Do you enjoy a well-aged Bordeaux? I do too. The best, most-stable Bordeaux can age 50-100 years or more and be ready to drink. And scotch can also age for decades. But what about really old drinks, in the thousands of years? Obviously, we are talking about the world’s oldest alcoholic drinks. And while none of them actually survive intact, archaeological and historical evidence can teach us about them — what they were, and what they may have tasted like.
But how exactly do archaeologists and historians find this stuff? First, archaeologists find ancient artifacts at dig sites. When they find things that look like they could have been eating or drinking vessels, or food and beverage storage pots, then they do chemical analysis on them. They then use those findings to discern what the vessels held. As for historians, they use the written records of civilizations to carefully reconstruct a picture of their daily lives. So let’s examine the five oldest alcoholic drinks in the history of mankind. Bear in mind that there is always a level of interpretation in these findings.
1. Rice Mead, Jiahu, China: 7,000 BCE.
Just like China holds the record for the world’s oldest noodles, it looks like the oldest alcoholic drink known to mankind was also Chinese. Jiahu is on the site of a Neolithic (New Stone Age) village that held a few hundred residents. It was a complex, cultured village, and had multiple living spaces and communal spaces. And, as it turns out, its residents enjoyed drinking! Pottery from the site reveals that it held a sort of mead-wine, made from yeast, rice, honey, and hawthorn berries. It would most likely have been a sweet drink with only moderate alcohol content, but still, it was indeed alcoholic, and popular.
2. Indian Mead, Rigveda Text, 4,000 BCE.
The Rigveda is a very ancient Hindu religious and philosophical text, one of the foundations of modern Hindu religion and culture. Madhu Madya refers to a drink described in the sacred text. It was made from yeast, honey, herbs, and vegetables. As you can see, fermented honey drinks seem to be the oldest that people made.
3. Hebrew Wine, The Bible, c. 3,000 BCE.
Dating the oldest manuscripts of the Bible is a difficult task, for many reasons. There is an entire field of study — textual criticism — devoted to dating ancient texts. Some of the Bible’s oldest books describe wine in detail, making it clear that it is made from the grapevine. Thus, we know that wine, more or less as we know it today, was produced and drunk by the ancient Hebrews. In fact, it was an enormously important part of their culture, as it still is today.
4. Etruscan Wine, 3,000 BCE.
Before the Romans co-opted civilization, there were the Etruscans. These ancient, mysterious people, with their own language that seems unrelated to other European languages, were the original gourmets. Predating Rome, the Etruscans built a complex, advanced civilization, and even had hot and cold indoor running water. They were a major influence on the Romans and the Greeks, and like them, the Etruscans loved wine. Though their language is not completely deciphered, ancient Etruscan murals depict people making red wine from grapes, and consuming it in large amounts.
5. Babylonian Beer, 2,700 BCE.
There are many ancient Babylonian accounts of making and drinking beer as we know it today — a fermented beverage made from grains. Unlike the honey-sweet mead of other ancient civilizations, the Babylonians seemed to prefer drinking unsweetened beer, as we do today. The Code of Hammurabi, which was a code of law created by the famous king Hammurabi, and which included many principles of justice that we still follow today, dedicated space to describing beer and its consumption.
Drinking alcoholic beverages is an ancient tradition, as old as mankind. Perhaps, millennia ago, someone accidentally introduced yeast to honey or fruit juice, tasted the result, and enjoyed the feeling. However it happened, we know that drinking is a long and important tradition in all civilizations of the world, and it continues today. So when you open that beer or wine bottle tonight, think about the thousands of years of people who have done so before you, and raise a glass in their honor.