The Amish & alcohol
When I was first learning about the Amish, I was kind of surprised to discover that some Amish people drink alcohol. As I met more and more Amish people, I kept running across examples of this. That’s not to say that alcohol is a big part of Amish society across-the-board. But neither is it completely absent from Amish culture, as outsiders might assume.
We might think that drinking is not a part of the culture, but Amish and alcohol can and do mix. Most famously, it’s Rumspringa-age youth. But in the decentralized Amish system, there is no across-the-board Mormon-like principle against consumption. It’s not banned in the Bible. And Amish groups and churches (there are over 2,000 individual congregations) are different. They have different attitudes towards alcohol consumption. That’s important to keep in mind.
So this question has different answers depending on the Amish group you’re talking about. There are a lot of different Amish groups. There’s a lot of diversity in the Amish world. So you have some that are very plain and traditional. And you have others that are more open to technology and “the world”. And you might be thinking that the most outwardly “traditional” Amish would be the ones most against alcohol. But that’s not the case (more on that below).
Can Amish drink alcohol?
So if you’re asking “Can Amish drink alcohol?”, the answer would depend on the community and church custom, and of course individual preference.
Some Amish are very much against alcohol while others are quite accepting of it in various forms. The New Order Amish are the best known of the major Amish affiliations which are against alcohol. This is a movement that started in the 1960s. You’ll find a lot of New Order Amish in Ohio and in other states as well. But the biggest population is in Holmes County, Ohio.
Despite what some think due to their name, the New Order Amish are not Mennonites, but are also a plain-dressing, horse-and-buggy Amish people. They have different beliefs regarding certain theological questions (such as a belief in assurance of salvation), and are generally at least a bit more progressive than average when it comes to technology use.
And one distinctive point is that New Order Amish are completely against consumption of alcohol. It is not condoned in their churches. Alcohol, like tobacco and bed courtship, was one of the sticking points that caused them to split away from other Amish in the 1960s. In the rest of the Old Order Amish world it’s not so clear-cut.
Which Amish drink alcohol?
In other Amish communities, you can find alcohol consumption. Some Amish people make homemade alcohol, specifically wine. For example, in Lancaster County, friends of mine make homemade wine, like beet wine and dandelion wine. You might have a little bit of that occasionally for health purposes. You might hear that it helps you sleep better at night.
On the other hand, some communities actually have a reputation for alcohol use and even abuse. I’m not going to name them right here, but there’s some communities where alcohol is a problem. You’ll see that among Amish youth and even among the adults in some places.
I’ve noticed the odd bottle of store-bought hard alcohol on Amish shelves from time to time. I’ve bumped into an Amish man or two having a Saturday night beer. Amish people may have a celebratory drink at weddings. Homemade spirits like wine or cider were perhaps more common in the past.
Plainer Amish using alcohol
What’s a little ironic is some of the plainer Amish groups tend to be more open to alcohol consumption. You would think the most traditional Amish, the most conservative groups that use the lowest level of technology – you might assume that those groups tend to be the ones totally against alcohol, but that’s generally not the case.
Groups with a “plain reputation”, like the Swartzentruber Amish and Swiss Amish do consume alcohol. It’s the generally more progressive New Order Amish, who are the ones that are the most vocally against alcohol.
And Amish have opinions on other communities’ customs. For example, I once sat with an Amishman in central Indiana as he told me, with something akin to horror, of a settlement in another state where hard liquor was customary on greeting a visitor. This is another reason why it’s not always easy to give a quick answer when asked how “the Amish” do something. It can really vary.
Amish youth & alcohol
Sometimes you’ll see headlines about Amish youth getting into alcohol-related trouble. And of course, Amish parents don’t like seeing their children getting into this behavior just as much as non-Amish parents don’t approve of it. Sometimes you’ll see even DUIs happen, where an Amish youth or even an adult gets pulled over and charged with driving under the influence. Generally alcohol laws apply to driving a buggy, like they do to a car.
Some communities have a reputation for Amish young people having parties where alcohol is present. Two of the most notorious communities for this are in Geauga County, Ohio, and northern Indiana (Shipshewana and surrounding areas). A Google search will provide the examples. One community in particular (New Wilmington, PA) has recently gotten attention for a number of buggy DUI arrests. There are more cases that no doubt go unreported.
Concerning the youth, some parents look the other way. But others put time and effort trying to crack down on it. This eye-opener of an article (no longer online) describes collaboration between the Amish and local law enforcement. One case ends in a couple of nights in jail for a pair of cocky underage drinkers. When asked why he chose such a harsh approach, the judge involved replies that “their elders want me to treat them like that”.
A desire to prevent alcohol abuse and wild behavior among youth has also led to the rise of supervised youth groups or “gangs” in a number of communities (notably Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and Holmes County, Ohio). In these groups, parents attend Sunday night singings and there is an emphasis on cleaner behavior. Some communities have even implemented alcohol education programs for their young people.
Past public examples have shown general Amish attitudes towards alcohol. For example, in 2007 Indiana granted a permit for wine sales to a local hotel in Shipshewana (aka Ship-she), the tourist center of the northern Indiana Amish settlement. Shipshewana had been a historically dry town, upsetting some residents. Some cited Amish traditions as a reason for keeping the town booze-free. Years later residents rejected the idea of a liquor store in the community.
Alcohol as a part of Amish church
Twice a year the Amish have a communion service. At this communion service they will drink wine as a part of the service. In some Amish communities they will use grape juice, for example, in the New Order Amish, in place of the wine.
So there is some religious use of alcohol in this case in line with Scripture, though not all Amish are on board with consuming alcohol, even in these special church situations.
The Amish and alcohol abuse
Amish people are not immune from alcohol abuse and the problems than can come with excessive alcohol consumption. One writer in John Hostetler’s Amish Roots describes her father’s long battle with alcoholism, and his eventual triumph over it, thanks in part to Alcoholics Anonymous.
But on the public stage, if not the private, the Amish really aren’t that big on drinking. As Donald Kraybill puts it in The Riddle of Amish Culture: ‘Alcohol abuse, present among some youth, is practically nil among adults’. That likely remains true for the most part, with some exceptions. And again, individual Amish people may struggle with alcohol even though its use is not prevalent in their communities.
Amish alcohol use compared to non-Amish use
I would say that overall the Amish don’t really have a drinking culture. Alcohol is not fundamental to the “Amish way of life”. But of course “the Amish” refers to many different communities. So in some communities you have some that are more open to alcohol, where it may actually be more of a part of the culture.
The Amish are human, of course, and so you’re going to have people that may have issues with alcohol within the Amish. They’re not immune from that. But for the most part, if you take the average Amish person, alcohol consumption is likely not as high as with the average non-Amish person.
So you’ll still be a lot more likely to catch an Amish fellow with a cold can of Dew, a piping-hot cup of coffee, or a tin of straight-from-the-udder raw milk, than a cool Bud.
What about tobacco use among the Amish? Some Amish do smoke, and some also raise tobacco. Similar to the situation with alcohol, smoking and tobacco cultivation are not condoned by all Amish and you tend to see it localized to certain groups and communities. Read more on the Amish and tobacco.