“The Story of Alcohol”, Cont’d.

Alcohol Viewed Historically on Prohibition’s Eve

Paging through the second quarter of the 40 instalments of the The Story of Alcohol, one finds many entertaining anecdotes and asides. It’s a cook’s tour of the world’s alcohol regions, a survey of impressive scope which, as all history should, starts at the beginning.

The theme that alcohol’s dangers were always apparent, but more for olden times in retrospect, is maintained but not over-emphasized. The primary purpose seems memorial, to create a sort of verbal museum for a cultural institution finally determined as retrograde and damaging, but also to entertain.

In the Greece discussion, the point is made that alcohol did in a young Alexander the Great, and that but for his untimely passing he might have conquered Rome with the result Western history would have been completely altered.

The Legions of Roman Drinkers

Moving on to Rome, the series notes that Roman festivals and high-caste parties were often very intemperate. Women started to drink, previously forbidden them, and lower orders too, partly a result of alcohol becoming cheaper and more widely available. The other reason was the proverbial “degeneracy” which afflicted Rome in its later phase. These are veiled references to the year of writing, 1919, surely.

In order to ensure large quantities of wine would be consumed at fests, men took hemlock, a poison, because alcohol is a known antidote.

Horace lauded the rare and costly Chian wine, and was one of the first gastronomic wine writers, describing different qualities and tastes. This marked off Rome from the Greeks who were not particularly connoisseurs. Pliny too was a maven of wine, giving recipes for compounds and other formulations. For a certain hydromel (mead) he counselled using rain water that had stood five years. Nero’s era comes in for derision: drunkenness gets worse, slaves are made to drink –  so they won’t seem superior to their masters – funny speeches are given, etc. A prized drink of this era was made from honey, vinegar, sea water, rain water. 

The most expensive drink in history, at least to 1919, was gotten down by Cleopatra. She immersed a rare pearl in vinegar, let it dissolve, and then down the hatch. Contrary to myth, booze did in Marc Antony, not the alluring Cleo.

As Alaric and the Goths swept in from the north, beer drinking became more known, beer made from “barley and wheat”. It was probably like some beer today. The conquerers were fully capable of appreciating Roman wine vintages though and snapped them up on their raids. The series makes the point, which I’ve read elsewhere, that some beer was always available in Rome but had a relatively small market. A beer from cereals had to be made, and was, wherever cereal agriculture existed but tastes inclined Rome at any rate to products of the vine. Perhaps too the impossibility to keep beer in a hot climate limited its use as a comestible (something only really changed with the arrival of refrigeration later in the 1800s).

The Immortals of the Wine Cup

The part about China is interesting. Its rice wine, still made, is considered the model for the rice-based ferments of Korea and Japan. Li Po, the master poet famed for his addiction to alcohol, is given a close profile:

The most notable Chinese tippler was probably Li Po, who lived from 705 to 762, and is sometimes regarded as the greatest poet that China has produced. He was 37 years of age when he was first presented to the Emperor and he made such an impression that the ruler prepared with his own hands a bowl of soup for the poet. Soup unfortunately was not Li Po’s favorite beverage. He greatly preferred wine and contemporary accounts say that he was seldom sober and that he wrote most of his poetry while intoxicated. On one occasion, when messengers were sent out by the Emperor to find him, he was lying face down in the street. Cold water was mopped over him and he was finally led into the royal presence. Although he could hardly stand, his genius did not fail him….

[His verses] were so much liked by the Emperor that he made Li Po a high court official and some of the mandarins were ordered to attend on him and remove his boots when he desired this done. This naturally stirred up many feuds in the court and Li Po was finally compelled to seek elsewhere for a pleasanter place in which to live. With some other slaves to wine, he formed a drinking club which was called “The Eight Immortals of the Wine-cup.”

He met his death in a novel manner. One night while intoxicated, he leaned over the edge of a boat in a vain attempt to embrace the reflection of the moon in the water. He lost his balance and was drowned.

An amusing but also cautionary tale, as the historical conspectus in general…

Note re image: the image above of Li Po (aka Li Bai) is believed in the public domain and was obtained from Wikipedia, here. It is included for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

[A last part follows, here].