“Only cops and vampires have to have an invitation to enter.” – Christopher Moore.
In order to kill a vampire, we must learn what it is, where it comes from, why it has cast its pestilence upon our lives, and most of all we must find out its weakness … this is how we will kill it!
Alcohol is everywhere. Alcohol is many things – medicine, elixir, delightful diversion, a poison, the ‘body’ of Christ, a ritualistic potion, a source of great wealth, a source of great poverty, a source of great comedy, a source of great tragedy, a catalyst for violence, a rite of passage within certain cultures, a great leveller of class and gender, a great barrier to class and gender equality.
It goes by many exotic alluring names, it’s effects on the human mind, body and soul are comically and tragically labelled in the same vein as lunatic asylums are referred to as loony bins, booby hatches, nuthouses. By applying a protective layer of comedy, the dreaded and feared lose their sting.
What is it? At room temperature, it’s a colorless liquid which in pure form is astringent and unpleasant to the tongue. Dilution makes it less unpalatable, and alcohol and water mix easily together. Spirits are about 40% absolute (pure) alcohol; port, sherry and other fortified wines 15-20%; and wine around 12%. A standard beer will be about 4-5% alcohol by volume, although strong beers can be closer to 10%.
For a chemist, the correct name for the substance we expect to find in alcoholic drinks as, ‘ethyl alcohol’ or ‘ethanol’, while ‘alcohol’ is the generic name for a class of chemicals of which ethyl alcohol is but one member.
Essentially, it’s a neutral substance. What gives these various beverages their attractive and distinct tastes is not the alcohol (diluted or otherwise), the chemicals that get into them in the course of production.
Put unkindly, it is the dirt in the drink which makes it attractive to the nose and the palate, and which turns a mixture of alcohol and water into a good beer, a fine wine or a famous malt whisky. Vodka is relatively free from contaminants, and hence relatively colourless and odourless.
Put this neutral substance in the hands of imperfect beings such as humans, and then the trouble begins.
Add in a dash of technological innovation and all hell can break loose, and that’s what happened after the rediscovery of the process of distillation in the Late Middle Ages. For millenia the simple fact of alcohol-induced self-limitation fermentation [smooth this phrase out] meant there were ceilings on the strength of the product. By the 16th century, alcohol was easily available throughout Europe at more than three times the concentration at which people had previously seen or tasted it. All sorts of old balances between populations and their drinking were destabilized. The very word ‘spirits’ carried a magically dangerous message.
Other than in the Arctic regions, there is probably no part of the world where the abundance of nature aided by a kindly enzyme has not resulted in the availability of some sort of alcoholic drink.
Fermentation is the ultimate source of all beverage alcohol is the breakdown of naturally occurring carbohydrates (starch or glucose) to ethyl alcohol, water and carbon dioxide, by the action of enzymes. Most commercial beer derives from the action of brewer’s yeast on barley and other cereals, with hops added to some beers for flavour. Wine derives from the breakdown of the sugar contained in the juice of the grape; cider from apples; birch beer from birch sap; chicha from maize; rice wine from rice; palm wine from palm; [edit this]
Man has an innate fear of disorder and chaos. When something threatens the order he has imposed on nature – so that it becomes incomprehensible, becomes ‘the unknown’ — he needs to label it in order to distance himself from that thing.
When confronted with public drunkenness, society has continually responded by imposing controls on it. When confronted by the mentally ill, man built asylums to throw them in (“out of sight is out of mind”), when confronted with a massive influx of immigrants, man responded by demonizing them (labelling them), when confronted by thousands of homeless waifs/orphans/foundlings/urchins (“gamin”) running wild on the streets of the metropolis, they built orphans asylums/children hospitals, or threw them on trains and shipped them out West in a sort of indentured servant roles on the farms.
I’ll spare you the lengthy history lesson and quickly jump to the 18th century. Suffice it to say that wine and beer have been manufactured since at least 10,000 BC. The moderate man who thrives on law and order has been in pitched battle with intemperance ever since. The moderate Greeks and Romans battled the excesses of those who preferred to ‘live for the here and now’, ‘eat, drink and merry’, ‘die young, stay pretty’ in various festivals and orgies dedicated to Dionysius, Saturn, or Bacchus. But there was another equally important battle not one for the souls of those poor fools who can’t help themselves, but one for wealth. There has always been so much wealth to be derived from wine and beer that left unregulated, farmers gladly gave their fields over to viticulture, this despite the famines that devastated their people. Civilizations come and go, but people need to drink. During the Dark and Middle Ages, the monks kept the secrets of wine and beer making alive until the rest of civilization settled down from their constant fighting. …
In the 18th century, it was the development of the technology of distillation that set the table for the so-called Gin Craze.