Beer Street and Gin Lane: Why Liquor is Treated Differently from Beer and Wine

Today, an essential bit of background for understanding American alcohol laws.

While alcohol in general garners a special focus from government regulators, distilled spirits have always been on a different plane from their simply fermented brethren. As explored in the introductory article, the juxtaposition of “drink good, drunk bad” can be seen as the foundation of our booze jurisprudence, and Uncle Sam has found that with hard liquor, it’s too easy to slip over the line to “bad.” The government has reacted accordingly, creating one set of rules for beer, wine, etc., and another for spirits.

A little history!

In early America there was an important historical precedent for the singling out of “ardent spirits”, as they were known. In the late 1600s, England encouraged the creation of gin distilleries to lower reliance on brandy made by their enemy, France. These new distillers did not need licenses and paid little in taxes, while brewers were subject to longstanding regulations. Production exploded, and by the early 1700s gin’s availability and affordability had led to a national preference for that spirit over not just French brandy, but English beer as well. This became known as the Gin Craze. An apparently astounding increase in drunkenness and other social problems followed, leading to a societal uproar. In response, the English government passed a series of mid-century laws, the Gin Acts, that raised taxes and introduced license fees.

Beer Street (left), and Gin Lane (right): a pair of paintings that vividly portray the impact of liquor on an otherwise fit, happy, and productive neighborhood. William Hogarth, 1751. Image source: Wikipedia

The effectiveness of those measures is questionable (the drink’s subsequent decline in popularity was likely more the result of rising grain prices), but the experience of the Gin Craze must have had an impact on early American lawmakers working only a few decades later. The father of American alcohol health initiatives, Dr. Benjamin Rush, in his succinctly-titled 1790 tract An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and the Mind, gives a sense of the prevailing sentiment of the time. Rush describes beer as lending “Serenity of Mind, Reputation, Long Life, & Happiness” and wine “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment”, while spirits lead to “Idleness, Gaming, Peevishness, Quarreling, Fighting, Horse-Racing, Lying and Swearing, Stealing and Swindling, Perjury, Burglary, Murder, Suicide.”[i] Rush’s prescription was to leave beer untaxed and impose “the heaviest of taxes on whiskey distilleries.”[ii] The federal government largely obliged. As mentioned in the introduction article, spirits were the first domestic product to be taxed, beginning in 1791. Beer was not taxed until over 70 years later, when the Civil War needed funding.

The Temperance movement that quickly emerged in America also initially distinguished between spirits and lower-ABV alcohol. In fact, the movement’s growth is strongly linked to the increasing consumption of spirits, especially by immigrants. Over time, however, temperance groups began opposing alcohol in all its forms, a result of strategic and cultural shifts within the movement.[iii] As opposition to alcohol mounted in the early 20th century and the possibility of Prohibition became more real, brewers like Adolphus Busch attempted to ward off the movement by appealing to the sentiments of the Rush school of thought, arguing that yes, liquor should be banned, but not beer, beer was different! But the world was no longer on board, and the strategy backfired, especially when Prohibition advocates seized on the first World War to associate the enemy Germans with drinking—with beers like Budweiser, Schlitz, and Pabst as Exhibit A.

Despite the 18th Amendment’s refusal to differentiate, the post-Prohibition legal landscape incorporated the same separation between spirits and other alcohol as existed before. In the last few years, state governments have relaxed restrictions on spirits production in response to the craft boom, and the hard stuff is more available than perhaps it ever has been. But while a few production barriers have been lifted, and the consumer in many states notices little difference between buying whiskey and wine, making and selling spirits continues to be a very different legal animal, from license cost to bonding to waiting times for permits to reporting requirements to retail license quotas to location restrictions and on and on and on. After centuries of haggling over the role of “ardent spirits”, Uncle Sam remains committed to ensuring that the gates of Gin Lane stay locked.

[i], Pp. 6-7

[ii], Pg. 276

[iii] Strategically, attacking alcohol in general made for more straightforward, consistent arguments about the nature of the saloon, the money spent on booze, etc. Culturally, the movement was swept up in the puritanical, idealistic fervor of turn-of-the-century Progressivism. There were no half-measures allowed.

One thought on “Beer Street and Gin Lane: Why Liquor is Treated Differently from Beer and Wine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s