I've been reading Harold McGee's fascinating On Food and Cooking, and the chapter on alcohol has some interesting historical notes. He describes the widely varied and creative methods used in various cultures to produce alcoholic beverages from available ingredients: wine in the Mediterranean, beer in the Middle East and later in Europe, sake and other rice wines in East Asia, and so on.
It got me wondering:
Which cultures did not historically have a traditional method for producing alcohol?
For instance, I am not sure that pre-Colombian North American cultures knew about alcohol. Is there any evidence one way or the other? (In South America, the Inca had chicha.)
I am most interested in cultures where alcohol was (effectively) unknown. I am less interested in cultures where it was known but forbidden or discouraged (Islam, for example).
I've heard before that the reason that many Native Americans are alcoholics is because they didn't have alcoholic beverages, and thus they didn't build up a resistance to it. I don't know how true that is.
As for people not knowing anything about alcohol, there was this one instance in New Guinea during WWII where a C-47 crashed into an unknown valley, where the inhabitants didn't have any knowledge of alcohol. The book Lost in Shangri-La which tells the story of the event states that as part of an airdrop "...alcohol had entered Shangri-La for the first time in recorded history"(pg 226). At that point, the valley had somewhere in the realm of 80-100,000 people in it, so while completely isolated still had a significant number of people.
The Otomi'. the Tlaxcalan, the Nahua (Aztecs), the Tarasca, the Zapotec, the Huastec, the Totonac, the Mejica, and the Mixtec all knew pulque (Poohl - kei), which is derived from the self-fermenting sap of the highland Maguey....a large, rough relative of the lily family. Alcohol content varies according to sub-species, elevation (high or higher...5,000 to 8,000 fasl) but can range from 6% to 15%. It was reserved, usually for the priests and leading warriors and aristocracy / royalty of the primordial Toltec, who are correctly associated with the Pyramids of Teotihuacan, northeast of Mexico City about 35 miles. (The famous pyramids)
The Quicholes (Huichole) incorporated peyote in their "religious" celebrations and activities, most of it drawn from the Sierra de Catorce in San Luis Postosi State of Mexico. And, most of the northern, very remote Indians such as the Rararuri (aka - Tarahumara) have their corn-mash "tezquino" a gross dishwater whiskey of highly variable quality and potency, Mayo, Yaqui, Mescalero and other Apaches did make another form of Maguey-based firewater known as Mescal. Mescal is also produced in Oaxaca by descendants of the Zapotecs. Mescal can have a proof of 110 up to 140. When sugar cane began to be produced in Mexico rum was begun as a distillate with some popularity, but the local people preferred the much more powerful "aguardiente" or "burning water". Mescal, for bonded and disciplined sale, can still be found in 100 or 105 proof in Oaxaca. It is both milder and more potent than people might suspect....it is also very "organic".
All of the above, save for rum, of course, were present when the first Spanish explorers arrived into Mexico, beginning in the early 1520s.