BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I’m Brooke Gladstone, with an hour about alcohol --
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-- as in spirits, sauce, swill, grog, vino, blanc, suds, bubbles, booze, a wee dram, the devil’s brew. We condemn it.
MAN: They want your sweet, innocent girls to take the Bulls so they can be enticed into honky tonks by slick-haired vultures who prey on the fall of American womanhood. Alcohol must go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Revel in it.
W.C. FIELDS: Throughout the Middle Ages, drunkenness was so common, it was unnoticed. They called it the Middle Ages because no one was able to walk home --
-- unless they were between two other fellows.
I was the middle guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We fear it.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It goes by the nicknames of blackout, in a can and liquid cocaine.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The equivalent of four beers, a Red Bull and a shot of espresso. The caffeine masks the alcohol, creating what the FDA calls “wide-awake drunks.”
MAN: You can get very drunk, very fast, very cheaply. Maggie.
MAGGIE: Very scary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We need it.
ELLA FITZGERALD, SINGING:
My fur coat's sold
Oh Lord ain't it cold
But I'm not gonna holler
Cause I've still got a dollar
And when I get low
Oh, I get high
When I get low
Oh, I get high
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alcohol has been humanity’s companion through good times and ill, even before we were human. Primates are attracted to ethanol. In fact, the drunken monkey hypothesis proposed by Dr. Robert Dudley at Berkeley suggests that the attraction may once have been an evolutionary advantage. Ethanol leads the nose to overripe fruit, rich in calories, as is ethanol, itself. So, in a short life of scarcity it’s actually nutritious but in a long life of abundance, potentially ruinous. We still argue about it, sometimes the same arguments the ancients, maybe even the monkeys, had. It’s that duality that attracted Iain Gately, the author of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.
IAIN GATELY: When I looked to the subject, what struck me most was this sort of Jekyll and Hyde aspect of alcohol. And, in fact, the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, had exactly those two aspects to his character. He could be loving and he was the patron of the theater and of many of the arts, yet, at the same time, he could be quite unpredictable too in his rage and violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The reference to alcohol in Gilgamesh, possibly the oldest literary work in existence, is when Gilgamesh, the king of a Mesopotamian city, wanted to team up with a wild man named Enkidu, they civilized Enkidu by giving him beer.
IAIN GATELY, READING: His heart grew light, his face glowed, and he sang out with joy. He washed, he rubbed sweet oil into his skin, and became fully human.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I notice, through your book, that beer is the workingman’s drink and wine that of the elite or the effete. And this goes back to the ancient Egyptians where probably the pyramids were built by seriously drunk people.
IAIN GATELY: Yes, they had a ration of one and a third gallons of beer per day.
And this might have been as strong as 5%. Now, you know, if I was to drink that much beer [LAUGHS] in the hot sun whilst doing hard labor, I can’t see how it wouldn’t get me drunk. And beer, yes, is usually the workingman or woman’s drink. And wine, I mean, in the case of the Egyptians they didn’t really grow their own, so it was an imported luxury. And it was a tool for discrimination, as much as anything else. You know, if you were the Pharaoh, then you would have the best wine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some things never change.
I bet the wine experts of the day couldn’t tell the expensive wine from the cheap wine in a blind test, but never mind that. [LAUGHS]
IAIN GATELY: Well, one wonders, you know. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] The Greeks also favored wine, poets and playwrights, politicians. You quote the epic poet Panyassis who wrote, “Wine is like fire, an aid and sweet relief, wards off all ills and comforts every grief. Wine can of every feast the joys enhance. It kindles soft desire, it leads the dance.”
IAIN GATELY: They really did see it as not simply a social lubricant but also as inspiration. They believed that when people were engaging in oratory that they really had to have a drink first and that people who didn’t drink were, therefore, suspect because they weren’t revealing their true feelings.
I mean, there was Demosthenes was one of the most famous orators of ancient Athens, and yet, because he was a water drinker people always rather doubted him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Christians actually started with a fairly liberal attitude towards alcohol, at least in the earliest holy books.
IAIN GATELY: And it’s interesting, I think, that in both the Old and New Testament there’s very little in the way of a sort of concrete description of what heaven will be like, but in both there will be wine there. Wine and alcohol was, was omnipresent, both in, in Judaism and Christianity. And Jesus, obviously, one of his first miracles is to convert water into wine and having declared at the Last Supper that this is my body, this is my blood, the act of transubstantiation being an important part of Christian worship thereafter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Aristotle had tried to distill wine into a pure spirit way back in the 4th century BC, but he couldn’t figure out how.
