The Origin of Booze

A historical look at the stuff that gets us hammered. Who's ready for the first round?

Beer

To quote Homer Simpson, is there anything it can't do? Most likely invented in Persia circa 7,000 B.C.E., beer's gone on to become hugely important in almost every ancient society it's touched. Back in Sumerian culture, the drink was considered positively divine - a fact confirmed when archaeologists dug up the 4,000-year-old "Hymn to Ninkasi." The ode to the goddess of brewing actually doubles as a recipe for a barley-based beverage guaranteed to make people feel "exhilarated, wonderful and blissful."

The epic of Gilgamesh tells us a similar tale; one of the main characters, Enkidu, is said to have had "seven cups of beer, and his heart soared." After seven rounds we can definitely see why. In ancient Egypt, wages were often paid to the poor in beer, or as they called it, hqt. It was sort of light beer, apparently, and not very intoxicating, which explains how construction workers of the day managed to drink three daily rations of it and still build their masterpiece: the not-at-all-leaning pyramids of Giza.

Wine

A wine snob will happily tell you, for hours on end, how difficult it is to make a decent wine and how many complicated steps are involved. This may be true, but it's ridiculously easy to make basic wine. The beverage in its roughest form probably goes back thousands of years to primitive cultures who mistakenly left grapes in the sun for too long and then attempted to eat them. As it turns out, all the yeasts needed to ferment grapes actually grow on grape skin. (No additives necessary!)

Around 5,000 B.C.E., the people of present-day Georgia and Iran started making wine in clay pots. By the time of ancient Greece, wine had acquired a religious significance; perhaps in homage to Dionysus, the Greeks planted vines in all their colonies, including France and Egypt. (We'd love to know what the French make of the fact that they have the Greeks to thank for their vaunted grapes.)

California winemakers should also praise God, literally, for the fruits of their labor: when Christian missionaries arrived there, they planted the region's first vines so they'd have something to transmogrify into the blood of Jesus when they took Communion.

Champagne

As you probably know, bubbly comes from the Champagne region of France, a longtime center of trade (and also a region in the path of rampaging hordes: Attila the Hun, among others, left footprints there). As you may also know, Dom Perignon was in fact a real person - his first name was Pierre - and, in a sense, he's the inventor of the sparkly stuff. A Benedictine monk, the Dom served as treasurer of an abbey in the Champagne region starting in 1688.

The region had slightly chilly weather that year, and the growing season was unusually short anyway - which meant grapes spent less time fermenting on the vine and more time fermenting in cellars. Essentially, it was this process that led to carbon dioxide being trapped inside the bottles.

At first the Dom was horrified; this was a sign that he'd failed in his duties as treasurer (which included, for some reason, winemaking). Try as he might, he couldn't get rid of the bubbles. Finally, resigned to dealing with them, he blended grapes to make a light white wine, which suited the effervescence far better than a heavy red.

He also realized he'd have to solve another problem caused by trapped carbon dioxide: a considerable number of his bottles exploding. So, instead of stopping them with wood and oil-soaked hemp, he started using a soft material from Spain: cork.

This lovely story, by the way, doesn't sit so well with the natives of Limoux, France. They allege that they were making sparkling wine in their backyards as early as the 1500s, and that Perignon stole their idea. We've got to side with the Dom on this one: After all, the guy was a monk.

Vodka

Believe it or not, the name really does come from the Russian word for "water," which is "voda," and the Russians have a pretty good claim to inventing the stuff. Production from grains has been documented there as far back as the 9th century. It wasn't, however, until around the 14th century that vodka became known as the Russian national drink, and for good reasons; it was served everywhere, even at religious ceremonies.

Poland likes to boast that its own vodka production goes back even further than Russia's, to the 8th century, but what was going made in that region at the time was more like grappa or brandy. Later Polish vodkas were called "gorzalka," or "burnt wine," and were used as medicines, as were all distilled liquors in the Middle Ages. Vodka was also used as an ingredient in early European formulations of gunpowder.

By the way, for those of you who turn your noses up the fruit-infused vodkas that have recently hit the market: they're the original. Early vodkas were not quite as palatable as your average Grey Goose, so makers often masked the taste with fruits and spices.

Gin

If you're unsurprised that vodka used to be given as medicine, you probably won't be shocked to learn that gin was invented specifically for that purpose. 14th-century Europeans distilled juniper berries in hopes of fighting the plague (then again, almost everything they did was in hope of fighting the plague).

But gin as we know it didn't come along until the mid-1600s. That's when one Dr. Sylvius concocted the first formulation in the Netherlands, hoping it would serve as a primitive type of dialysis for kidney patients. (We're guessing he didn't particularly care about its effect on the liver.) By the end of the century, gin had become popular in Britain because it was sold at cut-rate prices, despite a very widespread rumor that it could induce abortion, which lead to it being nicknamed "mother's ruin." Later, when the Brits started to occupy India, they found it useful in yet another medical mixture: the gin and tonic. The quinine in the tonic water was effective in fighting malaria.

Tequila

As vodka was to Russia, tequila was to Mexico; it's been made there since at least the 16th century and was originally used in religious rituals. (Having drunk a little too much tequila once, we can testify to its ability to cause drinkers to beseech God for mercy.) The name comes from a town founded in 1656. And while José Cuervo didn't exactly invent the drink, he was the first to commercialize it. As for its migration northward, a fellow named Cenobio Sauza brought the stuff to the U.S. in the late 1800s; we can't help but wonder if this is why frat boys on spring break still refer to this stuff as "the sauce."

Rum

Yo-ho-uh-oh and a bottle of rum - the drink tastes great, but its history isn't so sweet. The story, as far as we can tell, starts in India, where in 300, B.C.E., Alexander the Great saw some sugarcane and memorably called it "the grass that gives honey without bees."

All well and good, until Christopher Columbus went and brought sugarcane to the Caribbean. There, it flourished and became the engine of the slave trade. Africa sent slaves to the Caribbean, which sent sugar to New England, which sent rum and other goodies to Africa, which sent more slaves to the Caribbean. Known as the triangular trade, pondering the implications of it all is enough to make a person want a stiff drink. But not, preferably, one steeped in rum.

The article above was reprinted with permission from mental_floss' book In the Beginning.

From Big Hair to the Big Bang, here's a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything by our friends at mental_floss.

Did you know that paper clips started out as Nazi-fighting warriors? Or that cruise control was invented by a blind genius? Read it all in the book!


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Mr Know-it-all you might want to write Moët et Chandon and let them know that they have been misprinting their labels since 1936:

http://www.lvmh.com/images/left/2006DomPerignon-Vintage98-L.jpg
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Beer was written "hnkt" in Egyptian (which didn't write its vowels.) If rendered by an Egyptologist for the general public would be more like "henket", a far cry from "hqt" (which sounds more like someone about to hock a loogie if you ask me.)
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And what about Whiskey? The first written record of whisky comes from 1405 in Ireland, where it was distilled by monks. It is also mentioned in Scotland in 1496. However it is thought that whiskey had already been around for at least several hundred years prior. When or where whiskey was first distilled is unknown and the local, undocumented beverage production during the period makes identification of the drink's origin difficult. Additionally, it is possible that different groups discovered processes of distillation completely independently of one another.

Source: wikipedia
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