So we’re starting the second draft of our addiction piece for Wired today, which means the majority of our mental bandwidth shall be dedicated to inebriation for the next six to seven days. A rough ride for us, as the topic is a beast—we’re still not entirely sure we understand what takes place in the mesolimbic pathway when a shot of Wild Turkey works its dark magic.
But the upside is that we’ll have plenty of great tidbits to Microkhan as we plow through, starting with this historical tidbit from the excellent Slaying the Dragon. While we knew that our American predecessors were fond of booze, we had no idea of the depth of their affection:
Between 1790 and 1830, America fundamentally altered its pattern of alcohol consumption. In 1792, there were 2,579 distilleries in the U.S. and annual per capita alcohol consumption was 2.5 gallons. In 1810, there were 14,191 U.S. distilleries and annual per-capita alcohol consumption had risen to more than 4.5 gallons. By 1830, annual consumption had risen to 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person. Problems of public drunkenness and disorder, and the impact of drunkenness on family life, intensified in the midst of this collective spree.
For comparison’s sake, today’s most drunken nation, Luxembourg, boasts a per-capita consumption rate of just 4.1 gallons.
Some obvious ideas pop to mind as to why early Americans were such prodigious drinkers. The lack of potable water in many areas probably made whiskey the safer bet, in terms of avoiding terrible diseases (save for cirrhosis, of course). Most lines of work involved heavy and dangerous labor, and alcohol dulled the monotony and physical pain. Leisure opportunities were few and far between, save for the easy-to-obtain pleasure of gathering with one’s comrades and knocking back a few jugs of XXX.
But we think there’s also something to be said for those decades as being America’s adolescence, a time when experiments in self-destruction are often integral to finding one’s way in the world. The excitement of being part of the American experiment obviously fed into a sense of overconfidence, bordering on hubris. (See: Manifest Destiny, The War of 1812, etc.) If America was fated to become such a great and mighty nation, then copious amounts of alcohol could only add to the fun without causing any real problems.
Eventually, of course, we grew out of this phase, to the point that our social values tilted too radically in the other direction. But nations are just vast collections of human beings, and humans change their minds several times over the course of their lives. In theory, a happy equilibrium is found after several missteps. We’re not too sure how close we are to getting there, though—the existence of Bud Select 55 makes us think our relationship to alcohol still needs to evolve a bit.