Drinking has been so widespread throughout history that Patrick McGovern, an archaeological chemist at the University of Pennsylvania, called it "a universal language" in an Economist article. Indeed, you're hard-pressed to find a culture or event in history that alcohol (or lack of it) didn't feature in some way.
In a sense, alcoholic beverages are just a simple matter of chemistry and physiology. When yeast cells consume carbohydrates in grains, vegetables or fruits, they produce a fluid called ethyl alcohol. The latter, when ingested by humans, is converted into a chemical called acetaldehyde, and then eventually broken down into carbon dioxide and water. While ethyl alcohol is toxic in large enough doses, in more moderate quantities it merely relaxes the muscles and stimulates the brain by depressing inhibitions [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].
But that explanation hardly does justice to a substance that people have been eagerly producing and consuming since the dawn of human civilization. The ancient Sumerians, who lived 4,500 years ago, even worshipped a goddess, Ninkasi, who ruled over the brewing and distributing of beer to the populace. In a royal tomb, we find figures sucking brew with straws out of what resembles a modern beer keg [source: Gately]. Who knew?
In that spirit (pardon the pun), here are 10 fascinating facts about alcohol that will enrich your cocktail conversations.
It's not clear precisely when our ancient ancestors started imbibing, but most likely, ancient hunter-gatherers discovered the effects of alcohol when they found and ate fruit that had dropped to the ground and fermented. Humans liked that tipsy feeling so much that when they switched to being farmers and living in stable communities, they started trying to make the stuff deliberately.
Archaeological chemist Patrick McGovern analyzed shards of clay from a 9,000-year-old Chinese village and found that they contained chemical traces of mead, a wine made from honey. The ancient beverage had an alcohol content of 10 percent [sources: Thadeusz, Gately].
Meanwhile, the potter's wheel wasn't invented until 3,500 years later in Mesopotamia, and wheeled chariots weren't developed until probably 300 years after that [source: Gambino]. So we know, at least, that the earliest mead drinkers didn't have to worry about finding designated drivers.
If you're a beer aficionado, you're probably familiar with brands of brew whose makers tout them as being made with mountain spring water or some other exotic ingredient. But in 2010, Nail Brewing, an Australian company, found a way to top all that. It created a limited-edition batch of beer using water made from melted Antarctic ice. The latter had been brought back by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an activist group that had staged an anti-whaling campaign in the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean.
But you couldn't buy Antarctic Nail Ale at your local bottle shop. It was auctioned off at hefty prices of up to $1,850 Australian dollars (nearly $1,614) a bottle, with the proceeds going to the conservation group [sources: dEstries, Nail Brewing].
According to Mexican law (which the U.S. honors), the famously fiery beverage must contain at least 51 percent liquor distilled from the sweet nectar of blue agave. That desert plant grown primarily in Jalisco, though four other Mexican states also are allowed to legally produce tequila. The name comes from the Ticuila Indians of Jalisco [sources: Humphrey, Handley].
When South African distillers started making their own version of the beverage in the early 2000s, using a plant similar to agave, Mexico didn't like the idea of being undercut. Its diplomats used international trade agreements to prevent South African companies from calling their product tequila. Instead, they were compelled to market it as "Agava" [source: Associated Press].
For someone who isn't steeped in wine knowledge, it's easy to listen to wine buffs talk about the vintage of various wines -- that is, the year in which they were bottled -- and assume that the older a wine is, the better. But that's not how it works. The most important thing about vintage is the particular year itself -- what the weather conditions were back then, and what impact they might have had upon the grape harvest and the quality of the wine produced from it.
As for age, that's more often a negative than a positive, according to wine writer Giles Kime. "The vast majority of wines -- particularly whites -- become increasingly dull and flaccid with age," he writes in his book "Secrets of Wine: Insider Secrets into the Real World of Wine." Only a few high-quality reds and some Champagnes improve over time -- "and even that is very much a matter of personal taste."
Apart from those exceptions, wines generally should be consumed within a year or two of bottling.
During Prohibition in the 1920s, the U.S. federal government tried to outlaw the sale of booze, wine and beer, and that didn't go over very well. By mid-decade, officials in the administration of President Calvin Coolidge were frustrated because so many Americans continued to drink bootlegged alcohol. They decided upon a devious -- or rather, murderous -- tactic. Knowing that millions of gallons of industrial alcohol were being stolen by bootleggers and used to make beverages, they ordered manufacturers in 1926 to add poisons such as formaldehyde, chloroform and methyl alcohol to their products.
Quickly, illicit drinkers began dying in droves, and the toll became so shocking that New York City medical examiner actually held a press conference to warn the public about the plot. "The United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible," he railed.
It did little good. Four hundred people died in New York alone from poisoned booze, and the following year, the death toll climbed to 700. The fiendish deterrent program didn't stop until Prohibition was repealed in December 1933 [source: Blum].
