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Review: Iain Gately's 'Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol' goes down easy, yet packs a punch

In ancient Greece the Bacchae would get lit on the local vintage and run around the countryside, hollering "Oi! Oi!" while molesting shepherds and terrorizing livestock. The Sumerians created more kinds of ale than a fancy brew pub; the Vikings were fond of mead, made from fermented honey; and the Maya were partial to a strong cordial made of the agave, sacred to the Four Hundred Moon Rabbit Gods of Pulque. • Those were the days. No Breathalyzers, no "interventions," no MADD, and the only higher power invoked was Thor or Dionysus or Ninkasi, the Mesopotamian goddess of beer. • Now we know that alcohol can rot your liver, cripple your brain cells, increase your chances of getting various cancers and render you a loudmouthed, foul-breathed bore. But it's hard to break a 10,000-year habit.

Besides, it has also been scientifically shown that moderate intake of red wine has considerable health benefits. Let's not forget that the first miracle Jesus performs in the Bible is turning water into wine at Cana. I'd call that an endorsement.

Iain Gately's rich, full-bodied new book, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, honors all tastes as it ambles through several millennia, celebrating our planet's vast array of fermentable substances and the human drive to get a little buzz on. If nothing else, Drink will supply you with ready cocktail party conversation for when you get sick of talking about the election.

Not that the campaign and alcohol are unrelated. Remember Hillary Clinton in the Midwest during the primary season, knocking back brewskis and shots in the hope that those "hard-working white voters" would support her? The personal is political — even if it's personal taste in drink.

In the 2004 presidential contest, conservatives sneered at Kerry voters as, among other things, "Chardonnay-drinking liberals." When France criticized the Bush administration at the beginning of the Iraq war, barkeeps across America poured their stocks of French wine down the drain.

Gately tells some fine stories about how alcohol shapes world events. In 18th century London, the working classes were drinking so much gin (we're talking men, women and children) that Parliament passed several Gin Acts. In 1736, there were near-riots against the king and his ministers' attempts to restrict the availability of the juniper-flavored spirit nicknamed "kill-me-quick" or "strip-me-naked."

Sure, there were rising crime rates, violence, prostitution, even terrible stories of drunken mothers killing their own babies. But gin was cheaper than water.

By the 1940s, leaders knew not to get between people and their booze. Rationing or no rationing, during World War II, Winston Churchill ordered that the supply of beer (and thus morale) be kept up at all costs. In 1974, Henry Kissinger had dinner with Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping and praised mao-tai, a fierce, combustible spirit distilled from brewed sorghum. "I think if we drink enough mao-tai we can solve anything," said Kissinger.

We are what we drink — and we know it. Hipsters order PBR because it's so uncool it's cool. James Bond wants his martinis shaken not stirred, the Dude lives on White Russians, while supermodels like Champagne.

Gately shows how alcohol has always been tied up with art. In the 1860s, a stowaway species of louse devastated the French grape crop. Never mind: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and other poets in Paris turned to a brain-rearranging spirit they called la fee verte the Green Fairy. We know it as absinthe, which comes from the Greek word apsinthion, meaning "undrinkable."

Gately is particularly good at detailing the passionate relationship between alcohol and literature. Chaucer's bawdy Wife of Bath admits: For after wine, of Venus must I think:/For just as surely as cold produces hail/A liquorish mouth must have a liquorish tail.

Jack London's 1913 "alcoholic memoir" John Barleycorn is among the first in a long line of addiction autobiographies beloved of the American book-buying public. And where would Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald be without bootleg whiskey? William Faulkner said he needed to be "corned up" before writing novels like The Sound and the Fury.

Gately's style is urbane, learned and relaxed, as if you're hearing him talk over 100-year-old Madeira after a good dinner. He's a dab hand at weird historical anecdotes. Medieval French students, like students today, liked to get trashed. In 12th century Paris they rioted over the price of wine in the taverns and tormented priests at high mass:

"A group of them would enter the church in single file, each trailing a raw herring on a string from the hem of his gown. The aim of the game was to tread on the herring of the person in front, while preventing anyone from stepping on your own. Fresh herrings were required for each new round."

Ah, the smell of fish in the cathedral! But come on, is this any worse than your average frat party? As Gately aptly demonstrates, alcohol is central to our culture, a rite de passage, a tranquilizer, a fashion statement, an instrument of self-destruction, a sacrament, a magical substance, a refuge from ordinary life and a transcendent pleasure. Dip into Drink: Gately's history isn't too strong for daily imbibing, and there's no bad aftertaste.

Diane Roberts is author of "Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans and Other Florida Wildlife."


A Cultural History

of Alcohol

By Iain Gately

Gotham, 529 pages, $30

Review: Iain Gately's 'Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol' goes down easy, yet packs a punch 08/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 2:11pm]
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