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Alcohol: Why we keep drinking it

A history of inspiration, from Ancient History to the American Presidency

Our ancestors have lived with alcohol for about ten million years, intentionally brewing it for at least 13 thousand – but we’ve only had purified spirits for a few centuries. Evolutionarily, hard liquor is a brand new variable in the human equation.

Although Aristotle described distillation, the technology took time to emerge. Distillation is complex and dangerous, requiring advanced metallurgy, but can yield up to 95% pure ethanol.

Independently of distillation, pedigreed strains of laboratory-cultured yeast can naturally continue producing ethanol past the 15% threshold, whereas the yeast of our ancestors would often die out before achieving even a 5% alcohol content.

Like distillation, modern yeasts are a recent emergence – representing gradual domestication rather than technological invention – but still resulting in wine with more than five times the potency of all previous booze.

For most of humanity’s time on earth, alcoholic beverages were equivalent to a weak beer or strong kombucha, although some evidence suggests ancient hooch was sometimes laced with hallucinogens to split the difference.

For most of this time, brewers cultured yeast without knowing what they were doing. Until the 1700s, alcoholic fermentation seemed to happen by magic, and things might have continued that way had French microbiologist Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization working with milk — fortunately, he instead used wine. Even after yeast were discovered, their genome was not mapped until 1996.

"We really haven't had time, culturally or genetically, to adapt to excess of [distilled] alcohol," said author Edward Slingerland during his 2021 appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. “So, why do we put poisons into our body? Why do we like to drink? It's damaging physiologically, it leads to social problems, and yet we've been doing it forever. We've been making and drinking alcohol for just about as long as we’ve been doing anything. It's looking like we've been doing this before agriculture, and it's possible that the desire to make beer and wine is what motivated agriculture.”

Known as the “beer before bread hypothesis,” Slingerland referenced the idea that agriculture, one of the most significant leaps in human civilization, was motivated not by a desire for food but beer.

Clay tablets thousands of years old describe beer as a cornerstone of ancient Sumerian society. Hammurabi's code of the eighteenth century B.C. legislated drowning for those who inflated the price of beer and immolation for high priestesses found in beer parlors.

The seemingly miraculous process of turning sugary wheat infusion (wort) into bubbly alcohol (beer) was personified in the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, to whom poems were written praising the magic of alcoholic fermentation.

But the beer described in the Hymn to Ninkasi was brewed with bread – similar to Russian Kvas – not malt, thus dealing a blow to the beer before bread hypothesis. Another blow was to follow, during the 1953 American Anthropological Association symposium dubbed “Did Man Once Live By Beer Alone?”

There, participants mostly voted against “beer before bread,” opting instead for “bread before beer.” Their consensus thwarted Wisconsin botany professor Jonathon Sauer, who argued that “it was thirst rather than hunger which activated the stimulus behind the origin of grain agriculture.”

Unwilling to admit defeat, Anchor Brewing of San Francisco became a corporate sponsor, funding a team to study Sumerian texts like the Hymn to Ninkasi as a “time platform” from which to look back at the domestication of grain, a milestone predating the Sumerian civilization by thousands of years.

Accepting that their sponsor was biased towards beer-positive results, the research team concluded that Sumerian bread was only baked as a method of preserving it for later use in beer. In their opinion, bread was not baked to be eaten except in dire cases of famine – bread was baked to be drunk. Not as ridiculous as it may seem – a close reading of the Ninkasi Hymn suggests that bread dough (similar to a sourdough starter) may have been used to inoculate a barley wort with live yeast

Like the stoned ape hypothesis, beer before bread was only conclusively proven to be fun, not necessarily true. The research venture culminated with Anchor Brewing releasing a “Ninkasi Beer” with cuneiform text on its label. A skeptical symposium member sarcastically asked, "Are we to believe that the foundations of western civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?"

But the rise of alcoholic beverages does indeed coincide with the emergence of complex society. By the time of the first coffee, societies around the world already had longstanding traditions of brewing alcohol from whatever plants grew locally – whether sake from Japanese rice (the Chinese mixed their version with honey and millet), beer from African bananas (left unpeeled and placed inside a pit), chicha from Incan corn (chewed and fermented with human spit), or mead from Nordic honey fermented with meadowsweet in bronze cauldrons (Africans probably made it even earlier in tree hollows).

Harkening back to the beer before bread hypothesis, the teosinte maize grown 9,000 years ago in modern-day Mexico was an almost useless food crop with inedible kernels, but excellent for beer. The fact an almost-useless food crop would have been grown on an agricultural scale certainly begs the question of what its purpose was.

Before France and California took all the winemaking glory, ancient residents of present-day Georgia threw entire grapevines into egg-shaped earthenware vessels called Qvevri, burying them underground for months. In 2017, 8,000-year-old earthenware jars were discovered with wine residue, south of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. In 2011, a wine press and fermentation jars from about 6,000 years ago were found in an Armenian cave.

Wild grapes will naturally ferment if left alone, and even animals will take advantage of rotting fruit’s fragrant alcohol. With the introduction of sealed vessels, human ingenuity only contained and concentrated nature’s inherent magic.

