Selling ideas of moderate drinking: Alcohol producers in late Victorian Britain

First published: 09 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019


This paper explores the commercial tactics of alcohol producers in the late nineteenth century. This was a period when the drink trade faced moral scrutiny from temperance campaigners and the threat to business posed by new licensing laws that placed restrictions on alcohol sale and consumption. Trade defence was one aspect of the measures taken by alcohol producers and retailers to stem the moral and political ‘offensive’ against the liquor trade. However drunkenness was the real enemy of the drink trade and in order to protect business interests, it was important that alcohol should be regarded as a ‘respectable’ commodity that was consumed moderately by the majority of drinkers. In essence, the drink trade had to sell the idea of moderate drinking and in order to do so, it was necessary to imbue alcohol with notions of respectability that could be marketed and sold to consumers.


The study involved archival research which examined the private business records of major alcohol producers in the late Victorian period. This yielded qualitative and quantitative data. The study uses sociological theories to analyse the data  –  particularly Baudrillard’s ideas about generating consumer needs and desires and Veblen’s ideas about conspicuous consumption. The paper presents case studies of three alcohol producers and retailers: James Buchanan & Co. Ltd, whisky producers, W&A Gilbey, wine and spirit merchants and Bass & Co. brewers.

Results and Conclusions

The drink trade flourished throughout the late Victorian period not only by organising politically through trade defence but also through commercial tactics. In order to secure and increase sales it was vital to reach consumers and the most successful way to do this was to generate the ‘need to need’ alcohol. The way to do this was to try and reinvent drinking as a socially acceptable and indeed desirable activity. Alcohol could not be marketed as an intoxicant  –  that risked a connection with drunkenness. Instead it had to be marketed in a more abstract way through associations with cultural ideals.


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