Review: “Drinking History”

Serenity Sutherland

Andrew F. Smith. Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. x, 250 pp.

America has an ebullient past of diverse and shifting beverage tastes that intersect histories of politics, economics, social movements, and global influences. This is the story Andrew F. Smith tells by analyzing important historical moments in Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages. Like a narrative mixologist, Smith throws together seemingly unlikely ingredients: beer, wine, rum, cider, whiskey, tea, coffee, milk, bottled water, juice, and soft drinks. The book is not organized by individual drinks per se; Smith focuses on time periods such as colonial diversity and the temperance movement as he traces the development of American drinking habits. For instance, the chapter “Colonial Diversity” examines the beverages of colonial society including familiar drinks such as rum, beer, wine, and brandy, as well as mixed drinks that are less familiar: syllabub, posset, flips, shrubs, and cherry bounces. Similarly, the chapter “To Root Out a Bad Habit” examines the temperance period that led to the passage of the Volstead Act and National Prohibition. The remaining chapters, however, focus on a single type or category of beverage, such as “youth” drinks–juices and soft drinks.

Smith introduces each chapter’s theme with a catchy story that captures the beverage’s role in and connections to larger American society. Then, Smith delves into the history of the time period that heightened the significance of the “turning point.” For instance, Smith begins the chapter on Prohibition on the eve of the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. Smith then travels back in time, tracing how Americans from Increase Mather in colonial times to Benjamin Rush in early America dealt with drunkenness. Chapters like “The Judgment of Paris” explain the significance of place and history to the success and popularity of a particular beverage. For so long, French and Italian wines were viewed as the eminent vintages, best exemplified in American history by Thomas Jefferson’s affinity for expensive European wine. Now, Americans feature wines from California to New York and Chile to South Africa on their lists of “best of class” vintages.

Some chapters also include recipes to make the beverage in question, including a colonial recipe for roasting coffee and an unfermented wine recipe for communion during Prohibition. The chapters end with a description of how the beverage is integrated into American society today, as well as postscript notes that read as a “who’s who” and historical timeline. These additions include spicy tidbits about company factions and corporate buy-outs, details like birth and death dates of prominent figures, and the dates of larger national movements, such as wars and elections, that played a role in the chapter’s narrative.

Virtually every chapter ends with the same theme: mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, this is the subtle brilliance of Smith’s story.

The story of American beverages is about the diminution of small businesses leading to conglomerate corporate control. Iced teas and juices that began with small businessmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sell to larger corporations like Kraft and Nestle, which then go through mergers and acquisitions of their own. Today’s familiar corporations like Diageo, Anheuser Busch (now owned by InBev), and Constellation Brands bought out local distilleries, small time beer brewers and family owned wineries. Smith writes that he hopes his book will “provide insight into how we ended up where we are today” as well as “provide inspiration for alternative approaches for the future” (viii). These alternative approaches become clear in the sections on beer, wine, spirits, and to an extent, coffee, as Smith tells us that small brewers, distillers, and wineries have sprung up to compete with the larger corporations.

Smith places great value on the agency of American consumers who have the power to bring larger corporations to task by making thoughtful drink choices. Increasingly, consumers seek beverages with taste, character, and a business culture that emphasizes quality of the product over shareholder earning statements. This is especially true in the craft beer market where consumers deliberately purchase flavorful, quality beer made by local crafters using locally grown hops, barley, yeast, and water. This is one of the best features of the book, and it offers a hopeful yet cautious tone for the future of the American beverage industry.

Each chapter reads as its own unique essay, full of historical information, which makes it quite useful for short readings for a class or factual research. Reading the book straight through, however, is frustrating due to the repetitive nature of Smith’s style. For instance, readers will encounter the definition of a syllabub–a drink made with frothy, spiced milk or cream mixed with cider, wine, and sugar–half a dozen times. Dr. Benjamin Rush is also featured extensively as one of the first alcohol reformers. These are only a handful of examples, as Smith treats each chapter as its own unit, re-explaining as he goes along. In terms of content, readers may wonder why certain beverages, such as the controversial absinthe, were excluded from this history. The book also lacks good coverage of beverages from non-European ethnic backgrounds, such as rice-based alcohols like sake. Likewise, tequila and vodka receive only a few short paragraphs (136-7). Also missing is coverage of topics relating to the drinking age debate, which for many youths in America is one of the greatest “turning points” of their lives.

Overall, Smith’s engaging narrative style provides the reader with specific and useful facts. The book will surely be useful to scholars in history, anthropology, American studies and others who are interested in the culture of American beverages. Scholars interested in the development of corporations and business history will surely find details about the rise of American companies such as Starbucks, Kool-Aid and Welch’s (to name a few) useful. Researchers focused on the food and beverage industry will also find a great resource in the fact-packed pages of Smith’s book.


Serenity Sutherland is a PhD student at the University of Rochester writing her dissertation on Ellen H. Richards. This project captures her research interests of the history of women and gender in science, the environment, and Progressive-era reform efforts. She is currently an Andrew W. Mellon fellow in the Digital Humanities working on the Seward Family Papers Project to digitize and transcribe the family papers of William Henry Seward. She has taught courses on the history of food and beverage, sustainability, health, gender and feminism.

Download a PDF of this review.