Drinking culture in Medieval Europe, and around the world at about the same era

What are the essential garnishes for a Bloody Mary?


Classic garnishes include celery stalks, lemon wedges, and olives. Get creative with additional options like pickles, pickled green beans, bacon strips, or even shrimp for a unique twist.

Distillation yielded liquor that had longer shelf life

The Middle Ages or the Medieval Era, historically also referred to as the Dark Ages, was a period that began from the 5th Century CE and lasted till the 15th Century, until the European Renaissance. Of this period, an extended period until the 10th Century is referred to as the Dark Ages, a period marred by wars, famines, plagues and decline of art and culture in Europe.

According to some scholars, the Medieval Era specially the Dark Ages, as the name suggests, is the period of declining culture and of growth in prominence of theology and religious doctrines, which can be translated into restrictions, including on the consumption of alcohol. However, there are some other theories that suggest that the alcohol restriction theory is misleading.

In ancient civilizations alcohol was produced through fermentation, while in the Middle Ages the process of distillation was invented and was perfected over time. Initially the distilled liquors such as brandy were used as medicine, Eau de Vie or Water of Life, to treat many medical conditions, but by the end of the Middle Ages (approx. 1500 A.D), these distilled liquors were already sold as alcoholic beverages.

Medieval Monk Tasting wine from a barrel

Medieval Distillation

Although the Middle Ages were not exactly the period of regression for other civilisations that were flourishing outside Europe, we shall consider the history of alcohol in all civilisations that were concurrent to the European Middle Ages.

Middle Ages in Europe saw the rise of distilled brandy along with wine and beer, and although it?s not entirely true that people in Middle Ages Europe drank only beer because water was very contaminated, loaded with bacteria and was simply not fit to drink, it?s not entirely true, since there is evidence of water drinking in medieval records. And water was ranked along with beer as a preferred beverage, and was preferred over beer. Which again tells us that beer was almost as important as beer, and water was considered a prized beverage, which would mean, clean water was not easily available.

This probably was true in cities and towns and records of drinking water from streams or in far flung villages, tell us that clean water was available in rural Europe and the streams and lakes were source of clean water, which was not the case in the cities, although evidence of water ducts bringing water into London is available, it is more or less clear that although beer never replaced water entirely, but clean drinking water was not easily available always either.

Byzantine Drinking

While Europe was busy drinking wine and beer, and some water too, the Eastern Roman Empire, the last refuge of the glorious Roman Civilisation, the Byzantine Empire and their material culture of hedonistic existence was resplendent with wine and food, and wine was widely consumed both as an intoxicant and as a hydrating drink, since in Byzantium too, drinking water was not always safe.

The magnificent Ewer, a pitcher used to server Wine in wealthy byzantine homes is proof to the importance of wine in Royal and elite Byzantine classes. The elite Byzantine population feted wine from Macedonia, which in early Middle Ages were part of the Eastern Roman empire, and before and after the Crusades, Western Europe was fond of premium Byzantine wine.

Historical reference to a Byzantine Wine that is still extant leads us to the Commandaria Wine from Cyprus that was served at the wedding of King Richard the Lionheart.

The magnificent Ewer, a pitcher used to server Wine in wealthy Byzantine Homes

Rise of Islam in the Middle East didn't change everything all at once

During the same period, when in the era post the rise of Political Islam, the region including part of the Mediterranean, Levantine and the Middle East and North Africa, was going through positive transformations in culture and sciences, and although Islam prohibits Alcohol, there is ample proof that during the early age of Islam and during the Golden Age, alcohol drinking was not entirely prohibited and persecution of alcohol aficionados was very uncommon.

China, probably the oldest civilisation with a continuous archeological and historical evidence of brewing and distilling alcohol

Coming next to China, a country that has a proven continuous history of alcoholic beverages. Post the Jiahu discovery that proved that alcoholic beverage samples obtained from China, were dated to as old as from around 7000 BCE, China is now the oldest civilisation to have brewed beer, much ahead of the so far considered oldest samples obtained from Hajji Firuz excavations in eastern Anatolia, the cradle of civilisation.
However, by the time of the Qin Dynasty of 221 BCE, the dynasty that marked the beginning of Imperial China, beer slowly lost its cultural relevance and by the time of the second Imperial Dynasty of China, the Han Dynasty, beer was completely forgotten and the stronger Huangjiu and rice wines took over.

