Water vs wine: what did they used to drink?

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If you try searching ‘did they drink water or wine’ on the internet, you will quickly find there are as many articles citing that beer and wine was a preferred drink in the past, as there are articles debunking this myth.

Rather than retell what you can already find out there, this blog will instead look at some interesting uses of ‘waters’ – or other alcoholic beverages – throughout history.

Before we look at the fun stuff, please let me reiterate – while they drank wine and beer (amongst other things), they also used to drink water. People of the past also knew that water from a flowing source, that was both clear and odorless, was the best type of liquid to drink. You can find plenty of articles with references if you run a quick google search. They also used to enjoy alcohol for much the same reasons that we do today.

Now to the more interesting history around what they used to drink…

Sailors and rum

It is true that ships carried a significant amount of rum. This is because water taken on boats was no good to drink after just a few days – and they were often at sea for weeks on end. Once the water turned foul, they would then often turn to beer, as it was lower in alcohol than other choices. However, once the beer was opened, it too began to sour rather quickly. They also carried copious supplies of rum, which lasted much longer because of the alcohol content (about 57% alcohol by volume). It had the unfortunate side effect of making the sailors (or pirates) quite drunk, but it was also used as a drink before fights to increase ‘bravado’ – it still has the same effect today!

I don’t know about you, but I wonder how they counteracted the dehydration from so much alcohol – but I guess if you are surrounded by an ocean of water you can’t drink, you soon learn to adjust to the type of liquid you do have, and possibly look forward to any rain for washing as well as drinking.

When drinking wine saved a town

Those of you who follow my Instagram @belindacarli.author would be well aware that my first novel is set in the beautiful town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany. What you may not be aware of, is this town has a very interesting drinking history. Back in 1631, the Mayor of this town saved it from destruction by drinking just over three litres of wine in one long skol.  

This occurred during the Thirty Years War, where the town was temporarily taken over by the Count of Tilly. He had destroyed several other towns and when he arrived in Rothenburg, he prepared to do the same. When he tasted wine of the region and enjoyed it so much, he offered the town an alternative: if anyone in that town could drink a whole tankard of wine in one go, he would set the town free. If the person failed in their attempt, he would kill them.

The Mayor of the time, Georg Nusch, decided that since the town was about to be destroyed and he would be killed anyway, he might as well give it a try – so he did, succeeded, and won his town back.

It is worth noting that the wine of the time was little stronger than the beer of today – so while drinking 3.25 litres of beer-strength wine is still impressive, it at least explains how he accomplished this task…

I’m a wine lover but I couldn’t manage to drink this much, so I’m just as in awe as the County of Tilly must have been!

Plague water

In the days of the plague (17th century in particular), a medicinal drink that was made and sold quite regularly was ‘plague water’.

This was a combination of various herbs steeped in white wine over three days. While the exact combination and types of herbs varied depending on the region and vendor, it was not at all regulated like the alcoholic beverages or medicines of today; and some combinations may also have been potentially hazardous to one’s health. Still, the plague was considered even worse…

Plaque waters promised to cure and prevent the plague – and if they didn’t work, it was usually attributed to the person not taking it correctly, or early enough in the disease. What they were really doing was promising hope in a very dark time of history.

Which was discovered first – beer or wine?

Pottery jars from Mesopotamia (in a region now known as Iran) show beer was brewed as far back as 6,000BC. Originally from barley, some sources suggest that is was ‘discovered’ accidentally when grains used for bread fermented. The brewing and consumption of beer was also recorded in ancient China, Greece and Egypt; and although the Romans preferred drink was wine, their ‘peasants’ often drank beer instead. 

Wine can be dated back to South Caucasus (a region now known as Georgia) also back to 6,000BC. Their civilisation found that grape juice could be preserved by turning it into wine, a discovery made by burying their juice underground for the winter.

I don’t want to start a fight amongst the wine and beer lovers out there… I’m sure we can agree that sometime around 6,000BC our ancestors stumbled upon some much loved discoveries.

When alcohol was outlawed

While some religions and cultures prohibit the consumption of alcohol even today, its presence in many parts of the world and our society are considered ritualistic, and even intrinsic.  

However, the USA banned alcohol as recently as 1920 – 1933, in an attempt to curb crime, corruption and a bevy of social problems including taxes from prisons and even issues with public health and hygiene. While some of these efforts were futile, it did clean up the ‘saloon houses’ of the time somewhat, and made drinking at home and amongst women more acceptable.

Where are we today?

We now know the importance of drinking 2+ litres of water per day, and the need for clean drinking water. We now have multiple sources of water sanitation and standards on which to test the purity and suitability of drinking water, and water is now available, and more costly, per litre than fuel.

I remember growing up when cordial (water sweetened with a sugary flavoured syrup) was popular, and going to the local ‘deli’ one could only purchase fizzy drinks, juice or milk. By the time I reached my late teens, water was the ‘go to’ drink available everywhere, and its health benefits were widely publicised.

I’ve got to say, alcohol in its various forms remains as popular as ever – but at least now we know we should be balancing it with plenty of water and hydrating well the next day. While brewing techniques and varieties have advanced, our enjoyment has no doubt remained the same.

Here’s cheers (prost, santé, salud, kanpai, saúde, skål, geonbae… ) I could keep going but you get the idea.


Published by Belinda Carli

Belinda is the Founder and Director of the Institute, and has worked with hundreds of brands on thousands of products for over 20 years. She started her career as a Naturopath, specialising in herbal medicine, before moving into a Regulatory role within an International company overseeing a variety of personal care and ingestible therapeutic goods. She grew within this role over the years to also cover Project Management of multiple SKUs and work closely with the R&D Department, before moving into her own business as a consultant for personal care and supplement regulatory affairs and formulation. After being a private consultant for a few years, she was asked to train some of her Company Clients and decided to work with the Department of Education in Australia to develop full Government Registered and Recognised courses. She then worked with peers in the industry to develop the Diploma of Personal Care Formulation and Diploma of Cosmetic Brand Management, and finally, in 2007, the Institute of Personal Care Science and the Industry Recognised courses were launched. Since then, Belinda has grown the Institute to what it is today and has presented hundreds of videos on Youtube on various formulation, regulatory and brand management topics. She has been the Official Technical Advisor to the in-cosmetics Group internationally for 5 years and a judge on International Beauty Awards Panels for many years. She has written 5 books on Beginners and Advanced Cosmetic Formulation, Organic and Colour Cosmetic Formulation and Brand Management. She has also been a regular presenter at major International events and her work can be found in many national and International publications, UL Prospector and Special Chem formulators site. She has also created the Create Cosmetic Formulas program, an online site that enables people with no prior experience to pick and choose ingredients they want in a formula, and then shows them how to put the product together. She is a member of the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists (ASCC) and International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists (IFSCC). She was the winner of the Annual Industry Award from CHC Australia for her contribution to Research and Training and was a finalist in the Australian Telstra Business Women’s Awards in 3 categories.

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