The Common Review, Summer Issue
By Ian Williams
Books mentioned in this essay:
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton Continuum, 211 pages, $24.95
The Prohibition Hangover, by Garrett Peck Rutgers University Press, 309 pages, $26.95
Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, by Patrick E. McGovern University of California Press, 348 pages, $29.95
The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, by Linda Himelstein HarperCollins, 384 pages, $29.99
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, by Tom Gjelten Viking, 413 pages, $27.95
The conservative philosopher and wine columnist Roger Scruton writes in I Drink Therefore I Am: “A visitor from another planet, observing Russians under the influence of vodka, Czechs in the grip of slivovitz or American hillbillies blotto on moonshine, would surely favor prohibition”. He then goes on to explain why the same alien would revere and applaud the same people’s relishing of a fine Burgundy.
Alcohol is a subject that can chill or burn a conversation. As do sex and drugs, it uneasily resides on an index of both pleasure and transgression. From prehistoric times, people have appreciated drink and its effects, so much so that many rulers throughout the ages have suspected the stuff is too good and too dangerous for the lower orders. And alcohol’s potency can be seen in the way it generates rituals. Sometimes this is rather literal, in the case of both the Christian sacraments and the ancient Greeks and Romans who, in taking their libations, liked to splash some wine on the ground for the gods before taking their own sip. Or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of wine lovers like Scruton, a man who sharply distinguishes between his own savoring of fifty-year-old vintages and the redneck glugging of the “guaranteed fresh” beers of the American supermarket.
Perhaps nowhere outside the Islamic world is there a nation quite so conflicted as the United States about pink-eyed Bacchus’s gift to us mortals, where drinking, as opposed to being drunk and incapable, still carries a stigma. Long before the Bolshevik airbrush reshaped the photographic history of the Russian Revolution, strong American prejudices were at work reshaping the national view of the past—a process culminating with the passing of Prohibition in 1920. The legislation would not be repealed until 1933 under Franklin Roosevelt. As with all great moral panics, it was not just the liquor itself that became spiritually contaminating; all favorable, or even neutral, references to alcohol became a form of thought-crime.
In this new, filtered version of history, Founding Fathers such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and indeed George Washington have been stripped of their actual historical callings as distillers or tavern keepers. Modern-day attention on the underlying causes of the American Revolution has focused almost entirely on the Boston Tea Party. This obscures what was quite possibly a more significant issue: the British Parliament’s insistence on taxing molasses—the substance that New England merchants and distillers like Sam Adams preferred to smuggle in order to make rum.
American independence cut ties with the Caribbean even as it opened up the West, in particular, the fertile landscape of Kentucky. Not surprisingly, whiskey became the American drink of choice. Rum’s rhetorical assonance with Romanism and rebellion and its imperialist associations led to the elision of its role in the revolution. Temperance supporters carried on campaigning against “demon rum,” even as most of the targets of their solicitude were more likely to be swigging whiskey. But even more damning was the association of liquor with both slavery and overindulgence. The Northern victory in the Civil War saw an evangelical fervor for abolitionism often marching hand in hand with a passion for temperance, paving the way for Prohibition. Tellingly, the Union Navy ended the grog ration. The Confederate fleet didn’t.
The raging heat of evangelical fervor distilled out from American history the important role of alcohol in its various forms. Currier and Ives, the ubiquitous nineteenth-century printmakers who chronicled nineteenth-century American life, epitomize this Orwellian redrafting of history. Compare their antebellum print Washington’s Farewell to His Officers in Fraunces Tavern in New York with its postwar equivalent. Their original 1848 print has him raising a glass for a toast in front of his chest while a decanter stands on the table behind him. By 1867, the glass had disappeared to leave him with his hand clutched to his bosom in Nelsonian mode, and the decanter on the table behind him was deftly reengraved as an ornately feathered hat.
Temperance soon mutated into outright prohibitionism. After all, the Puritan heritage of New England had always felt that still-small voice of conscience was all very well, but the bellowed instructions of ordained authority were more reliable.
However, when in “Sententiae” H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was himself buying into this newly distilled version of history. In fact, according to Rum: A Social and Sociable History, historically, Puritan divines such as Increase Mather relished alcohol as a good gift of God, and ordinations of New England pastors led to legendarily lavish inputs of the unholy spirit. It was the loss of control, more precisely their control of others, that worried the Puritan elders. Typically, New England towns were mandated to have taverns, but officers were appointed to ensure that no one drank enough to behave indecorously. Similarly, after the Civil War, the Anti-Saloon League raided not restaurants, gentleman’s clubs, or country house wine cellars but the places where working-class people gathered to liberate their minds.