By the time of the Tang Dynasty which is concurrent to the European Middle Ages, home brewing of wine was common place and Huangjiu and particularly Choujio was the favoured beverage of China.

This period between the Han and the Tang dynasty is known as the ?Golden Age for Alcoholic Beverage? and alcoholic liquors and wines flourished until during the late Tang period when the Tea Culture rose and people moved away from heavier intoxication to tea.

Tang Ceramic Wine Jar

The little record that has been found, shows that Indians were frugal drinkers during the Middle Ages

At around the same time, in the neighbouring Indian Subcontinent, the pre-Vedic, Vedic and post Vedic culture of Soma, Somrasa and Amrit seem to have vanished from all local texts and records. Up until the Common Era all extant or at least partially existing texts like the Medical Compendiums of Charaka and Shushruta, Chanakya?s Arthasashtra and even historical records of Alexander in India has ample notes on alcohol, but they suddenly seem to have vanished from the records.
Chinese Buddhist travellers like Fa Xian ( travelled in India for 15 years in around 400 CE ), Hieun Tsang or Xuanzang ( stayed in India for 17 years in around 600 CE ) have mentioned abstinence as part of Indian culture but probably their observation was a lot romantic than real, since their goal was to take back home the essence of Buddhism and the land of it?s origin was a land of purity to them, and despite their extensive travel, they probably travelled mostly along the Buddhist pilgrimage routes.

The next best records found are from the writings of Iranian scholar, al Biruni, who thankfully mentions the drinking culture of India, and although he found Indians to be moderate drinkers and observed that the Brahmins abstained in general, he didn?t rule out alcohol completely.

The ancient traditions of brewing high quality wine called Madira/Madu , the common man?s distilled liquor Mahua, a flower distillate and Prasanna the spiced beer, that were common throughout history, were probably lost during the middle ages when Turk-Afghan and Persian kingdoms ruled. The Indian drinking culture was already waning through the early Middle Ages, ahead of the arrival of the Turks and Persians, now declined further remained cornered in remote rural and tribal Indian culture until a revival by the Colonial rulers.

However, during the predominantly Islamic rule, wine was not completely lost, but due to religious and official sanctions, drinking was relegated to a hushed up individual practice or even if in public, wine and drinking was largely associated with warriors and entertainers and elites.

The Single Leaf painting of a pleasure pavilion, executed in North India in the 13th Century, probably in Lucknow, depicts men sitting around a pavilion and enjoying hookas while the women are drinking wine.

Alcohol in Africa

Strangely, the history of alcohol in Africa is so scarcely covered that it?s hard to find any evidence beyond evidence of probable controlled fermentation of honey in the Stone Age Africa.

The hypothesis works based on the evidence of intelligence and cognitive awareness and skill required to ferment alcohol found in Southern Africa. Visibly, it can be assumed that the people who were bow hunting about 60000 years ago, were using Ochre compound as paint 100,000 years ago and could concoct arrow poison as early as 24,000 years ago or even earlier, could easily ferment Honey, since evidence of consuming Honey and use of bee products have been found from as early as 40,000 years ago. But sadly, no archaeological evidence remained.

Spatheion type Amphora produced in Africa during the late 4th Century CE


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Neel B and Mani, we are a team of two, from Calcutta, India. We are professional software engineers and passionate cocktail enthusiasts. We built this app because we saw a need for a more comprehensive and user-friendly way to find cocktails and bartending recipes. We hope you enjoy using our app as much as we enjoyed making it!

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Neel B is an Electronics and Telecommunications Engineer and martial arts and fitness enthusiast. He is an avid reader, compulsive doodler, and painter. His love for cocktails arises from the art in it and the history that traces the ups and downs of modern civilisation over centuries.

Maniis an ERP and SaaS developer and architect by day and a cocktail enthusiast in her leisure. She holds a Masters in Computer Application and Programming. In addition to writing stories on the history of cocktails and alcohol, she has a special interest in cocktails in literature. She believes that the perfect cocktail can make any moment special.


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