Ever since the dawn of civilisation, Mankind has sought to gather and cultivate resources for the production of food and drink, while devising ways to preserve, store and transport such essential commodities in a sustainable manner. Despite the efforts made by our ancestors over several millennia, it would only be in the late 19th and predominantly in the 20th century that most consumables could be packaged and stored for any durable length of time before spoiling. Food and most beverages deteriorate rapidly due to natural factors such as bacteria and temperature resulting in fermentation and rot. While this posed a huge nuisance and challenge, it was observed that certain drinks did not spoil through fermentation but actually improved in body and taste. This due to the production of alcohol as a result of the natural chemical processes involved. In turn, the value of such drinks containing alcohol was discovered due to the inherent properties of this element, which can inebriate and intoxicate the human mind and body. Since then drinks containing alcohol have been consumed for every conceivable purpose ranging from simple enjoyment to religious functions, as medication, to control pain, as a disinfectant, as a preservative, and so much more. From social and health perspectives, moderate consumption by adults is actually considered to be beneficial, however when abused, alcohol can have very serious and detrimental consequences.1
A large Neolithic Wine Fermenting Jar dating back to around 6000BC found in Georgia, Europe
Going back in time Mankind discovered the processes and learned the science of fermentation, distillation and conservation of liquids suitable for human consumption and satisfaction. This went hand-in-hand with the development of receptacles, first made from pottery, then glass, and eventually metal and plastic, as per today's aluminium cans and PET bottles. Evidence of fermented beverages has been found and documented across the world in sites dating as far back as 7000 BC. In many cultures, alcoholic beverages were linked to spiritual beliefs and consumed on particular occasions as a group rather than on an individual basis. Such perceptions and habits expanded over time and as empires and trade flourished larger quantities and varieties became available to just about everyone. After the first known meads, came wines, beers and all the rest eventually.
The value of such drinks went far beyond tribal spirituality or Roman hedonism. The same way the Romans used sea salt as a form of currency, hence the word salarium - salary, a term still in use, the practice of making payments to workmen in ancient Iraq with alcoholic drinks goes back to at least 3000BC. In Egypt too, workers building the great pyramid of Giza were in part compensated by a daily distribution of beer for nutrition and refreshment.
Clay tablet recording daily beer ration for workers in Mesopotamia (South Iraq) from around 3000BC
From a military perspective, alcoholic drinks have long since been distributed to serving men with a number of aims depending on the circumstances ranging from fortifying courage, to numb pain, or even as a reward. While all this might be considered as rather primitive, one has to bear in mind that the practice of part-payment using alcohol was still in use by the British Royal Navy until 1970, after having been introduced in 1850 as the rum ration or tot.2&3 And if one digs deeper, it was actually in 1740 when this custom was first introduced, by the Royal Navy at least. Ample historical evidence demonstrates the practice is as old as the first organised fighting formations and armies through time.
Daily rum ration for sailors of the Royal Navy
Whatever the purpose of alcohol consumption, one must consider that prior to the industrial revolution and subsequent technological development, it was only such drinks that could be stored for any length of time beyond a few days. Aside of brews made from tea or other leaves, coffee and chocolate. The latter two were unknown to Europe before the 16th century, with chocolate originally being served as a beverage and not in the solid way we think of it today. The common element shared between them and tea is the possibility of long-term storage through desiccation.
18th Century nobles enjoying chocolate in its original form
Most other non-alcoholic beverages such as milk or fruit / vegetable derived drinks had to be consumed as fresh as possible and within a very limited span of time. In the 13th century sugar was introduced to the Mediterranean from India and Southeast Asia. People realised that adding sugar crystals improved the taste of most drinks and preserved them for much longer, leading to Sicily and Cyprus becoming important centresfor its production. In today's world, soft-drinks, the term for non-alcoholic beverages, still contain large quantities of sugar. However, modern research shows that large amounts of sugar are detrimental to one's health hence caution should be exerted as not to consume much of this substance, especially since apart from beverage manufacture, sugar is used as a preservative in my processed foods.
