Monday, October 13, 2008

Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol--Part 1

I read many history books and some pull you right in, providing a fascinating read with plenty of interesting facts and anecdotes. Others are so dry, annoying you with unimportant minutaie, that it is a chore to even finish the book. This applies to histories of wine and alcohol too, that there are some excellent books and some snooze fests.

Fortunate for me, the latest history book I read on alcohol was a true pleasure. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol ($30.00) by Iain Gately was published by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin, in July 2008. It is a hardcover, with 546 pages and thirty-seven chapters. So, it is quite a thick book but one which you will find no trouble finishing.

Drink ranges from ancient history, such as the Sumerians, up through the U.S in 2006. It centers on the cultural effects of alcohol (including beer, wine and spirits) upon many different regions and countries. It covers many different historical periods and you might be amazed by how alcohol has affected some significant historical events. The book is an easy read that continually intrigued me. I highly recommend this book.

Over the course of two posts, I am going to share some of the interesting facts and anecdotes I found in this book. Just know that this is only a small selection of what can be found in the book. to find more, just read the book.

Around 3100 B.C., in Egypt, beer (which was called hqt) was the drink for workers while wine (called irp) was the drink of the elite. Beer was seen more as a type of food. (p.6)

Good irp was described as nfr, very good as nfr nfr and very very good as nfr nfr nfr. (p.8)

King Tut's tomb contained 26 wine jars, produced by fifteen wine makers, and with vintages up to 36 years old. There was both red and white wine, as well as sweet wine. King Tut's favorite wine cup as an albaster chalice. (p.8)

Hippocrates advocated the use of wine to treat every illness except one, an "overpowering heaviness of the brain." The Greeks believed certain vintages had specific medicinal qualities. The wine of Heraea in Arcadia was supposed to make women inclined to pregnancy. (p.13)

The Greek word for "drinker" was "philopotes" which also meant "lover of drinking sessions." This was not a derogatory term. In fact, being a water drinker was more negative. Water drinkers "were believed to not only lack passion but also to exude a noxious odor." (p.15)

Around 60 A.D., a Roman Spaniard named Columella wrote a book on wine making. He recognized at least 20 different types of grapes, including the Bumast ("full breasted") and the "wooly" Aminean. These grapes could make more than 100 kinds of wine. Columella also felt wine making would save decadent Rome if more people made wine rather than rank it. (p.33-34)

It was Muslim scientists who discovered the process of distillation. One pioneer was Jabir Ibhn Hayyan (721-815 A.D.), who was known as Geber in the West. (Interestingly, his habit of writing in code, which could not be understood by the common reader, is the source for our word "gibberish.") Al Razi (865-925) described the process of distillation in his book Al Asrar ("The Secret"). He coined the phrase "al-koh'l of wine" which literally translates as "mascara of wine." Koh'l was the powdered antimony women used to blacken their eyelids. And this is where our word "alcohol" originated. (p.71-72)

During Medieval times, the clergy led the way in the production of wine and the monastic order of the Cistercians were the most prominent. Started in 1112 A.D., this order has a breeder clause which stated that once a monastery had 60 monks, 12 had to leave to start a new one. This helped to spread Cistercians around Europe, as well as helping to spread their wine making. The Cistericians paid special attention to the soil in which the vines grew. (p.78-79)

To Be Continued...

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