We can see the gathering drought in the contrast between the desperate attempts by patriotic citizens in New England to procure rum for Washington’s army in the Revolution and the character assassination of General Ulysses Grant for his fondness for whiskey in the Civil War and afterward in the White House. Lincoln’s urbane request to the complainers that they find out “what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals,” reflects how presidential urbanity was already battling a growing tide of intolerant temperance. In fact, the first great victory for the dry cause came when Congress abolished the grog ration—only for ratings—for the U.S. Navy in 1862. The British Admiralty did not dare do that until 1970 for fear of mutiny and public outcry, but with the departure of the drinking Confederate sailors and legislators at the outset of the Civil War, the Union Congress could do so with impunity. (Possibly the last American ship to serve the grog ration was the CNS Shenandoah, which carried on fighting for six months after the war, blithely unaware that, back at home, abolition was triumphant and temperance ascendant.)
For Prohibition’s final triumph in 1919, the Southern Baptists had to make a radical transition: from hard drinking to just saying no, period. Such a shift was about as plausible as a sincere Southern conversion to abolitionism. Still, various forces conspired to make the nation’s collective turn possible. World War I proved useful in terms of silencing the hitherto politically powerful German community, with its urbane acceptance of, and indeed social reliance on, communally consumed wine and beer.
As Garrett Peck shows in The Prohibition Hangover, the half century of fervent campaigning against drinking, culminating in the thirteen years of the so-called great experiment that began in 1919, has permanently marked current American social and legal attitudes as well as historical memory. Whole generations have been brought up considering demon rum the devil’s work. Even many of those who did not go the whole hogshead and get on the wagon came to regard drinking as something to be restricted to consenting adults behind closed doors—and certainly something not to mention in front of the children.
Because what little history most Americans are exposed to is at school while they are children, it should come as no surprise that the intimate connection between the country’s heroes and alcohol has gone into the same memory hole as the founders’ slaveholdings, let alone Thomas Jefferson’s slave offspring. Sex and race join alcohol as taboo subjects.
Peck shows how the enforced hypocrisies of temperance and prohibition still permeate American society, perhaps no more visibly than in this country’s drinking age being set at twenty-one. Consider the fact that sixteen-year-olds are trusted to handle firearms and drive, and eighteen-year-olds are trusted to vote and to die in the service of their country. Even more widely flouted than laws against cannabis usage, the age restriction has, among youths, made drinking an illicit glug fest devoid of appreciation for the finer flavors or bouquets. Although almost everyone who has looked closely at the application of the laws admits they are unjust and ineffective, few have the political courage to call for reform.
Indicative of alcohol’s thought-crime status is that entering a Web site in the United States for any alcohol-related subject requires a silly ritual of entering one’s age, as if merely reading about drink were contaminating. Of course, anyone who can subtract twenty-one from the current year can gain access anyway, so the pointlessness of the ritual, unless it is considered a low-threshold IQ test, has the stigmata of a moral panic, all sound and fury, signifying nothing of effect except to armor the site owners against the pitchforks and torches of the moral majority when they come a-lynching.
The poor quality of mass-produced beer in the United States is one result of Prohibition’s thirteen-year intermission in domestic alcohol production, but another is the acceptance of a complete distortion of the market. In many of the Red states, where the mere thought of socialized medicine reduces the citizenry to paroxysms of libertarian fervor, there is unquestioning acceptance of government-owned liquor distribution, whereas in others, state regulations enforce a wholesale structure of intermediaries that stifles entrepreneurship and helps guarantee large corporate control of the trade.
That this should happen in the country that preaches free trade with the evangelical zeal with which it once propounded Prohibition is all the more anomalous in the light of the antiquity, and indeed ubiquity, of the trade that it so distorts. In Uncorking the Past, Patrick E. McGovern implies the brewer as the real oldest profession in the world, and certainly his research suggests that wine is one of the oldest items of international commerce in the world. McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, clearly enjoys his work. In fact, McGovern reverses the general alcoholic amnesia and finds the stuff everywhere, permeating the fabric of the universe and of human history. Putting Bacchus at the center of creation, McGovern is an archaeologist with a nose. He suggests that the vast clouds of ethanol, billions of kilometers across, that astronomers have detected in places like the center of our galaxy might well be one of the sources of life, when the organic molecules generated in such stellar distilleries rained down on planets like ours. And advances in biochemistry allow McGovern and his colleagues to examine an excavated potsherd and find reliable indicators of what the pot used to hold, like alcoholic beverages. Although McGovern’s prose does not always flow as smoothly as his bubbling enthusiasm for his subject, his assiduous efforts certainly rescue intoxicating drink from any residual post-Prohibition amnesia.
