The books books on the history of booze

Who am I?

I’m a professor at Northland College (WI) and an American environmental historian with specialties in wine, food, and horticulture. I mostly write on alcohol, garden history, botany, and orchids. The history of alcohol is wild, fraught, and charged with power—I’ll never tire of learning about it.

I wrote...

Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America

By Erica Hannickel,

Book cover of Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America

What is my book about?

The lush, sun-drenched vineyards of California evoke a romantic, agrarian image of winemaking, though in reality, the industry reflects American agribusiness at its most successful. Nonetheless, this fantasy is deeply rooted in the history of grape cultivation in America. Empire of Vines traces the development of wine culture as grape growing expanded from New York to the Midwest before gaining ascendancy in California--a progression that illustrates viticulture's centrality to the nineteenth-century American projects of national expansion and the formation of a national culture.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition

By William J. Rorabaugh,

Book cover of Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition

Why this book?

Rorabaugh argues convincingly that alcohol of several types—but mostly rum and whisky—were part and parcel of, and at times even drove, early national American culture. Solo and group binges increased from 1790 to 1820 as the population tried to adapt to anxious and uncertain changes in their lives. Drinking became aligned with liberty—taverns were the “seedbeds of the revolution” and the “nurseries of freedom.” And although boozing came to be an early element in what was defined as the American character, the temperance movement was not far off.

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

By Sidney W. Mintz,

Book cover of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Why this book?

Sweetness and Power is a classic in world foodways, and still holds up against any book for its depth and complexity as a work of fascinating social history, anthropology, and commodity history. Although its main subject is the global trade and symbolism of sugar, I include it here because sugar makes molasses and molasses makes rum, and all three items were part of the original “triangular trade” connecting early colonial power networks of North America, Europe, and Africa. Mintz is particularly good at analyzing early images of sugar in their cultural contexts. (If you haven’t seen the elaborate “sugarwork” on cakes and pastries in the eighteenth century, you’re missing out.) The book easily conveys its content, as well as quietly invites its readers to perform good lay history and anthropology themselves.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks

By Amy Stewart,

Book cover of The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks

Why this book?

Although it has a spirited title, this book is no joke--it is deeply informative, well-researched, and well-organized. It's also great fun. It is the perfect mix of science and culture and gustatory pleasure. I read it straight through, and slowly, but it's probably better read as a semi-reference book—it’s got great recipes and gardening tips too--which is why I'll keep it in between my gardening and cookbook shelves.

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants

By Wolfgang Schivelbusch,

Book cover of Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants

Why this book?

A sensual cultural history mixed with economic history, specifically the rise of capitalism, Schivelbusch launches an interesting argument—that one particular substance, or taste, has often defined the zeitgeist of whole nations for definitive periods. This book is wide-ranging and general in its treatment of alcohol, as well as several other drinks and spices. There are excellent imaginative connections made, and the book invites thinkers to think deeply and broadly about the meaning of intoxicants in history and in their own lives.

Alcohol: A History

By Rod Phillips,

Book cover of Alcohol: A History

Why this book?

Alcohol is a highly readable, and useful, text on the cultural and material history of alcohol from ancient times through the modern-day. Phillips uses an international and comparative frame here to good effect—something not usually done in histories of alcohol. I also greatly appreciated his focus on colonial, ethnic, and racial histories around alcohol, as well as its regulation in different societies. Phillips makes a compelling argument against the idea that most earlier societies turned to alcohol because the water wasn't safe to drink (some did, but the assumption is far too widespread, he argues).

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