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The Story of Booze

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Iain Gately’s enjoyable new book explains what liquor has meant to different societies throughout history.

Most books on alcoholic beverages are not very good. The authors seldom conduct original research, rarely footnote their claims, and repeat the tall tales and hooey peddled by booze companies and their public relations firms. Equally problematic is the matter of passion: booze writers tend to be booze lovers, which makes them all too susceptible to romanticism and outright sentimentality. Their books wax poetic about beverages, cooing over the pristine terroir used to grow grapes or grain, and ooze reverence for wise old artisans who brew, vinificate, and distill.

Witness this tidbit from Malachy Magee’s 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey: “Irish whiskey is made today in much the same manner as it has been all down the centuries, and with the same basic ingredients—the best of Irish barley and other cereals, and pure clean water. To these must be added the benefits of the sparkling Irish climate which makes it all possible….”

What utter nonsense. Irish whiskey first appeared perhaps 700 years ago as a throat-scorching clear liquid that was drunk straight from the still. Up through the 19th century, no government laws defined what Irish whiskey was or what procedures needed to be followed to produce it. Not surprisingly, profit-hungry distillers often used whatever fermentable was cheapest and available, be it barley, corn, oats, turnips, or even potatoes. Today’s delicious glass of Bushmills, Jameson, or Knappogue Castle is nothing like the rot sold in the days of yore.

Though a fan of alcohol, Iain Gately avoids this tendency, for the most part. Drink (Gotham, $30), his new “cultural history” of booze, abjures the warm and fuzzy in favor of stories that are at times bawdy and fantastically stupid. The result is a humorous and sometimes intriguing book that one can dip into at any point.

Who knew that the world’s first brewery appeared around 3400 BC? Apparently, Egyptians in the town of Heirakonpolis were adroit at both pottery making and fermentation, two skills that they joined to great effect—the town’s brewery could produce 300 gallons of beer per day. Heirakonpolis may also have exhibited the earliest documented case of booze snobbery: the city’s hoi polloi got beer (“hqt”), but its ruling class quaffed pricey wine (“irp”) imported from afar.

How many Americans know that prior to the enactment of income taxes, booze taxes provided roughly one-third of the revenue required to run the federal government?

Reader might feel delightful shock in reading about the mad ways of our ancestors. The men of ancient Pompeii steamed themselves in public baths and would demonstrate their machismo by repeatedly chugging entire jugs of wine and vomiting. Not to be outdone, Americans of the early 19th century also took to their liquor with gusto. They consumed alarming quantities of whiskey—five gallons a year for every man, woman, and child on the continent—and fashioned dreadful hooch curatives and restoratives. One home remedy for an affliction called the “eyaws” directed the patient to gulp down a mixture of brandy and stewed lard, earth worms, tobacco, red and black pepper, and ginger.

Gately demonstrates that humans have always coveted booze, producing it from whatever they had handy—apples, barley, corn, goat milk, grapes, honey, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins, tree sap, rhubarb, succulents—anything from which sugar could be drawn and transformed into alcohol. (Water + sugar + yeast = alcohol.) No matter the age or the people, booze has been there.

Mayans in ancient Mesoamerica? Mead quaffers.

Monks in medieval Spain? Distilled spirit sippers.

Slave sellers in 17th-century Africa? Palm wine guzzlers.

Warren G. Harding, U.S. president during Prohibition? Whiskey tippler.

Despite its ubiquity, we seldom find alcohol in the histories we read. This is particularly true in the United States. How many Americans are aware that General George Washington advocated spending government funds on both Bibles and liquor for his troops? Fighting the British was tough work, and Washington believed that the Lord and liquor could help stiffen his soldiers’ resolve. And how many Americans know that prior to the enactment of income taxes, booze taxes provided roughly one-third of the revenue required to run the federal government? (Today, federal alcohol taxes bring in nearly $8 billion a year, enough to cover more than half the cost of the No Child Left Behind Act.)

Gately provides a corrective to this whitewashing of history, though Drink is not without its shortcomings. What exactly is a “cultural history”? Whatever it is, Gately feels comfortable repeating stories regardless of whether they can be proven true. If someone said or wrote it, well, it is part of folklore, and folklore is part of culture. So, one reads in Drink that St. Brigit turned “the bathwater of a leper colony into good red ale,” and that 11th-century crusaders “set off at once for the Holy Land, under the leadership of a hermit named Peter the Simple, and guided by a duck, a goose, and a goat.”

More generally, Drink would have benefited from another round of editorial revision. The 500 pages of text read awfully long. Many chapters slip into extended tangents. While reading the chapter on rum, one cannot help but wonder, “What does the Bishop of Quebec’s intervention in American Indian fur trading have to do with rum?”

At points, Gately’s historical accounts are awfully slim. His chapter on the Romans (“In Vino Veritas”) draws largely on the notoriously unreliable accounts of ancient writers. Remarkably, the chapter’s endnotes do not cite either Stuart Fleming’s essential text, Vinum: The Story of Roman Wine (2001), or any other contemporary study of Roman bibacity. Similarly, Gately’s breezy treatment of the development of distillation does not draw upon R. J. Forbes’s definitive 1948 study, A Short History of the Art of Distillation. And woe to the undergraduate student who tries to slip this spurious inference past his history professor: “In January 1736 [Benjamin Franklin] published his Drinkers Dictionary…. This work, and the aphorisms of Poor Richard, may be taken as being representative of eighteenth-century colonial attitudes toward alcohol.”

Kevin R. Kosar is a writer in Washington, D.C., and the editor of


Image Credit: Iain Gately.


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