modern treatment programs for alcoholism. Medications given during the withdrawal process might help to calm the overactive neurons of the mind, keeping a seizure from taking place, and medications given later in therapy can keep alcohol from providing a pleasant experience, which might also help people to resist the siren song of alcohol as they recover.

The 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are still considered an important part of the healing process for many alcohol treatment facilities, although there have been some tweaks for the modern era. For example, in the 1930s, it’s likely that the founders expected all people to conform to a standardized version of a “higher power” in their work. Now, people are encouraged to define a higher power using any terms with which they feel comfortable, and some people don’t mention a god at all.

Treatment Matters

Despite all the advances that have taken place in alcoholism research and treatment theory, only about 25 percent of people who are dependent on alcohol ever receive treatment for the conditions they’re living with. It’s quite possible that people don’t know how much alcohol treatment has changed and how much they might benefit from their treatment programs. They won’t be blamed or punished in modern programs. Instead, they’ll get the help they might need to leave an alcohol problem behind for good.8

If you’d like to know more about how alcoholism treatment works, please contact us at Michael’s House. We’ve helped thousands of people overcome their addiction issues, and we’d like to help you to do the same. Enrolling is as easy as calling our toll-free line. You’ll be connected to an admissions counselor who will be glad to discuss your options and get the process started. Please call today to find out more.


1 American Psychological Association. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorders and Their Treatment. Mar 2012.

2 Curry, A. Our 9,000-Year Love Affair with Booze. National Geographic Magazine. Feb 2017.

3 Huffington Post. The Surprising Drinking Habits of Our Founding Fathers. Jul 4 2014.

4 The History Channel. Prohibition. 2018.

5 University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center. Addiction Treatments Past and Present. Nd. Web. Retrieved 20 Mar 2018.

6 Alcoholics Anonymous. Over 80 Years of Growth: A Timeline. Nd. Web. Retrieved 20 Mar 2018.

7 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The Genetics of Alcoholism. Jul 2003.

8 Dawson, D., Recovery from DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism