Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Booze - A Neolithic Phenomenon

Chinese apothecaries started making a potent, rough spirit as early as 670. But in the West, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that anyone really started thinking about drinking hard alcohol; physicians in Salerno first tippled distilled wine in the mid-1100s. The technology kept improving: The famed Murano glassworks in Italy provided carefully engineered tubing and better glassware for allowing distilled vapors to cool and condense. Even Leonardo da Vinci worked on a still furnace design. By the late 1600s, most of Europe was smashed on cheap Dutch gin, French brandy, and corn spirits.
Distillation was literally a transformative technology. If you were a farmer, you could harvest all that grain or fruit and distill it down to a few easy-to-transport barrels of liquid. The product never spoiled and was worth more at market than the grain or fruit itself. The economics made a lot of sense.
Here's another part of the Paleolithic model, which hints at why alcohol can have such a debilitating effect on humankind.  For many a generation, being able to tolerate and enjoy booze without going off the deep end wasn't an issue because it was only rarely around.  Then, boom, in a couple thousand years you get all to booze you can buy, and you can buy a lot because it's cheap - it's made from the world's crappiest foods, and most of the labor is done by micro organisms.  
We Europeans can thank the Dark Ages for our relatively high percentage of alcohol tolerance - it doesn't kill us quickly in most cases - because the genome for alcohol tolerance was so important for survival in that time (the only germ free source of hydration was beer) that if your ancestors weren't relatively tolerant, you wouldn't be here.  So we are partially "evolved" for alcohol - but since you can trace about half of "society's problems" to alcohol issues, partial is the key word.  
And all of this heavy thinking brought my mind back to how good that mint julep was last night ...

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