IAIN GATELY: It’s a more delicate art than I think is commonly realized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And ultimately perfected in a part of the world we've associated with being dogmatically opposed to alcohol, the Muslim world.
IAIN GATELY: That’s absolutely right. I mean, there’s a reasonably explicit ban in the Koran against strong drink, and yet, they were also masters of science at the time. I mean, so there’s Jabir in the 8th century who’s really the father of chemistry and he sat down to classify substances and work out a little more about the nature of things. Al-Razi, a century later, found a substance which he called “al-koh” --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
IAIN GATELY: -- which is, obviously, the root of our word “alcohol.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next to the Muslims, probably the strictest drinking culture that you described was that of the Aztecs. This seems to be the first civilization to impose a drinking age.
IAIN GATELY: That’s right. As far as we can judge from the accounts of the conquistadores, they had a minimum drinking age of 50 for both men and women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if you violated the drinking laws?
IAIN GATELY: You could be stoned to death. There were, as ever, exceptions. So, once again, it seems that the elites had rather freer access to alcohol and warriors too were allowed to drink and they seemed to have troughs of pulque outside some of the temples.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pulque being the fermented sap of the agave plant.
IAIN GATELY: That’s correct and the preparation of which was highly ceremonial. The people responsible for preparing it had to forswear sex for a few days and isolate themselves from other people. And once it was ready, it had to be drunk very quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
IAIN GATELY: One of the conquistadores is recorded as saying, you know, there’s no smell, even a dead dog or a bomb going off won’t clear a street quite as quickly [LAUGHS] --
-- as pulque.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one thing that was fascinating to me and related to the ceremony is among the exceptions, you talk about the warriors and some of the elites but also it seems as if your astrological chart marked you as a rabbit, you had to drink.
IAIN GATELY: Yes, it does appear that some people were literally cursed by the zodiac. Pulque was protected by the Four Hundred Moon Rabbit Gods of Pulque, and one sign of the Aztec zodiac known as Two-Rabbits, if you were born under that, you were expected to be, if not prone, then actually just cursed to be a drunk. And people born under that sign were, obviously, allowed to drink but they were vilified and they were expected to look, you know, like sort of sad and angry drunks, sort of staggering around badly dressed and, you know, cursed by everyone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you observed that every time spirits were introduced into a society for the first time, it caused destruction until people figured out how to control it.
IAIN GATELY: That’s right. It instantly had a very adverse effect on the populations. And we see this time and time again. We see it in Germany where they’re doing brandy “burned wine” and, you know, first they’re saying that this is a marvelous elixir, it cures everything, you know, gonorrhea, syphilis, constipation [LAUGHS], you know, and madness, madness in dogs --
-- barrenness in women. I mean, some of the lists are simply ridiculous.
But you also begin to see, you know, people suddenly dying from drink, which people weren’t used to. The idea that someone could just simply drink a pint and then drop dead was pretty unusual to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As in, in the 1700s, the London gin craze. You wrote that in 1723, statistics suggested that every man, woman and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per week. The impact was, obviously, shocking levels of public drunkenness in the capital.
IAIN GATELY: That’s right. Even cultures which had really a very long history of drinking, their culture didn’t protect them against something which was so much stronger than what they were used to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s shift to the New World. You note that the Indian name from which we derive the name “Manhattan” comes from a bibulous encounter with [LAUGHS] a Henry Hudson back in 1609.
IAIN GATELY: That’s right. I mean, one of the recordings of it was “the place where we got drunk together.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reading your book, you get the sense that there are two arguments that have been made century after century against or for drinking alcohol. One centers on the health benefits, or lack thereof, and the other centers on the morality of it, or lack thereof. As you wrote, the prohibitionists in the US, the early ones, likened drinking to a moral failing, like slavery.
IAIN GATELY: Those are the two threads. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde. And today, a lot of surveys come out showing that moderate drinking of alcohol is good for you. And yet, on the other side of the coin, you’ve got excessive drinking is, without a doubt, very bad for you, and then not just for you but the people who surround you. Should we not always have a clarity of mind which is unfuddled by the influence of alcohol?
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But then you could balance that with a resounding yes, that it’s actually part of our nature, like eating meat. We are human because we drink alcohol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
IAIN GATELY: Well, thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Iain Gately is the author of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. This is On the Media.