After the fall of Sumer, alcohol also found its way into monotheism, shifting emphasis from the grains of the field to the fruit of the vine. Beer carried an association with paganism, earth-worship, fertility gods and the warrior societies who summoned them. The civilizing force of the Roman Church adhered more to the lofty grape, suspended high in vines, bathed in angelic sunlight above the dark, Satanic ground.

Benjamin Franklin once penned, "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

Then again, barley was one of the seven blessings of the promised land listed in Deuteronomy’s eighth chapter. Monks developed a particular affinity for beer, resulting in several styles and techniques which owe an exclusive debt to Christendom. 18th century Paulaner monks in Germany brewed Doppelbock for Lent; the extra-rich beer enabled them to skip solid food for the 40-day fast without succumbing to malnutrition.

Although it hadn’t lost popularity, beer had still lost its holiness. Wine had dethroned it as the new king of high culture, a Christian symbol inherited as much from Jewish Palestinians as Roman-Pagan Italians, both of whom shared a similar, grape-friendly mediterranean climate.

The African Zulu goddess Mbaba Mwana Waresa created beer to soothe the jealousy of the gods over her human lover; the Norse god of wisdom, Kvasir, had his blood mixed with honey to yield the holy Mead of Inspiration; but these stories would fade before a Nazarene carpenter’s humble last supper.

Beyond representing the blood of Christ, the grapevine is used as a metaphor to describe the Kingdom of Heaven (John 15:1) and those who will preach the new covenant are described as tending vineyards (Matthew, 20,1-16). Preceding Jewish tradition praised wine that "cheers the hearts of men" (Psalm 104:15) and wine jars excavated from the City of David, destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, revealed that biblical kings added vanilla to their vino.

Conversely, a Muslim rule against praying while drunk evolved into a complete ban, making alcohol “haram,” or forbidden. Jewish and Christian traditions similarly associated excessive drinking with spiritual impurity, as did Taoïsm and Buddhism even more strongly.

Global, sea-spanning empire would also not have been as likely without alcohol’s help. Just as adding a splash of water to whiskey is common today, adding a splash of spirit to water was once an effective method of keeping water drinkable over long voyages.

British Commodore George Anson, who circumnavigated the globe, “lost 1,855 men out of his original complement of 2,000” due to the ravages of scurvy. Around this time, British surgeon Edward Ives tried supplying his crew with (hard) cider, completely preventing the disease until the drink ran dry.

Whole fruits might rot and spoil at sea, but fermenting their juice into alcohol helped maintain life-sustaining nutrition for the duration of a voyage. Grog, a water-diluted spirit (usually rum), began to be infused with citrus juice when cider was not available, upping the vitamin C content and leading to the Barbados rhyme for rum punch beloved by the British navy: “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak.”

Rum with added citrus had a life-saving medicinal value in addition to its pleasing taste, but British aristocracy did not typically drink to stay healthy.

According to an analysis of King Richard III's teeth and bones, the monarch drank up to three liters of wine a day during the last years of his life. This man, described by Shakespeare as a “poisonous bunchback’d toad,” was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 – perhaps the toll of daily drinking made him slower in battle. Not long after him, King Henry VIII spent more than a million dollars a year on wine, adjusted to modern currency. Even Queen Victoria added a splash of whiskey to her daily red from France.

American royalty like Thomas Jefferson continued the tradition, almost to the point of bankrupting himself. Adjusted to today’s currency, he reportedly brought back about $120 thousand of wine from France.

In 1985, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1787 etched with the initials “Th.J,” believed to have belonged to Jefferson, officially became the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold, after auctioning for $156,450.

A bottle of Chateau Margaux from the same year, also believed to be part of Jefferson's collection, was valued at $500 thousand by wine merchant William Sokolin, who accidentally broke the bottle at a party – it was reimbursed to the tune of $225 thousand by an insurance company. Restaurant manager Julian Niccolini dipped his fingers into the wine’s remnants and reported the flavor to have deteriorated with time, making the accidental destruction only a sentimental loss.

American presidents have also demonstrated a love for brewing, with Barack Obama becoming the first president to brew beer at the white house in 2011 – a recipe for which a Reddit user would file a Freedom of Information Act request. Though not the first, his request was the most publicized.

Some of Obama’s beer utilized honey from White House beehives, technically making it a “braggot,” a beer/mead hybrid dating back at least to the twelfth century.

Other presidents defined themselves with avoidance – both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are self-reported teetotalers, having seen close family members fall down dark pits of alcoholism. Abraham Lincoln was known to drink only very lightly, as was Hayes, Taft, Harrison and Coolidge, but these men were exceptions rather than the rule.

Harry Truman called his bourbon shot in the morning “Old Grand-Dad” alongside his breakfast of one egg, toast, a slice of bacon, and skim milk. Truman may have enjoyed whiskey, but George Washington and Andrew Jackson actually distilled, produced and sold it throughout America.

The Old Hickory Cocktail, named for Jackson, is made by mixing sweet and dry vermouth with a few dashes of Peychaud's and orange bitters. The McKinley's Delight, coined for President William McKinley, mixes sweet vermouth with whiskey, cherry brandy and absinthe.

