Early Americans would be shocked by the current level of alcohol consumption in the nation -- because it's so much less than they used to drink. In the 1600s and 1700s, many Americans saw alcohol not just as a pleasant diversion, but as a miraculous medicine that could cure illnesses, strengthen the weak and pep up old people. As a result, they often started the day with a liquor pick-me-up and then consumed more alcohol steadily throughout the day, sometimes finishing with several rounds at a tavern in the evening.
In 1790, according to federal government data, the average American over the age of 15 consumed the following over a year [source: Crews]:
- 34 gallons (129 liters) of beer and cider
- 5 gallons (19 liters) of whiskey or other distilled spirits
- 1 gallon (4 liters) of wine
In 2010, however, the typical American drank over the course of the year [source: Zmuda]:
- About 21 gallons (80 liters) of beer
- 1.5 gallons (6 liters) of spirits
- 2 gallons of wine (8 liters)
Part of the reason for the heavy consumption back then was that water was often unsafe to drink. Even though this was more of a problem in Europe, the earliest settlers followed the example of their European forebears who were used to substituting beer or wine for water. One of the few liquor naysayers in Colonial times was physician Benjamin Rush, who developed the theory that alcoholism was a disease, but hardly anyone listened to him [source: Crews].