History's Wildest Drinking Clubs
June 23, 2020 –––––– Susannah Skiver Barton
Getting together with friends to enjoy a drink, or several, isn't a new trend. For as long as people have made alcohol, they've been gathering to imbibe in groups. From the ecstatic religious rituals of the Dionysians to rock music's biggest names, these are some of history's wildest drinking clubs.
Cult of Dionysus
Ancient Greece and Rome—1600 B.C.-third century A.D.
As the Greek god of wine and fertility, Dionysus inspired hedonistic celebrations across a number of ancient cultures for millennia, with many euphoric rituals shrouded in mystery but always involving wine. Participants often came from marginalized groups like slaves, women, and non-citizens. The cult of Dionysus persisted even into the Roman era, when the Senate attempted to regulate what was then known as Bacchanalia (for Bacchanal, the Roman pantheon's equivalent god). In 41 B.C., Cleopatra and Marc Antony supposedly started a Dionysian secret group called “Inimitable Livers.”
The Good Humour Club
York, England—18th century
Comprising a group of no more than eighteen middle-class men with occupations ranging from surgeon and apothecary to organist and rector, this club's purpose was seemingly focused on conviviality alone; meetings, twice-yearly suppers, and special occasions were celebrated with punch and food. Members met once a week and referred to each other by the honorific “Doctor”—whether or not they held any degree of that level. When a member got married, he was obliged to provide a punch for the benefit of the club.
West Hollywood, California—1970s
Hard-partying rockers—including Keith Moon of The Who, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, and occasional guest John Lennon—formed this club, led by Alice Cooper, at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. The primary purpose was heavy drinking, although some of the group's American members also got together on weekends to play softball. The Vampires eventually disbanded when members like Cooper realized the risk to their health and cut back on the alcohol, although the Rainbow Bar & Grill still sports a plaque declaring itself “The Lair of the Hollywood Vampires.”
The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus
United States—Mid-19th century; revived in 20th century
Parodying secret societies like the Freemasons and Odd Fellows through its fake Latin name and motto of Credo Quia Absurdum (“I believe it because it is absurd”), E Clampus Vitus originated in the mining settlements of the Gold Rush and continued until after the Civil War. Its main purpose seems to have been fellowship without snobbery, and a lot of drinking. (Well-known imbiber Mark Twain was a member.) Revived in the 1930s, today's iteration is a “historical society that drinks,” with lodges of “Clampers,” led by “Humbugs,” scattered throughout the American West.
University Drinking Clubs
United Kingdom—19th century to today
These aren't your average fraternities. Top-tier universities in the UK are home to student social clubs, mostly founded in the 19th century, that are shrouded in secrecy but have the reputation for being centered on drinking along with general debauchery. From Cambridge's Pitt Club to Oxford's Piers Gaveston Society and the Bullingdon Club to the Kensington and Praetorian Clubs of St Andrews, these often all-male groups tend to recruit from the upper classes. They typically put inductees through public hazing rituals, and many boast a common uniform piece, such as a custom tie or blazer.