Ever wondered about the History of Alcohol? Here’s Part 2 in the series.
Most liquor bottlers identify the alcoholic content of their product by “proof.” The term dates back to the earliest days of liquor distilling when dealers would test the strength of an alcoholic product by soaking gunpowder in the beverage, and then igniting it. Spirits with enough alcohol to permit the ignition of gunpowder were considered to be 100 proof-the idea being that the gunpowder test was “proof” that the juice was strong.
In England, 100 proof was established as eleven parts of alcohol by volume to ten parts of water. In the United States, the proof figure was set as double the alcoholic percentage. Thus, 86 proof whiskey is 43 percent alcohol, and pure alcohol is 200 proof.
Just as nations have their favored beverage, most have a favored toast as well. The term originated in the custom of dunking a slice of toast in a glass of wine, for reasons unknown. Englishmen like to toast with Cheerio, Cheers, or Down the hatch. Scandinavians say Skoal. Prosit is a German favorite, though the word is Latin. Italians clink glasses to the tune of Cin cin. The Spanish favors Salud, and the French Culs secs. Americans have coined the likes of Bottoms up, Here’s mud in your eye, and Here’s looking at you-as well as some more indelicate expressions from the frontier West.
While we’re on the subject of word origins: the word booze does sot, as widely believed, come from a liquor bottler named E.C. &oz. The word is quite old, originating perhaps in the Dutch word buyzen, to tipple, or the Middle English bouse, to drink deep.
America has nevertheless contributed quite a number of terms to the barfly’s dictionary. In the Old West, rotgut whiskey was referred to by such affectionate terms as old pine top, skull varnish, tarantula juice, Taos lightning, snake water, bug juice, and red-aye.
Today, the names of popular cocktails are somewhat more flattering. The origins of some are obvious; others, lost in history. The Mickey, for example, is said to be named after a certain Colonel Ric-key. The word Julep comes from the Arabic julab. The Black Russian is named for its primary ingredient, vodka. (It’s not black, but it’s certainly Russian.) The Grasshopper, consisting of green creme de menthe, with creme de cacao, and cream, owes its name to its green color. The Martini, Tom Collins, and Alexander are named after individuals. The origins of the Fizz, Sour, and Stinger shouldn’t be hard to imagine. As for the Zombie, you won’t need three guesses-the talk is that three Zombies will turn you into one.
But the names of modern cocktails are certainly not lacking in color. Witness the Red Devil, Sitz Mark, Bourbon Fog, Hurricane, Barbed Wire Fence, Rhett Butler, Cable Car, Sombrero, Tequila Sunrise, Pink Lady, Pink Elephant, Godfather, Harvey Wallbanger, and a warm wine-and-brandy concoction billed as the Instant Cold Cure.
Among the less exotic-and more popular-cocktails we find the Old Fashioned, a mixture of whiskey, sugar, bitters, and club soda. The Screwdriver combines vodka and orange juice; the Bloody Mary, vodka and tomato juice. A Daiquiri includes rum, lime juice, and sugar. A Mint Julep usually includes bourbon, mint leaves, sugar, and water. A Margarita combines tequila, salt, lime juice, and Triple Sec. A Manhattan is made with whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. And the ever popular Martini includes gin, a dash of vermouth, and an olive.
For those who are all thumbs when it comes to cocktail craftsmanship, the Schenley company offers 6.8-ounce bottles of premixed drinks called “Cocktails for Two.” The sixteen cocktails now available include the Black Russian, Apricot Sour, Strawberry Margarita, and Extra Dry Martini.
Speaking of the Martini, there’s the tale about the South Seas explorer whose friend gave him a bon voyage packet containing bottles of gin and vermouth and a jar of olives. A tag attached to the gift said, for insurance against loneliness. When on the high seas, the explorer opened the present. Inside the package, a card contained the following: “I have never yet seen anyone start to make a Martini without someone else coming along and telling him how to do it.”
And then there’s the one about the man who ordered a Martini in a bar, drank down the cocktail in one gulp, and then began biting the glass. When he’d nibbled the glass down to the top of the stem, he left it on the counter and walked off.
“Did you see that?,” a man who had been standing next to the Martini drinker exclaimed aghast to the bartender. “He’s nuts!”
“Yeah, he must be,” the bartender responded. “He left the best part!”
The production of alcoholic beverages in the United States now stands at over 100 million proof gallons per year, with an estimated half-billion proof gallons in stock. Not bad for a nation in which about one-third of the population are teetotalers.
Today, about 77-percent of adult men and 60 percent of women are regular consumers of alcoholic beverages. Studies have shown that the wealthy and better educated are more likely to be numbered among the drinkers. But in France, where there are few abstainers, those who do swear off the grape are more likely to come from the well-educated, monied classes.
France is the nation with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol: 22.66 liters of pure juice per year, more than twice the American figure. Italians are the highest per capita consumers of wine, downing on the average 153 liters to the American’s mere 8. West Germans are the number one swillers of hard spirits-barely beating out the Americans in that category. The Germans are also far and away the leading drinkers of beer and ale, with the average German consuming 182 liters of brew per year. There is a claim, however, that the residents of Australia’s Northern Territory far outpace the Germans.
We have no reliable figures for the communist nations, but vodka consumption in the Soviet Union is thought to be extremely high, and Czechoslovakia is said by some to surpass all nations in per capita beer consumption. At the other end of the scale, the citizens of Iceland and Israel rank as the smallest consumers of alcohol.
The above figures may surprise those who think that “light wine” countries such as France and Italy consume less alcohol than “hard liquor” nations like Great Britain and the United States. Great Britain, famous for its whiskies, is often thought to be high on the list of alcohol imbibers, but Britons actually consume less alcohol per capita than the citizens of any country in the West.
That hasn’t stopped jokesters from commenting on the soft spot the Scotch have for their famous export. Perhaps you’ve heard the one about the elderly Scotsman who, while carrying a bottle of whiskey on his hip, slipped and fell on a path of ice. Climbing to his feet and feeling something wet trickling down his leg, he murmured: “I hope it’s blood.”
Dewar’s, incidentally, is the best-selling non-premium scotch in America, Chivas Regal the best-selling premium. In Scotland, Bell’s is the most popular domestic scotch whiskey.
With all that drinking going on, it’s no surprise that alcoholism is a major problem in many societies. In the United States, an estimated five million people are alcoholics, and perhaps another four million are problem drinkers. In France, estimates of alcoholism put the figure as high as 9 to 15 percent of the total population!
Religious proscription has done little to thin the ranks of the dipsomaniacs. The Koran forbids alcohol use. Devout Buddhists and Hindu Brahmins also spurn the grape. And many Christian sects have forbidden drinking-with mixed results.
As for legal prohibition, the longest on record is a wee twenty-six years, in Iceland, from 1908 to 1934. Russia tried to illegalize the grape early in this century, but the attempt lasted a mere ten years. Our own “noble experiment” lasted only thirteen years-much too long in the many minds of many people.
For our point of view regarding man’s oldest and most popular intoxicant, we may turn to the Bible. The Good Book mentions two drinks: “wine which gladdeneth the heart of man, and water, which quencheth the thirst of jackasses ” (Psalm 104).