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September 19, 2011 1:35 AM   Subscribe

What books can you recommend on the cultural history of alcohol in America?

A year ago, I read an engrossing book called Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, and became instantly hooked on the cultural history of alcohol in America. Further poking around in this subject revealed that America, in both colonial and post-colonial times, was a boozy land indeed: In the years before the Revolutionary War, men, women and children consumed the equivalent of six ounces of hard liquor per person, a level of consumption that by the early 1800s triggered the Temperance movement. It's a cinch that booze played a large role in American history, and I'd like to read up on the topic, concentrating on the following types of books:
-An era-by-era overview of drinking in America, covering both colonial and post-colonial times.
-To cast a wider net, a cultural history of alcohol in world civilization in general.
-Books with anecdotes on the drinking habits of famous personages and politicians, and their effect on history.
-Books on specific topics, such as the rise of moonshine, or other historical issues--especially obscure ones--that are eye-opening or unusual.

Besides these reading list recommendations, I'm interested in any stories, factotums, anecdotes or asides that you may have come across in your reading, no matter how sweeping and general or specific and little-known. Enlighten me, please!
posted by Gordion Knott to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
It's more a European history, but I'd thoroughly recommend the later chapters of Wolfgang Schivelbusch's Tastes of Paradise, a cultural history of trade in and use of spices, alcohol and drugs.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 1:46 AM on September 19, 2011

There have been a lot of biographies of Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the one by Susan Cheever--My Name is Bill--is supposed to be really good, almost novel-like.
posted by jng at 2:06 AM on September 19, 2011

I haven't read it, but a number of my friends and colleagues have recommended Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses. The six beverages through which he approaches world history aren't all alcoholic, but the first three are (beer, wine, and spirits; the other three are coffee, tea, and Coke).
posted by brianogilvie at 2:49 AM on September 19, 2011

By coincidence, I just saw a review of this today: America Walks Into a Bar.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 3:04 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Check out Andrew Barr's Drink: A Social History of America.
posted by kanuck at 3:07 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I read Ambitious Brew a while back. I thought the author short changed recent history, but it does a nice job of covering the history of beer as it relates to the founding and growth of America. One really interesting thing I learned is that if not for the Civil War, we probably would have had Prohibition in the 1860s.
posted by COD at 5:03 AM on September 19, 2011

Even though they're recipe books, you may want to check out the bibliographies in the back of the vintage cocktail books by Ted Haigh, David Wondrich, and Gary Regan, plus read the surveys of American drinking culture in said books to get a sense of what's what generally so you can dig deeper. And it's international, but Charles Baker Jr.'s drinking memoir Jigger Beaker Glass is amazing.
posted by ifjuly at 5:24 AM on September 19, 2011

I loved Dry Manhattan, which is about Prohibition in New York.
posted by decathecting at 5:53 AM on September 19, 2011

Also interesting: A Social History of Bourbon
posted by lathrop at 5:53 AM on September 19, 2011

I got a big kick out of Travels with Barley
posted by pupdog at 6:02 AM on September 19, 2011

Not a book, but perhaps relevant to your interests: Ken Burns' Prohibition premieres in a couple of weeks on PBS.
posted by hankscorpio83 at 7:16 AM on September 19, 2011

W. J. Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic is your best one-stop source for realizing how boozy early America really was, even 30 years after its publication. It also includes a fine punch recipe as one of its appendices.
posted by heurtebise at 7:48 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States has many useful chapters on booze, drunks and bars.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:53 AM on September 19, 2011

One of the secondary narratives of The Poisoner's Handbook is a fascinating look at a particular angle of this -- namely, how Prohibition fueled the development of stronger and stronger (and thus more dangerous) bootleg alcohol, which (when it wasn't killing people!) would wind up having an impact on general trends in alcohol production and consumption after Prohibition was repealed.
posted by scody at 10:01 AM on September 19, 2011

Seconding The Poisoner's Handbook. Although the primary focus of the book is the development of forensic science, it's all in the context of Prohibition- I found the book totally fascinating.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:25 AM on September 19, 2011

I loved And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. I think it fits your bill exactly.
posted by rtimmel at 12:12 PM on September 19, 2011

there's an excellent article by Malcolm Gladwell from a past New Yorker explaining the cultural significance of alcohol/alcoholism in in America and in other countries.
posted by custard heart at 9:48 AM on September 20, 2011

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