For decades, we've all heard the warnings about how excessive drinking can turn your liver into Swiss cheese, and cause all sorts of other awful physical woes as well. But when scientists actually got around to studying the death rates of drinkers and non-drinkers, they made a startling discovery. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, abstaining from drinking actually tends to increase your risk of dying.
In a study published in 2010 in the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, University of Texas at Austin psychologist Charles Holahan found that over a 20-year period, 69 percent of abstainers died. That actually was higher than the 60 percent death rate for heavy drinkers. But the longest-lived group among the 1,824 study participants was composed of moderate drinkers, only 41 percent of whom died in that period [sources: Holahan, et al., Cloud].
Some might argue that many of the abstainers were former alcoholics so no wonder more of them died. Holahan and his co-researchers did a model controlling for former problem drinking, existing health problems and other factors. They found that even after the adjustments, "abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45 percent, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers."
People who are worried about gaining weight from the empty calories in booze might try to compensate by using diet soda when they make a seven-and-seven or a rum and Coke. But there's a catch that could land you in the drunk tank.
In a study published in 2013 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers from Northern Kentucky University reported that drinkers who consumed artificially sweetened mixers had a significantly higher breath-alcohol reading than those who used mixers containing sugar, which apparently slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Worse yet, "individuals were unaware of these differences, a factor that may increase the safety risks associated with drinking alcohol," the scientists noted [sources:Marczinski and Stamates, Eldred].
Part of the ambiance of whiskey is that rich amber color that reminds you that you're drinking something that was carefully aged for years, like a prized pair of Levis or a tweed jacket that you've adorned with leather elbow patches as the fabric frayed.
But you might be surprised to learn that the color actually is added on, in the same fashion. Ethyl alcohol is clear, and so are most varieties of whiskey at the start. But after distilling, the liquor is aged in oak casks that have been air-dried for nine months and then heated on the inside to give the wood a charred "red layer" that is rich in wood sugars and caramelized tannin. Those chemicals, when they're absorbed by the whiskey, change its taste and give it the amber color [source: Waldman].
Early Americans would be shocked by the current level of alcohol consumption in the nation -- because it's so much less than they used to drink. In the 1600s and 1700s, many Americans saw alcohol not just as a pleasant diversion, but as a miraculous medicine that could cure illnesses, strengthen the weak and pep up old people. As a result, they often started the day with a liquor pick-me-up and then consumed more alcohol steadily throughout the day, sometimes finishing with several rounds at a tavern in the evening.
In 1790, according to federal government data, the average American over the age of 15 consumed the following over a year [source: Crews]:
- 34 gallons (129 liters) of beer and cider
- 5 gallons (19 liters) of whiskey or other distilled spirits
- 1 gallon (4 liters) of wine
In 2010, however, the typical American drank over the course of the year [source: Zmuda]:
- About 21 gallons (80 liters) of beer
- 1.5 gallons (6 liters) of spirits
- 2 gallons of wine (8 liters)
Part of the reason for the heavy consumption back then was that water was often unsafe to drink. Even though this was more of a problem in Europe, the earliest settlers followed the example of their European forebears who were used to substituting beer or wine for water. One of the few liquor naysayers in Colonial times was physician Benjamin Rush, who developed the theory that alcoholism was a disease, but hardly anyone listened to him [source: Crews].
The wordy wine snob portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the movie "Sideways" probably could have expounded on this fact at length, but for those of us who think of fine wine as anything that doesn't come with a screw top, it probably comes as a surprise. You can make white wine from red grapes. Champagne, for example, is made from pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes (both red grapes) as well as chardonnay, and the three types of grapes are often blended.
All grape juice, which comes from the inside of the grapes, starts out as white. It's the skin that contains the red pigment. If the juice is squeezed out of the grapes and separated quickly from the skins, it remains white. By contrast, if winemakers are producing a red wine, they allow the juice to remain in contact with the red skins during fermentation. This causes the wine to become dark [source: Crosariol].
Today's nonalcoholic beer is tasty, and outpacing the alcoholic stuff globally by two to one. HowStuffWorks looks at why nonalcoholic beer is better.
Author's Note: 10 Mind-blowing Alcohol Facts
It's odd to be writing about alcohol, since I very seldom drink anymore. When I was a young I worked in the newspaper business, where being able to hold your liquor once was considered a skill as integral to rising in the profession as being able to scribble pithy quotes into a notepad at a crime scene and then dictate a front-page story in 30 minutes from a pay-phone booth. I was never too good at that last part, but I tried to make up for it by closing down my share of smoke-filled bars and after-hours, as I tried to soak up whatever wisdom sprang from the boozy lips of my journalistic mentors, or maybe pick up a tip uttered by some inebriated lawyer, cop or politician.
But for me at least, that world vanished long ago, replaced by one in which I rise early, sit down at a computer in my living room to make Skype calls and pound out a seemingly endless stream of blog posts, tweets and articles for various websites. Given my workload, extra-strong Vietnamese coffee is the only mood-altering substance that I can afford to ingest. If I ever get the chance to retire, though, maybe I'll start drinking again.
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