Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
© 2008 Ian Gately
“We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
A substance that a third of the world institutionalizes as a religious sacrament and another third expressly forbids on religious grounds is one to be reckoned with. Since time immemorial, humans have been getting themselves sloshed in one way or another, putting their ingenious minds to work creating alcoholic beverages from whatever plants were available. Drink is a sweeping history of the potent brew in its many forms, created and consumed by every culture and on nearly every continent. It’s a social history of a sociable subject — for when people drink, they rarely do so alone.
Alcohol’s roots extend to the beginnings of civilization itself; where there were grains, there was booze. Wheat rendered beer and rice, sake, and both beverages were the staple of many civilizations’ diets. This owes not only to the human race’s fondness for getting itself knackered, but to the fact that bacteria-killing alcoholic content made beer a safer source of water than water itself. Processing wheat products into potable beverages extended their lives, and sometimes gave people an edge, especially as distillation created drinks with long shelf lives.
Beyond economic contributions, the communal consumption of alcohol created social ties as well. Not only was wine considered a doorway to inspiration from the muses — a place later assumed by absinthe — but drinking it together at feasts loosened tongues and allowed for more honest conversation. Not for nothing did the Romans say “in wine, there is truth.” Not that true and alcohol were steady partners; mead-drinking also went hand and hand with vigorous boasting about deeds in battle.
Abuse of alcohol has existed since its cultivation, something it lends itself to in affording an escape. Early industrial mill workers steeled themselves with ale to ensure the day, and the Romans were absolutely riotous. While the prevailing view expressed by people throughout the book is that alcohol is an exquisite complement to life, in moderation, in view of its power some have attempted to ban it altogether. Islam, for instance, forbids it, and has for centuries. Far less successful was the west’s own attempt at prohibition, which led to the rise of organized crime and contempt for government.
Drink, like those who have imbibed a bit too much, is outstandingly ambitious in trying to render a comprehensive history of alcohol and culture. While he’s most thorough covering the western world, recurring chapters also address alcohol in China, Japan, the middle east, and South America. A ‘cultural’ history verges on the literal, as Gately examines alcohol’s depiction and relationship with art, literature, and the movies. Yet for all the ground to be covered, Gately does rather well; the book’s bar is well-stocked with stories, and if one doesn’t suit your taste another setting and different subject are right behind it.
A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage. A history of the world as told over wine, beer, coffee, tea, rum, and Coca-Cola..