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Original Essays

Drink — A Cultural History of Alcohol

by Iain Gately
  1. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol "Gately ranges so wide and deep that this may become a classic reference on the subject." Publishers Weekly

    "A grand, always engaging survey of the role of booze in both cultural and social history." Booklist

  2. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "A rich, complex history....Deeply engaging and witty." Los Angeles Times

    "Ambitious...informative and perceptive....Gately is an amusing writer, which is a blessing." Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post

I spent two years writing Drink, although my interest in the history of alcohol dates back to 1994, when I helped to set up the Freedom microbrewery in London. Our first brewer, Alistair Hook, had trained at Weihenstephan in Bavaria, where beer has been made continuously since 1040 AD, and he crafted Freedom lager in accordance with a German purity law dating back to 1516. I'd grown up assuming lager was an insipid fluid of no great antiquity, which usually came in aluminum cans. However, after Freedom, and visits to Bavaria to buy brewing equipment and sample the Octoberfest, I learned it could taste sublime and was blessed with a distinguished history, and that a number of rituals, some centuries old, had developed around its consumption. I found the same was true for most other drinks — with honorable exceptions. Scotch, for example, is less venerable than is commonly believed. The Highlands tradition with which it is associated was a creation of the Victorians: the Neolithic Scottish drank psychoactive ales; Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite rebels favoured claret.

By 2005, when I started Drink, I'd collected a mass of information, historical, cultural, and practical about the subject. The practical included making beer, cider, and wine; experimenting with freeze distillation; and visiting places where alcohol was produced or consumed. Sadly, once the project was underway, I had to spend more time in libraries than bars, and with a mouse rather than a glass in my right hand. But whenever I met someone new and my book-to-be came up in conversation, they often assumed the opposite — that research equaled tippling — and forgot I would have needed a time-machine to taste the majority of the beverages I was writing about. But even if I'd been able to travel back into the past, and had had the opportunity to test every drink in the book, I'm not certain that I would have accepted the challenge. An off batch of Medieval English ale? Prohibition-era rotgut bootleg? Many of the potations our ancestors consumed were not just ugly but also dangerous.

There have been a number of recent attempts to recreate past drinks: the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco sells Ninkasi beer, which is brewed to the recipe implicit in a 1800 BC hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer; the Mas des Tourelles vineyard in the south of France makes Mulsum and Turriculae wines following Roman production methods and using Roman-era additives including fenugreek and seawater; and Ted Breaux distils Jade absinthe on 19th-century French equipment with the aim of producing a similar fluid — in terms of flavour and strength — to that which killed Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Belle Epoque Paris. These and other revivalist beverages are by and large authentic, subject to limitations imposed by food standards authorities and contemporary tastes: some are pasteurised and/or filtered to ensure a consistency they never would have possessed in the eras when they were invented.

Although it's possible to reproduce historical drinks with a reasonable degree of accuracy, what would be harder to recreate is the atmosphere in which they were drunk, and the mindset of the drinkers. The drinks might taste the same, but the culture surrounding their consumption has changed. Imagine quaffing a pottery jar of Mulsum at a Roman gladiator show with murder for entertainment, or watching, with a head full of Ninkasi, the annual and public act of coitus between the king of Uruk and the high priestess of Ishtar; or, closer to home in place and time, but no less distant in ethos — supping a tankard of cider in a colonial-era tavern, with the conversation switching from witchcraft to Indian wars.

The reasons why we drink alcohol, as much as the circumstances in which we do so, have likewise shifted over time. It's no longer an essential part of the Western diet, as it was between the dark ages and the 19th century. Although we might pair wine with food, or enjoy a few cold beers at a barbeque, the booze is usually there to complement the meal — to lubricate, rather than satiate. In Medieval Europe, in contrast, ale or wine could be a meal in itself, and per capita consumption was stupendous. The records of English feudal estates suggest the average labourer drank at least eight pints of ale every day, monastic accounts from France and Italy state that their equivalents on the continent got through two litres of wine. So much mood-altering food must've had an impact on consumers, yet the same records, in times of plenty, commend the peasantry for their sobriety — implying they had different standards as to what constituted drunkenness.

Alcoholic beverages were drunk to slake the thirst as well as nourish. In Europe and America they were the only safe, commonly available fluids to drink. Water solo was reckoned to be a killer, and since most settlements contaminated their supplies with their faeces and garbage, it deserved its evil reputation. The danger and the prejudice persisted into the 19th century. Early temperance advocates were refused life insurance on the basis that they would have to drink water. It was also believed that they would grow feeble without a daily gallon of suds. Even though Benjamin Franklin had proved he could do more hard labour drinking water instead of beer at the printing firm in London where he worked in 1725, his fellow typesetters simply lapsed into cognitive dissonance, and two hundred years later, the same prejudice was still commonplace. It wasn't until ball games and other spectator sports became popular that people stopped associating hooch with superior physical performance.

A few of the drinking customs and beliefs of our bibulous ancestors survive undiluted. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation — the conversion, with prayer, of altar wine into the literal blood of Christ — still expects its adherents to drink wine at certain points in the calendar. The religious obligation to serve wine meant that it spread alongside Christianity from Israel to California. And in some places communicants sip vintages from the same vineyards at the same altars that their ancestors did before the fall of the Roman empire.

The last field research I did for Drink was in April 2007, when I was invited to the Gran Clos winery in the Priorat region of Spain, where the grape had first been cultivated by the Phoenicians. The region was in Moslem hands for nearly five hundred years, during which period wine-making lapsed. When it was reconquered in the 12th century, King Alphonso the Chaste wished to repopulate it with Christians, and to this end, sent two knights to find a suitable place to found a monastery. They met a shepherd on their travels, who told them of a vision he'd had of a ladder that appeared between earth and heaven every night, which was used by angels on their missions to bring succour to the oppressed. The ladder was footed on a limestone dome, and the knights conveyed the news of the Montsant, or sacred mountain, to their king, who gave grants and land to the Carthusian order to found a monastery there. They christened their new establishment Escala Dei, or Ladder of God, and it flourished until 1840, when it was secularised by the Spanish government. The ruins of the monastery still stand astride a ravine leading upward toward the Montsant, whose lower slopes are still graced with vines. The wines these produce are the colour of black cherries, and their intricate flavours hint of the long and varied history of the land in which they are produced. They seemed to me to embody all that I was trying to express in Drink: how alcohol is an essential part of our culture, and how a glass of wine can link us to our past.

÷ ÷ ÷

Iain Gately is the author of Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. Raised in Hong Kong, he studied law at Cambridge University and worked in the financial markets of London. spacer

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