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).


4 Answers 4


These did not have indigenous alcoholic beverages, aiming to be as exhaustive as possible:

  • 5
    @Canageek Inuit is scarcely better, as it excludes the Yupik; it would be a bit like saying English to mean British. It has replaced Eskimo in Canada because Canada conveniently does not have a significant Yupik population.
    – choster
    Aug 9, 2012 at 21:09
  • 8
    @Canageek "Eskimo" is only considered pejorative in Canada, based on a disputed etymology of the word. In Alaska "Eskimo" is not considered pejorative and means the collection of both Inuit and Yupik peoples. And on top of that, there are also the Aleut, who may or may not have been meant to be included by the use of "Eskimo" in the Hornsey source. Unless the source is specific enough to re-derive the indicated group(s), cites of it should use "Eskimo", probably with scare quotes. Aug 10, 2012 at 7:48
  • 1
    @SevenSidedDie Huh, interesting. Do you have a cite for that? I'd like to read about it, because I was always told Eskimo meant "People who talked with forked tougns" or somesuch. Last time I heard Eskimo used in Canada was in kindergarten.
    – Canageek
    Aug 10, 2012 at 14:03
  • 8
    Ugh... I would rather use racist term, than FALSELY suggest that some information is sourced when it isn't. Current source says "Eskimo", so if you say "Inuit" please reference some other source or leave it unreferenced.
    – kubanczyk
    Aug 26, 2012 at 13:56
  • 8
    @Canageek - you do realize that many non-US cultures offucially call them Eskimos in their native language, right (e.g. in russian). Let's tone down on useless political correctness.
    – DVK
    Mar 15, 2013 at 17:07

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.

  • 5
    New Guinea is an interesting story, just because its highlands held a huge agricultural popuplation mostly cut off from the rest of the world by impassible tropical jungle near the coasts. It wasn't until the advent of air travel that anybody realized there were civilizations in there. Still, the potato made it in there from South America somehow...
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 30, 2012 at 19:20
  • I heard the same about Yakuts and other indigenous peoples of Russian Far East and North.
    – Anixx
    Mar 15, 2013 at 14:13

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.

  • 4
    You have raised some interesting points in your post; but without any references the post's value is limited, and without proper formatting it is difficult to read. If you fix these I will up-vote. Nov 20, 2013 at 21:59

Another people that didn’t have alcohol were the indigenous people of Aotearoa (NZ). The Māori never had any plants or alcohol in their system, while many Polynesian islanders drank ground Cava.

  • Plants are less relevant here. + Kava isn't alcohol. Do you mean: 'It's the Pacific alternative inebriant'? Jun 16, 2020 at 12:08
  • 4
    Since sources would improve this answer: Te Iwi Maori me te Inu Waipiro: He Tuhituhinga Hitori Jun 16, 2020 at 12:15

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