By Matthew Latkiewicz

As seen on DrinkTV’s original series, Drinktionary. Watch all the A to Z’s of alcohol here.

A is for Alcohol, obviously, this blessed libation. Technically, the alcohol we drink (as opposed to the alcohol we sterilize medical equipment with) is called ethanol. Ethanol is a chemical compound created during fermentation when yeast breaks down sugar – and it’s ethanol that messes around with your brain. It lowers inhibitions and improves mood – making you think like you might actually be good at pool. But it’s also ethanol that slurs your speech, reduces your motor skills, and makes you cry for no reason at all.

Proto-humans probably discovered alcohol by eating rotten fruit from the forest floor as far back as 10 million years ago. When fruit rots, the sugars inside naturally ferment, creating ethanol and giving proto-humans a reason to live, and also a reason to figure out how to make magical rotten fruit on their own.

By at least 7000 BC we’d figured out enough about fermentation that we no longer had to depend on the forest floor for our buzz. Across the ancient world, people started making beers and wines from all sorts of ingredients for religious, social, and medicinal purposes. If it is fermentable, we have fermented it and drunk it and started building worlds around it.

The Chinese made wine out of grapes and hawthorn fruit, and beer out of rice; the Ancient Egyptians were also booze nerds, making at least 17 different types of beer and 24 types of wine; and Indians were at least drunk enough by 400 BCE that the Ayurvedic texts describe how alcohol increases the pitta in your dosha (which basically means that your chakras are aligned – yeah, I’m up on that Ayurveda); Ancient Greeks used wine to propel philosophical discussion; and Romans used it during battle. Let’s just say, humans know them some alcohol.

Spirits, or hard alcohol, didn’t appear until the Persians perfected distillation in the ninth century, but the hard stuff remained more of a medicinal product until the 17th century, when, in order to raise revenue and get rid of a grain surplus, the British passed “An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Grain and Corn,” which is the most British way ever to encourage drinking hard alcohol. This flooded the market with cheap spirits, changing people’s drinking habits for good, and creating a legendary period of civic drunkenness known as the London Gin Craze.

All of which is to say: humans love alcohol. Always have, always will. Like all drugs it alters us in ways that makes life more interesting, and ourselves more open to it. Where “sober world” creates skyscrapers and time sheets, “drunk world” creates music and gloriously bad sex; while “sober world” goes to work and deals with the mortgage, “drunk world” tells stories and gambles away savings. “Sober world” wants to keep you healthy and alive; “drunk world”, making little sense by this point, wants to burn you out in a glorious flash. Map any city by its bars, and you will map the part that wants life to be more than it is; the part that doesn’t want to get up for work in the morning but wants to get on a bike and ride through a fountain; the part that cares only for what will happen in the next five minutes and wants those next five minutes to be really, really great.

Of course we can’t live that way all the time, but thanks to booze, we can live that way some of the time.

A is for Alcohol. 


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