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Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
Iain Gately
Gotham, 2009
560 pp., $22.00

Buy Now
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 2011
480 pp., $18.00

Buy Now

Brett McCracken


Wet v. Dry

"We should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated."

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For as long as man has been eating, he has also been drinking. And for almost as long, he has been fermenting. This is the fact that drives Iain Gately's comprehensive tome on the history of alcoholic beverages, Drink: A Cultural History, which seeks not to evaluate the moral merits of booze but to tell a sprawling narrative of its prominent role in the history of civilization.

The scope of Gately's project is wonderfully audacious: He begins with Neolithic settlements of the Fertile Crescent circa 5000 BC and ends with discussions of George W. Bush, James Frey, and Jay-Z's on-and-off relationship with Cristal. In between he makes stops at the Egyptian pyramids (reportedly built by an army of drunks), ancient Greece and Rome, the Wedding at Cana, the mead hall of Beowulf, Cistercian monasteries (the biggest wine producers in medieval Europe), the American Revolution (the rum trade helped to bring it about?), frontier saloons, Montmarte (the Impressionists loved absinthe), West Egg soirees, and much, much more. Aside from a chapter on Islam and some discussion of the drinking habits of Japan, the tale is largely a Western one (Europe and the United States), but that's not a beef as much as a necessary limitation for a book already somewhat woozy with 500+ pages of drenching wet detail.

The journey is peppered with fascinating facts and vignettes. Did you know that St. Benedict issued a ration of one pint of wine per day to the monks in his order? Or that St. Bernard of Citeaux turned the Burgundy region of France into a vast laboratory to perfect the quality of wine (so that only the very best was drunk daily in Eucharist)? Or that, for centuries, beer was widely thought to be medicinal and a good breakfast drink?

Gately's narrative is winsome and the stories as grandiose as those recounted at a wine-happy dinner party, but it's not all fun and games. From page one, Gately acknowledges the Jekyll and Hyde character of alcohol and the sometimes grim havoc it has wrought in individual lives and in whole societies throughout its history. As early as ancient Greece, writers noted the unsavory impacts of over-imbibing: poor manners, indiscretion, a spirit of anarchy. The Greeks attributed the perilous aspects of drinking to a god, Bacchus, a long-haired love child of Zeus who was somewhat untamed and, like wine, a harbinger of happiness but sometimes also misery.

Such is the dual nature of alcohol. Throughout history it has been the source of much joy, a social lubricant facilitating all manner of community, celebration and festivity. But it has simultaneously been a source of great pain, social ills, and bad decisions—a scourge to many a family. In small doses it bestows a feeling of euphoria and reduced inhibition; too much of it leads to hangovers, vomiting, overdoses, cancer, mood swings and other terrible things.

Indeed, the two-faced reality of alcohol has resulted in its persistently tenuous social meaning: contested as much as celebrated, called evil as often as toasted with cheers. Gately's book traces this dialectic faithfully, portraying alcohol's history as an almost Hegelian trajectory of constant conflict between the "wets" and the "drys," made manifest in routine clashes between the tipplers and the teetotalers and coming to a head especially in the late 19th-century temperance movements and the early 20th-century curiosity that we know as Prohibition.

As the ultimate example of alcohol's chronic divisiveness and yet unquenchable resilience, Prohibition is an episode of particular importance for any study of drink. That's why Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition—a book every bit as vivid, witty and well researched as Gately's (albeit more narrowly focused)—is a must-read contribution to the genre.

Featured prominently in Ken Burns' 2011 PBS documentary Prohibition, Okrent's volume seeks to understand the Eighteenth Amendment and its ramifications on American society. How did a freedom-loving nation like America come to revoke a personal habit like drinking alcohol—a habit which fueled an industry that was, at the onset of Prohibition, the nation's fifth largest?

Alcohol had always been popular in America; the Puritans sailed into Massachusetts Bay in 1630 with 10,000 gallons of wine in the ship's hold and three times more beer than water. But by the mid 19th century, alcohol was so ubiquitous that the average American adult was imbibing a jaw-dropping 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year (compared to roughly 2.2 gallons per year today). The situation naturally gave rise to anti-alcohol sentiment and an increasingly passionate temperance movement.

Okrent begins his compelling narrative of America's long march to the Eighteenth Amendment in the 1840s with the Washingtonian movement, a nascent local temperance organization out of Baltimore, and from there he recounts the path to the broad coalition of organizations and activists—the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), etc.—that would eventually manage to make alcohol illegal all across the land.

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