The Water of Life and Death: A Brief Economic History of Spirits


Giulia Meloni

Giulia Meloni is Maître de Conférences at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB); Research Manager at the LICOS Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance at the University of Leuven; and Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels, Belgium. She holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Leuven, a Master's degree in Advanced Economics from the same university and a bachelor’s degree from LUISS University, Rome. She was previously a Robert M. Solow Post-Doctoral Fellow, and a short-term consultant at the European Commission and the United Nations. Her research focuses on wine regulations, agriculture and food policy, institutional reform, trade and product standards.

This paper is the first to present an overview of the economic history of spirits, which includes an analysis of the emergence of spirits in history, its economic and health effects, the government and industry regulations it has induced and recent evolutions in the market. For millennia alcoholic drinks have played an important role in the economy and life more generally (both positive and negative). Spirits differ from wine and beer in that they have spread relatively recently in history, but when they spread they caused more problems of overconsumption. Governments have intervened extensively in spirits markets to reduce excessive consumption and to raise taxes. These regulations have contributed to, and been affected by, evolving patterns of consumption and changing structures of spirits industries.

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