I’ve been walking a good chunk of the afternoon. I walked down from my home on Mount Tabor a nearly-straight shot on a blessedly warm March afternoon because I was a man on a mission. Only part of it was to get a good walk in on a sunny day and absorb as much vitamin D as possible. Another solid chunk was to go out among the populace on St. Patricks Day and find some friendly souls to get blitzed with.
Truth be told though, I walked over fifty blocks downhill in the sun through suburbs, commercial districts, industrial zones, and homeless camps alike because I wanted to try some friggin whiskey.
I did, it was delicious, and I have some thoughts about alcohol.
I’d love to tell you when my love affair with alcohol began- let alone my relationship with beer, whiskey, rum, and gin individually- but I don’t know that I can. I can give you a rough timeline at best:
- Until I turned 21, I thought getting drunk was stupid and alcohol was gross.
- My father taught me as much as he could about wine since I was 13. I still didn’t like it, but I knew there was intent and artistry and craft involved in making nasty grape juice.
- I turn 21, folks at college are drinking so I find some stuff that doesn’t taste too terrible.
- (A lot of curiosity, questions, trail and error, and a couple significant hangovers)
- I become a beer and whiskey snob and BOY HOWDY WILL I TELL YOU ABOUT IT.
I could tell you what my first favorite spirit and beer were, but since then (and especially since becoming a chef) alcohol and its use have become part of the background noise of my life. Beer is a delicious beverage I savor and enjoy. Whiskey, rum, gin, and mead are practically hobbies.
I’ve employed them in my work, I’ve enjoyed them in my personal life, and I’ve guided others toward my favorite iterations of what is- essentially- a flammable colorless poison that affects the mind and body and tends to make silly things more likely to happen,
So all that said, why do I like alcohol?
The “If By Whiskey” Fallacy
Hang around enough nerds who took logic classes or were on debate team and you might hear about the “If By Whiskey” Fallacy in debate.
The name comes from a certain Mississippi politician who was asked point blank if he supported Mississippi’s continued Prohibition of alcohol in 1952. His response ran thus:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.– Noah S. Sweat Jr., 1952, transcribed here by logicallyfallacious.com
That was a lot of words to mean “whatever you want me to say, I’ll say it to make you like me.” For the sake of this blog post, I’ll pull a bit from Mr. Sweat here for my own reasons.
I am someone who enjoys drinking, but hates the feeling of being drunk. I like alcohol, but do my damnedest not to abuse it or take it for granted. I will never question or judge someone who doesn’t drink or doesn’t want to drink whether for moral or medical reasons.
Ultimately, alcohol is a substance. It has no moral value, positive or negative. Whether it’s a good or bad thing is subjective to the individual presented. My personal rules for drinking, therefore, are few and specific:
- No drinking before 1pm.
- Do not get drunk outside your house.
- DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE IF YOU ARE DRUNK.
- Do not drink when upset/angry/sad.
- Actually enjoy whatever you are drinking (i.e. do not drink to get drunk.)
With that out of the way, what actually is it I find fascinating about alcohol?
The History and Lore
Alcohol has been with humanity since we first figured out that letting porridge sit out and go bad can make our brains act funny. It’s very much the old joke of “as soon as any creature develops self-awareness and consciousness, they realize it was a mistake and go about trying to fix it.”
Any number of books have been written about the development, use, meaning, and spread of various beverages, my personal favorite being A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. Read any of them and you will see how the use, spread, social mores, and culture around alcohol developed.
From its use in trade as a less-perishable commodity, religious functions and symbolism, drinking customs, to even attitudes toward intoxication, learning the history of even individual kinds of alcohol leads down a rabbit hole winding through the depths of anthropology itself.
Fermentation is, as Jeong Kwan said, one way to use time as an ingredient in cooking. It is what allows bread to rise, pickles to become sour, cheese to become funky, and- of course- liquid mixtures to become alcoholic.
Learning how to functionally use the forces of decomposition and rot to make something healthy and delicious (or even just safe) is a skill and art form on its own. Given that the microbes doing the fermenting (largely yeast along with certain strains of bacteria) are the same between making booze and baked goods, it’s no surprise how often bakers worked as brewers as well.
Understanding how and why microorganisms turn sugars into alcohol is fascinating to me. What they create, how the influence and change the final product beyond just creating alcohol is yet another rabbit hole that can be dived down. Each beverage is a story of time, place, person, material, and a million tiny details managed to make something that- ideally- people should be more interested and respectful of than just it’s ability to deactivate your brain for a bit.
I have anxiety. That means sometimes by brains gets too busy, too scared, or too loud for no reason. While I absolutely do not condone using alcohol as a way to self-medicate, I do know that it helps me loosen up and relax. Having a drink does reduce my stammer and make me a more fluid storyteller. In addition, the sheer variety of alcohol out there (along with the science and history of each one) is regular fuel for my foodie curiosity.
I know that my abilities and talent do not come out of a bottle. I cannot and should not rely on alcohol to do anything for me other than turn my brain down a bit, and that’s not always something I want or need. I should never (and never want to) be in a space where I “need” a drink. That is indicative of a deeper problem that alcohol will only numb, not solve- and it will usually come at a cost.
There are many great reasons for me to enjoy alcohol. It’s ability to numb me to everything- good or bad- should not be one of them.