People have known since the Stone Age that sugary liquids, given time, have a salutary tendency to ferment, transforming themselves into something like beer or wine. Distillation, a more sophisticated process, was perfected only in the past few hundred years, and wherever it went it upended social customs. In “Deliver Us from Evil,” a crisp history published in 1976, Norman H. Clark explained that nineteenth-century temperance movements in the U.S. distinguished gin, whiskey, and other distillates from milder beverages, which were considered part of the common diet. “Many Americans of the New Republic simply did not regard beers and wines as ‘intoxicating,’ ” he writes. By contrast, hard liquor was prohibited in some American territory even before the country formed: in 1733, James Oglethorpe, the founding governor of the British province of Georgia, banned “the importation of ardent spirits.”
In the early nineteenth century, though, the country had a vibrant distilling industry, to supply a demand that scholars have struggled to quantify, though they agree that it was enormous. By one estimate, in 1810 the average American consumed the equivalent of seven gallons of pure alcohol, three times the current level. Nineteenth-century temperance campaigners deployed a familiar cast of stock figures: starving children, battered wives, drunks staggering and dying in the streets. (Researchers were just figuring out the science of liver failure, which bloated and killed so many heavy drinkers.) During a visit to Philadelphia, Alexis de Tocqueville was informed that, although the “lower classes” were drinking too much cheap liquor, politicians didn’t dare offend their constituents by imposing heavy taxes. Tocqueville inferred, wryly, “that the drinking population constitutes the majority in your country, and that temperance is somewhat unpopular.” In fact, by the time his account was published, in 1835, temperance was growing less unpopular.
Kelefa Sanneh, “Drunk With Power”, The New Yorker (21 & 28 December 2015), 106.