Book Review — A Short History of Drunkenness

A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth is a humorous and informative look at alcohol and man in history and geography. Forsyth is a writer whose work concerns the meaning and etymology of English words. He is the author of best-selling books The Etymologicon, The Horologicon, and The Elements of Eloquence, as well as being known for his blog The Inky Fool.

Before man started drinking, animals found alcohol in rotting fruit. Early man may also have had a nose for alcohol too. Not so much for the buzz but for finding carbohydrates in the fruit… or maybe as encouragement to find fruit.  Beer came into existence with the coming of agriculture.  Grain was allowed to ferment in water and drunk with a straw.  It did not resemble modern beer in that it was almost a gruel.  The straw was used to get to the liquid at the bottom without having to eat or drink the clumps of grain.  In the Middle East beer became a popular drink.  In Egypt, a god died beer red so another (evil) god drank it thinking it was blood. He passed out and was done in by the good god saving mankind.

Greek and Rome brought wine to the world.  The Vikings fermented honey into mead. The British added juniper to grain alcohol to make gin.  The Aztecs fermented agave but were very strict with their drinking laws and harsh punishments. There is plenty of humor in the stories of each culture as well as information.  In American Westerns, no one ever asks the price of whiskey.  It seems strange, but it is true.  Drinking establishments were either one-bit or two-bit bars.   Two-bit bars had the floor shows.  One bit bars were the dive bars.  One bit, twelve and a half cents, bought one shot.  A quarter bought you a long shot and a short shot.  Prohibition was not as unpopular as it is made out to be. Al Capone’s gangs shooting up Chicago were not as violent as the city is today; the murder rate is almost three times higher now as it was then.  The mixed drink of today has its roots in prohibition.  Bad rye was mixed with ginger ale. Bad gin was mixed with tonic water.

A fun and enlightening read on a topic that has a history as long as man.  It helped, it hurt, it was banned, it is celebrated.  The next time you enjoy a beer, glass of wine, or your favorite liquor you can reflect on its history and its roots in the past.

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