Production stages of sugar extraction & refinement from the Universal Magazine published in London (1749)
Coming to the local scenario the Maltese islands were renowned by Roman writers for the production of good quality consumables and commodities. This included honey, which can be added to wine to make mead. The climate of the central Mediterranean is dry and arid, often leading to shortages of fresh water in the peak of summer. For this reason, upon Rome's establishment in Malta as a result of the Punic Wars, wine was diluted and consumed as a way of saving water. And in both Rome and Malta, ample evidence defines the important role of wine on Roman life and culture. After the fall of Rome, Malta fell under Byzantine jurisdiction until the Arabic invasion of the late 9th century AD. Very little is known about both these periods, and archeologic evidence indicates that although the islands were inhabited throughout, the population was very small in terms of numbers.
Large variety of Roman Amphorae at the Cittadella Museum in Victoria, Gozo
The Arabs are thought to have been the first to introduce citrus trees (such as oranges and lemons) to Malta and implement effective irrigation projects. Such fruits would eventually be used to create both alcoholic beverages such as liqueurs or digestifs and serve as a key ingredient to lemonades and similar soft-drinks. After the Arabs came the Normans, Swabians, French (Anjou) and Aragonese resulting in an influx of people who settled here over the centuries bringing novel knowledge and methods.
Arrival of the Order of St. John in Malta in 1530 AD
This phenomenon was repeated with the arrival of the Order of St. John and its Knight and all that came with them: People, products, methods and alcoholic beverage recipes. While wine and other such drinks are known to have been produced and sold locally through this time, manufacture was limited and supplemented by importation. Two historical events then changed everything. Firstly came the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent improvement of working methods and materials. Secondly, the British established Malta as a naval base as from the early 19th century, bringing a great influx of sailors and servicemen in transit to and from the corners of the Empire. The first element made mass production viable while the second factor generated a huge demand for all sorts of consumables, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Early British Malta Grand Harbour Scene - Notice the large barrel in transit
Information is sparse and much research is yet to be carried out to establish precise details as to the first local entrepreneurs and their respective products. The earliest examples in our archive derive from the late 19th to the early 20th century. As the years rolled by, manufacturing methods improved further enabling large scale production and distribution and so came around the foundation of our beverage industry. To read about the individual history and products of Maltese manufacturers, kindly click the links below. Click on image to leave page or underlying script to open in new tab
Notes and References 1. Our intention here is to demonstrate the history and culture of the beverage industry, (and includes) images promoting the consumption of alcohol from historical and cultural perspectives. It is not intended to encourage anyone to drink alcoholic beverages. If you need help to stop drinking seek assistance at aamalta.org.mt 2. The introduction of the tot ration hereby referred to concerns the volume administered from 1850-1970 resulting from a parliamentary debate held in 1850 which considered total abolition but only led to halving the tot. 3. Although other ranks were still given rum rations until 1970, the practice was eliminated for officers in 1881 and Warrant Officers in 1918. Resources Evidence of the World's earliest Winemaking uncovered by Archeologists (Feature - Theguardian.com) How was Alcohol first made? - (Comment - Quora.com) The Evolution of Chocolate in Europe (Blog - Chocolateclass.wordpress.com) Black Tot Day by Gary Ardnt (Podcast - Medium.com) Images Cover image shows Marsovin Cellars, Malta - Temporary place-holder until we upload our own photo. Neolithic Fermentation Jar - geo-logaritmica.com Collage made up of images sourced from Classicalwisdom.com, Teletype.in, Medium.com & Eyesofrome.com Mesopotamian Tablet - British Museum Rum Ration - Blacktot.com Painting by Pietro Longhi titled "The Morning Chocolate" from 1775-1780C sourced from Alimentarium.com Sugar Manufacture - Library of Congress (Public domain) Roman Amphorae - Tripadvisor.com L-Isle Adam, 1st Grand Master of the Order of St. John in Malta (cropped) - TimesofMalta.com Early British Malta Grand Harbour Scene (cropped) - musuemstjohn.org blog
Some images may have been cropped, resized or altered for better clarity and presentation