Alcohol is probably the most common recreational drug after cigarettes. It is accepted in most cultural circles and in some it is even encouraged as part of special rituals, although some cultures renounce it completely. The word alcohol itself comes from Arabic al-kuhl, meaning a sort of powder used as an eyeliner. In this article, we use the word alcohol completely synonymously with the the scientific term ethanol.
Alcohol, more correctly ethanol (the word ‘alcohol’ in chemistry in itself refers to any organic compound satisfying certain chemical traits; other example is methanol, commonly known as wood alcohol), has been fermented from sugar as early as at least one thousand years ago. There is historic evidence implying that even as far back as in the New Stone Age (around 10,000 B.C.) people consumed alcohol beverages.
Distillation, a physical separation process where mixtures are separated based on their different boiling points, has been crucial in the production and procurement of alcohol. This method was already well known by early Greeks and Arabs. The first recorded production of alcohol from distilled wine was in the 12th century in Italy, whereas the first synthetic preparation of ethanol was in 1826 by Henry Hennel in Great Britain. Alcohol itself is gained using the method of fermentation, the process of culturing yeast.
Alcohol as a Social and Legal Factor
In terms of legal history, alcohol has shown wide acceptance within society as a recreational drug taken in moderation. Various religious stances on this throughout Europe in the 15th to 18th century indicate this approach: “Alcohol is a gift of God, created to be used in moderation for pleasure, enjoyment and health.” Drunkenness, however, was considered a sin.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw the invention, discovery and popularization of several common alcoholic drinks such as champagne (16th century in France), whiskey (15th century in Ireland/Scotland), gin (17th century in Holland). Alongside the invention of those drinks there was legislation enacted in order to regulate their use. England passed in 1690 “An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn” (corn meaning here grain), as often, the popularization and regulation of alcohol meant increased tax revenue for the state. However, positive legislation wasn’t the only result of the popularization of alcohol.
After the Gin Epidemic in Great Britain, where, due to increasing prosperity on the one hand and competition of the cheap gin with the more expensive French brandy, gin consumption per capita rose to a frightening high (at its peak 18 million gallons a year as per a population of 6.5 million people), the British Parliament passed legislation to discourage consumption by prohibiting the sale of gin in quantities of less than two gallons and raising the tax on it dramatically.
Drunkenness was widely accepted in Europe as late as the 18th century, however with rising industrialization in the 19th century, it came to be much less accepted as the need for a reliable and punctual work force grew, and the detrimental effects of widespread abuse of alcohol became public.
Various Uses In Industry
Alongside being produced for personal consumption, alcohol has varying and different uses in industry. Ethanol’s main and largest single use is as a motor fuel, mainly as a biofuel additive to gasoline. Two of the world’s main producing countries of biofuel are Brazil and the United States, together accounting for 88% of global ethanol fuel production in 2011. This fuel is produced from very common crops such as sugar cane, potato, manioc and corn and is thus considered renewable energy. Typical blends are 10% ethanol (the rest is gasoline), which is accepted by most U.S. cars todays. In Brazil, the government made it mandatory to blend gasoline with ethanol, and since 2007 the legal minimum blend is 25% ethanol, 75% gasoline. In addiction, so called flex-fuel automobiles, which are experiencing a wave of popularity in Brazil, can use any combination of gasoline and ethanol, including pure (100%) ethanol. Despite its branding as a renewable energy source, the use of alcohol fuel is not without its doubts: producing ethanol requires large stretches and arable land, which may increase food prices. In addition, ethanol fuel pollutes the air with CO2 up to 19% more than traditional gasoline fuel. This has led many to question this particular use of ethanol and suggest moving to centralized biomass energy production methods, which may be more friendly on the environment.
Other uses of ethanol include utilizing it as rocket fuel, or as a base chemical for other organic compounds. It plays a role as an antiseptic, most commonly in antibacterial hand sanitizer gels, as ethanol is known to kill organisms and to be effective against most bacteria and fungi. Another area of use is treatment for poisoning by other alcohols, particularly methanol. Ethanol is also a solvent, found in paints and some personal care products such as perfumes and deodorants.
Historically, prior to the development of modern medicine, alcohol served a multitude of medical purposes. It was reputed to be a truth drug, as is evident by the Latin saying ‘in vino veritas’ (in wine lies the truth’), as well as medicine for depression.
What Is Alcohol Made Of?
Chemically, all alcohols can be defined as organic compounds in which a hydroxyl functional group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom. In simpler terms, alcohols are made of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Ethanol specifically, being a subset of alcohol, retains this structure while refining it into the empirical molecular formula of C2H6O, translating into two carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The process of fermentation turns sugars, principally glucose and sucrose, into ethanol, by heating them up to 35-40 degrees.
Alcohol is probably the one of the most prominent recreational drug to achieve popularity among humans in both its rational consumption form, where it has seen wide acceptance and even encouragement in countless cultures, and in its extreme use forms, which not seldom lead to severe physical conditions, even death. Hardly any other drug is more associated with both leisure time convenience, ritual necessity, on the one hand, and on the other with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, products of many individuals being subdued to the drug’s addictive force.