Franklin Pierce, the 14th US president, is sometimes called “the drunkest president,” ultimately drinking himself to death. The esteemed Ulysses S. Grant was reported to have staggered around drunk during the Civil War, and was once seen projectile-vomiting onto his horse’s mane.

Andrew Johnson arrived at the 1865 inauguration as Lincoln's vice president so hammered that he reportedly had to be pulled from the stage and James Monroe fell into a minor scandal when he charged 1,200 bottles of French champagne and burgundy to White House coffers. Warren G. Harding, who voted in favor of Prohibition, kept the White House sidebar fully stocked with the drinks he helped make illegal (and drained them liberally).

During his run for office, Grover Cleveland “limited” himself to a gallon of beer per day – he shared a love for amber suds with James Garfield. Lyndon B. Johnson preferred stronger stuff, and designated a trailing Secret Service vehicle as a portable scotch bar, offering unlimited refills in the president’s styrofoam cup. Predecessors Wilson and Eisenhower shared Johnson’s love of scotch, but the machiavellian Johnson often had his own cocktails secretly made weaker than guests’, giving him a subtle edge in negotiation.

As far as cocktails go, Teddy Roosevelt was famous for his juleps made with fresh mint from the White House garden, JFK adored bloody marys and, while still a student, Bill Clinton was known for making “snakebites” by mixing hard cider with beer.

Across the pond, Queen Elizabeth II was rumored to have four alcoholic drinks daily, until her doctors advised her to stop. She downed her first drink at noon – “a potent mix of two parts of the fortified wine Dubonnet to one part of gin,” according to her equerry, Major Colin Burgess.

“I discovered the Queen Mother’s pattern of drinking rarely varied,” Burgess said in 2017.

She followed her gin and dubonnet cocktail with red wine alongside lunch, sometimes (but not often) finished with a glass of port. She would then have a sweet wine with dinner, a dry martini at 6 PM (which she called “magic hour”) and a final glass of champagne before bed. In 2020, a year before Queen Elizabeth’s death, Buckingham Palace released its own brand of gin.

Alcohol’s psychoactive properties do not seem to have pushed society forward in the same direct manner as in Michael Pollan’s explanation of coffee, or the stoned ape hypothesis of psilocybe. Yet the quest to produce and perfect alcohol has indeed spurred dramatic leaps in human creativity. If the love of ethanol led to the rise of agriculture, then it may be the hidden substance behind all modern cities and megacities.

Used nondestructively, alcohol can be a pleasant social lubricant which can ease inhibitions among strangers and allow for the expansive networks that make cities possible. The same substance that can bring people together, in this case, also seems to drive them apart.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cost of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. alone reaches $249 billion annually. Destructive effects begin in the home, extend into the community, and finally strike society. The link between violence and alcohol consumption has been studied extensively and proven beyond all doubt – the substance is implicated in 48-55% of homicides. By impairing memory and inhibition, alcohol might seem a dud in the creative’s toolkit, but the answer is not so simple.

“When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run in a different plane like whisky?” penned Ernest Hemingway.

Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote and David Foster Wallace also enjoyed strong drink, along with scores of other creatives. Whether alcohol made them creative or being creative made them seek alcohol’s relief remains to be shown – but a few studies offer illumination.

According to Medical Daily, alcohol can spur creative thinking precisely because it impairs memory and awareness. Presented with this detriment, drinkers are forced to compensate, and may become creative to negate their handicap, a type of reset button alluded to by Hemingway (whose love affair with alcohol ended badly).

In 2012, researchers from the University of Illinois published a study, “Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving,” where mildly drunk participants attempted the Remote Associates Test (RAT). These intoxicated subjects performed better than their sober cohort and also scored higher on insight.

The “Newt/Judge Experiment” enlisted 18 advertising creatives split into two groups. According to creative judges, the drunkards produced four out of the five best campaign ideas, beating the water drinkers while also generating the most ideas overall.

A handful of other studies followed suit, but no study has ever shown a benefit to heavy drinking or daily consumption. Only occasional, moderate drinking in a social setting has ever shown benefit.

Laterally’s mission to explore the art and science of ideas was most brought to mind in a collaborative study between Northwestern and Drexel University, which aimed to identify “Eureka,” or “Aha!” moments. A high level of sober self-awareness was demonstrated, through brain scans, to block the creative process.

“Uptight, out of sight,” Stevie Wonder once sang, and indeed, it seems much of the brain is subdued during states of tense self-awareness.

Crucially, the Northwestern/Drexel study did not involve alcohol, but we can speculate that a drink might shut down executive processing that would otherwise filter the free flow of ideas, although there are certainly healthier ways to achieve a similar calm.

You might also be more likely to get into danger while drunk, and creative processes are often heightened in crisis as the nervous system shifts to achieve survival through innovation. Overall, though, it might be safer sticking to daily meditation and only enjoying a few, responsible drinks with equally responsible friends who encourage enlightened conversation more than the wild antics of alcoholic excess.