How Much and What Types of Alcohol Did Americans Drink In The 19th Century?

19th Century Americans Loved Wine and Liquor, But Their Favorite Alcoholic Beverage Was Beer

Throughout much of the 19th century there were countless temperance movements in the United States to stop “the evils of drinking.”

I just bought a copy of The Liquor Problem in All Ages by Daniel Dorchester (1884). It’s a fascinating look at the history of alcohol. About half of the book covers the efforts to curb or eliminate alcohol consumption. The other half is an engaging history of the manufacture and use of alcohol throughout history across different cultures from all over the world.

One very interesting chart shows which alcoholic beverages Americans were consuming decade by decade from 1792 – 1882 and it is reproduced below (click to enlarge):

In the 1790s American distilled spirits (whiskey, gin, rye, bourbon, etc.) was the most consumed alcoholic liquor. Over 65 million gallons of the hard stuff was consumed by Americans.

As the U.S. population grew and the 1800’s progressed, we see a steady rise in the consumption of American distilled spirits.

American wine, foreign wine and foreign distilled spirits consumption are proportionately increased to some degree from 1792 – 1882.

The rise of malt liquor (in this context the book is referring to beer) consumption explodes in the 1850s nearly matching American spirit consumption. From 1860-1870 beer doubled its popularity from the previous decade. From 1870-1882 beer consumption had reached over 4 billion gallons, more than four times all other alcohol types combined.

Several things factor into beer’s growing popularity, the two most obvious being the low cost of beer and an increasing immigrant population with different tastes.

Beer and liquor consumption among Americans continued to grow in the late 19th and early 20th century and the fight to curtail that popularity grew as well.

Eventually the temperance movement found success as the Volstead Act (the 18th Amendment) was enacted in 1919 and the sale and consumption of alcohol except for medicinal purposes was outlawed in the United States.

The unsuccessful experiment that became known as Prohibition lasted for over 13 years.

When alcohol consumption legally resumed in 1933 beer was for Americans once again king of all liquors, and remains the number one alcohol choice today.

According to a 2016 Gallup poll Americans preferred beer 43%, to wine (32%) and spirits (20%).

We’ll conclude with one more statistic. You’ll note that the chart has 90 year totals of each type of alcohol. In 90 years Americans consumed a total of just over 7 billion gallons of beer.

The United States currently has about 235 million people above the legal drinking age. Americans now drink about 6.3 billion gallons of beer per year. Take that over the course of 10 years and that’s about 63 billion gallons of beer in a decade.

If he were alive today, what would Daniel Dorchester, author of The Liquor Problem in All Ages think about that?

7 thoughts on “How Much and What Types of Alcohol Did Americans Drink In The 19th Century?

  1. Jodi

    I stumbled upon this post while doing research for my current transcript. Interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing these little tidbits, B.P.

  2. Jim Lapsley

    Two points. It may be misleading to compare types of beverages (beer, wine spirits) by volume without correcting for alcohol content. Spirits were calculated by the government in terms of “proof gallons” A proof gallon was 50% alcohol (200 proof = 100% alcohol). Beer was probably 4-5% alcohol content. Comparing by gallons of alcohol shows us that spirits long remained the most popular “beverage.” Second, the figures listed are totals by decade and don’t seem to agree with Federal government figures as seen in the 1886 Quarterly report #2 of the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of the Treasury Department. It would be interesting to know where Dorchester got his figures.

    1. B.P. Post author

      Jim – Thanks for explaining the nuances of alcohol content.

      Since Dorchester does not source his figures or his charts, it is unclear if he is using government “proof gallons” in the consumption table.

      Why the statistics don’t match up with the 1886 Quarterly report #2 of the Treasury Department are probably because the author used numbers he wanted to, to validate his points.

      As Mark Twain famously said, “There are three types of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

  3. Mark

    Thomas Jefferson brought some of the first grapes to America to make wine. He believed the common American was too drunk too often and wanted to offer them something safe to drink with a lower alcohol concentration so they would not be intoxicated all the time. Oddly enough he brought over European grapes and when they were exposed to American plant diseases they died. So his plan never came to fruition.


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