We’ve all seen it in old cartoons and movies, usually as a joke, a jug of liquor that says “XXXX” on it. It’s usually moonshine or something strong like that. Sometimes in a cartoon or movie the “XXX” is on beer as well. The X’s on alcoholic beverages actually has some truth to it. And in truth, there’s a bit of history.
We actually stumbled across some of this information (and got the idea for the article) when researching our piece on International Bittering Units. For those interested, the Wikipedia article on beer measurement is a pretty good summary of various things to measure in beer and home brewing. As with most Wikipedia articles, it’s not super in depth, but for those after the basics, the information is there. Wikipedia can be a spring board to clarify terms here and there, and we freely admit to using it to help in our more in depth research into things like our ABV Calculator and the more in depth mathematics. Similarly, to get some of the background of the science for our explanation of IBUs, as well as our IBU Calculator, it was good to dive into Wikipedia and learn some chemistry!
What do the X’s on Beer Bottles Mean?
Originally, the more X’s on a bottle was a marker of strength. This is the assumption most people have and is generally correct.
The more X’s on a barrel of beer, the stronger it was. Obviously this wasn’t terribly accurate, but it did the trick. Especially since measuring alcohol was more about determining how much tax needed to be paid than helping drinkers decide how much they should be drinking. Most sources suggest that an X was used on a barrel to denote that more excise needed to be paid on that barrel.
Sure, some drinkers would probably choose a beer depending on the X value, but beer drinking of the day was more of a working person’s drink. It wasn’t the same as the beverage that we know and love today. But the original reason to start clearly measuring alcohol was about the taxes.
X’s on Liquor Bottles
X’s on liquor bottles may have been a different thing, and probably goes back to the moonshine days. According to Moonshine Heritage, a few other sources, and general discussions, the X on a bottle of spirits (particularly moonshine) denoted how many times that spirit went through a still. The more times the spirit went the still, the more pure it was and therefore the strong it was.
This is probably where the cartoon jug of liquor with X’s on the side come from, especially in the older cartoons. We all know the image of the hillbilly with the jug of moonshine. It’s iconic.
Some say that additional X’s were also added to beer to denote strength. Maybe this was just an extension of the liquor markings or maybe there were other reasons.
More Reasons for X’s on Alcohol Bottles
Zythophile has, perhaps, the most well researched on X’s on beer bottles, and, to an extent, they verify the X being used to mark strength. However, they point out that multiple X’s weren’t necessarily about strength, as normal strength was marked with with a T, and a stronger beer was marked with one X only. So where did the multiple X’s come from?
The most likely explanation was the creation of double (and then triple, and so on) beer. Double beer is created by mashing grains, and using the wort produced to mash fresh malt yet again. This, of course, created stronger beer, but, in our opinion, the XX on a double beer was more about labelling the beverage as a double beer, rather than labelling it as stronger.
Experimenting with double mashing lead to triple mashing, and so on. And we still have Dubbel and the Tripel today, we just don’t mark it with X’s anymore.
As with most beer naming conventions, it seems that much of the explanation behind putting XX on beer and other alcohol bottles is a mixture of things that, over time, makes it look like one cohesive convention. Whether it be taxes, or moonshining, or the creation of double beer, we have to remember that different cultures have different brewing and alcohol creation traditions. Any way you look at it, a simple X on the side of a barrel is a quick and simple way to denote something, and different brewing cultures each had a need to denote something different.
Over time, different traditions combine to create one tradition. And then we wonder how that happened. We’re still not sure of the history of the X on beer bottles, but there a cohesive story there. And like beer, it’s pretty good.