Day 254: Skimming The Still – The World Of Liquor, Part 1

originally published September 10, 2012

Nothing kicks a Monday into the right frame of mind like a stiff drink, or at least reading about a stiff drink. I have written about beers, both good and bad, but today I’m going to be less specific. Today I’m pouring myself a tall glass of distilled beverage, and the colorful history of humans getting messed up and slobbery.

The story of alcohol dates back to early human history, because the world has always been in need of a liquid garnish, a little tweaking of the banality of everyday existence. It makes sense, really. Today we live in a world of unlimited distraction, with easy travel, unfathomable technology, and an immeasurable amount of free pornography just a mouse-click away from our filthy minds. It’s easy to imagine people turning to a drink back when there was nothing else to do but watch trees and try to avoid dysentery.

A distilled beverage contains ethanol produced by fermenting grain, fruit, vegetables, and occasionally the fires of hell (I’m looking at you, Everclear). We’re not talking about beer or wine – this is the hard stuff. The rocket-fuel of regret. The sweet nectar of some very temperamental gods. The stuff you have to teach yourself to like in college.

Greek alchemists in Alexandria get credit for the first recorded evidence of distilling a drink. Before you go raising a glass of Ouzo in their honor, there’s no evidence they were distilling alcohol. For that we have to fast-forward to medieval Italy, at the School of Salerno in the twelfth century.

Yes, it would appear that alcohol was first distilled at a college. That seems only fitting. A few years later, alcohol was being given to people as a remedy for Black Death, or possibly just a means to forget about it for a while. The alchemists in the Middle East called the stuff ‘spirits’. The vapor given off during an alchemical procedure was considered to be a spirit of the original material. I suppose after a good night of sampling the elixirs they’d created, it became obvious that the real spirit was in the drink.

Mongolians used to employ something called ‘Freeze Distillation’, which involves freezing the booze and removing the ice. It was not widely used, and often created horrid abominations.

Around the year 1400, each nation began to cultivate their own unique blend of liquor, which has led to an extensive list of ‘national drinks’ from around the world. This list is so extensive that it deserves its own article. Tune in tomorrow for that one.

While technology for most of mankind’s other most essential needs (cooking, medicine, killing each other) has progressed wildly through the centuries, the technology for distilling a tasty, confidence-boosting beverage has remained pretty much the same since the dawn of booze. The column still, invented in the early 1800s, increased production, and naturally there have been advances in ingredient preparation and sanitation, but the theory and process has remained pretty much the same.

Even though there are a number of steps that need to be taken in order to produce what connoisseurs refer to as “quality hooch”, the recipe is far less complex than cooking meth or recreating a believable Twinkie substitute. For that reason, a number of private citizens have opted to formulate their own special brand of liquid intoxicant. It can’t be that hard, right? We’ve all seen M*A*S*H, and we can probably build ourselves one of these…

…and still find time to score with a hot nurse and make a derogatory wisecrack about Klinger’s nose. Except that, in the United States you’d be breaking the law. Brew your own beer, stomp your own grapes into a chewy merlot, that’s fine. But it’s against the law to distill your own unique brand of vodka without a license. That’s okay, hobbyists here in Canada can distill for fun, so simply make friends with someone north of the border.

Some people try to skirt the law by claiming to be distilling alcohol for fuel. I don’t recommend such lawlessness, nor do I advise actually trying to consume methanol to chase down that extra bag of pretzels you bought. You may go blind, you may die, and if you smoke, you’ll probably explode.

Distilled drinks have an advantage over beer and wine, in that you can light them on fire. This serves no practical purpose, but it looks cool. And looking cool is probably half the reason you’re drinking anyway.

So, imagine you’re sitting around with friends, boasting about your heritage being of the ethnicity that truly knows how to cram themselves full of alcohol better than anyone else. Chances are someone around the boasting table is Polish, another might be Scottish, you might even find a Greek in on the discussion. Then the Irishman walks in and nobody tries to argue the point. Who drinks more than the Irish?

Thirteen nations do, actually. The World Health Organization has been kind enough to compile a list of pure alcohol consumption among adults in all the nations of the world. If you’re looking to see which of your friends holds the bragging rights, it’ll be the one who comes from here:

That’s right, bow to the Moldovan in the group. Adults in Moldova, which is a tiny former Soviet republic nestled between Romania and Ukraine, consume 18.22 liters of alcohol per capita every year. It’s hard to visualize this, I know. Eighteen liters looks something like this:

Except that we’re talking about eighteen liters of pure alcohol. That’s a lot. To give you an idea how fortified the average Moldovan liver must be, number two on the list is the Czech Republic at 16.45 liters.

The rest of the top ten includes Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Andorra, Romania, Slovenia, and Belarus. As I said, Ireland is number 14, right below South Korea and Portugal. The UK is number 16 on the list, Canada is at number 47, and the US is way down at number 56. Those Europeans love their drinks, I guess. That’s okay, I’m sure North America is way up there on the weed consumption list.

The fact that humanity figured out how to stick grains, potatoes, and sugarcane into a vat and turn its fermentation into something as glorious as alcohol gives me hope for the future. And it’s not even one discovery – so many magnificent beverages have popped up all over the world through this process. Tomorrow I’ll dig a little deeper into the various stars of the liquor world.

 I love a good cliffhanger.

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