Jonathan Yardley on 'Drink'

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 27, 2008


A Cultural History of Alcohol

By Iain Gately

Gotham. 546 pp. $30

Iain Gately, a British writer who six years ago published Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, now turns his attention to booze, a subject, it goes without saying, of similar character but considerably larger import. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, is thorough, informative, briskly readable and witty. It is likely to be enjoyed more by those who take the occasional (or more than occasional) drink than by those who do not, but a central theme should be of interest to all readers: Like it or not, alcohol has been and always will be with us, an important part of human history, culture and society. It can't be wished away, as should be understood by Americans above all, having suffered through Prohibition and its appalling consequences.

Better, instead, to face up to the inescapable reality of it and try to understand the many ways in which, over the ages, we have used and abused it, profited and suffered from it, refined it and been changed by it. Gately gets down to that business in his opening paragraph:

"Alcohol is a fundamental part of Western culture. It is the most controversial part of our diet, simultaneously nourishing and intoxicating the human frame. Its equivocal influence over civilization can be equated to the polar characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At times its philanthropic side has appeared to be in the ascendant, at others the psychopath has been at large. Throughout history, the place of alcohol in our meals, medicines, and leisure activities has been a matter of fierce debate. Whereas some cultures have distinguished it as a sacred fluid, whose consumption should be limited to ceremonial occasions, others have treated it as a kind of food and ignored, or accommodated, any incidental effects that it might have upon the psyche, and a few have even tried to exclude it from society altogether. Such differing views have often been concurrent, thus increasing the mystery surrounding alcohol. In both ancient Greece, and the present millennium, it has been credited with the powers of inspiration and destruction."

To the ancient Greeks, alcohol was an essential part of a civilized society: "Our word wine derives from their oin, whose consumption was considered to be both one of the defining characteristics of Hellenic civilization and a point of difference between its members and the population of the rest of the world, whom they termed barbaroi, or barbarians." Rome, "the next great drinking civilization to emerge in the classical world," was transformed "from a sober society, suspicious of both alcohol and drunkenness, to a major producer, populated with practiced and discriminating drinkers," and as its empire spread, so too did its permissive attitudes toward alcohol.

Though Christianity is often associated in the popular mind with opposition to alcohol, the historical truth suggests otherwise. From the beginning, "the single most important rite of the Christians was the ceremony of the Eucharist, at which they gathered to share bread and wine, in accordance with the instructions of their founder," yet Christianity "differentiated this sacred obligation from secular tippling, which it discouraged, except in moderation." Later, holy orders, in particular the Cistercians, played essential roles in the development of sophisticated techniques for making wine and beer, and to this day some beverages are closely identified with their monastic origins.

The subsequent history of alcohol is one of growth in consumption and acceptance punctuated by periods of reaction and temperance. In the Middle Ages it was the universal "panacea, recommended by such luminaries as Arnald of Villanova (d. 1315) as a cure for almost any ailment." In his Big Book of Distillation (1512), Hieronymous Braunschweig wrote of aqua vitae: "It eases diseases coming of cold. It comforts the heart. It heals all old and new sores on the head. It causes a good color in a person . . . it eases the pain in the teeth and causes sweet breath . . . it heals the short-winded. It causes good digestion and appetite . . . and takes away belching . . . . It gives also courage in a young person and causes him to have a good memory."

The development of distillation -- which was discovered and perfected by Muslims -- greatly altered the world of alcohol. The rise of strong drink, especially rum and gin, had repercussions far beyond the mere consumption of alcohol. Rum was a driving force in the slave trade and contributed mightily to many celebrated New England fortunes. It was also used by colonists as a "gift or sweetener" for Native Americans, whose fondness for and susceptibility to it produced unhappy repercussions that persist into the 21st century. Gin became common in England in the early 1700s, setting London off on a prolonged, spectacular and destructive spree: "In 1700, the average English adult drank a third of a gallon of gin per annum. By 1723, statistics suggested that every man, woman, and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per head per week," resulting in "shocking levels of drunkenness," chiefly among the poor. Gin was employed by the British elite to distract and palliate the poor, but finally things got so bad that corrective legislation was enacted, and the binge abated.

Whisky -- spelled with an "e" in the American colonies -- was a part of the heritage of the Scotch Irish and was distilled wherever they settled, hence the great single malts of Scotland and the equally great if entirely different bourbons of Kentucky and Tennessee. The imposition in 1791 by the new federal government of an excise on whiskey was vehemently opposed in Pennsylvania and led to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, one of the first important challenges to George Washington's authority, one he met swiftly and firmly.

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