In the birthplaces of all civilizations, McGovern finds telltale indicators of beer, wine. and assorted fermented cocktails with mixed ingredients. In Neolithic China, on the borders between Iran and Iraq, and even in the prehistoric Americas, let alone the windy wastes of the north of Scotland, he finds the chemical traces of human ingenuity at work converting honey, grapes, and other fruits to alcohol, or the even more complex task of converting carbohydrates from rice, millet, barley or wheat to sugar and then alcohol. In the midst of our flint-wielding ancestors’ struggle for survival, there is something touching about how assiduously they addressed the technology needed to store and transport their liquid treasures.
McGovern could have emphasized the nutritional value of fermented drinks, their ability to preserve the nutrients of fruits and grains, and indeed he does mention that. However, his main thrust is that the drinks our ancestors made were intended to be, well, intoxicating. He places them in the context of worldwide traditions of shamanism and ritual and gleefully lists the pharmaceutically active ingredients such as Ephedra, opium, and hemp, whose residues he and his colleagues have detected in the containers along with more traditional alcoholic residues.
McGovern implies that, far from alcohol being a byproduct of agricultural development, it was the need for regular feedstock for the breweries that drove our hunter-gatherer ancestors to forsake their more nutritious mixed diet for the beginnings of cereal monoculture. He produces convincing evidence to suggest that the successful domestication of maize was driven by its use in chichi, the beer that Amerindians made from it, rather than the beer being a by-product of food production. He argues that it took thousands of years before cultivators bred maize varieties with ears big enough to eat as opposed to brew. This can be inferred, he claims, from the lack of biochemical indicators of eating corn in recovered skeletons from the chichi-brewing era. Certainly, alcohol became imbued with cultic significance. The Incas rubbed their human sacrifices in the stuff before they made the final cut.
The author also points out the genetic equipment to cope with alcohol has been so pervasive through evolution that naturally fermenting fruit is likely to have been both food and fun for millions of years even for our prehuman ancestors. Although grapes and sugar-rich fruit present almost windfall booze—crush them and they ferment with the natural yeasts on the skins—grain-based beers, made from barley, rice, or millet, present a different technological challenge. Neolithic biochemistry had to convert the carbohydrates to sugars before they could start fermentation. Indeed, barley is the source of some of the world’s earliest beer in the now-dry (in every sense) uplands of Iran. Letting it sprout to produce sugar-rich malt and the enzymes to convert carbohydrate is relatively simple and easily comprehensible as a serendipitous series of discoveries. One imagines a frugal cook using sprouted barley to make porridge and then discovering that it began to bubble if left in the pot—and tasted very refreshing when the puzzling effervescence finished. As McGovern details it, the Chinese process of using fungus to convert carbohydrate from grains like rice to sugars and then allowing the yeast to ferment it could have sprung from similar frugality in far-off days when food was too precious to have a sell-by date, and food preparers scraped off the mold and carrying on cooking.
He also gathers worldwide evidence for mastication of grains as a method of inducing fermentation. The enzymes in saliva convert carbohydrates to sugars. One does not like to think about how it was discovered that chewing and spitting out carbohydrates induced the equivalent of malting, their conversion to fermentable sugars. Did some disgruntled servant spit in the gruel at some point? However, we are happy to consume honey, which bees regurgitate. McGovern attests to honey’s frequent use in the cocktails of various fermentables. Mead has a respectable history all of its own. Indeed, the rule seems to be that, with rare exceptions, wherever there is fermentable material, humans have taken advantage of it.
Although his speculation and conclusions about a world wide web of shamanism practiced with the aid of alcohol (laced or not with other mind-altering substances), are not as well substantiated as the impressive evidence he marshals of ancient brewing and fermentation technology, McGovern indisputably shows the pioneering role of alcohol in commerce. In a world where narcotic drugs are a major, albeit little-heralded, item of world trade, amounting to more than $300 billion annually, if it were not for our inherited historical prejudices, it should not be surprising that drink has been a major trade commodity from the earliest days. He cites the copious evidence for trading of wines from the highlands to the plains of Mesopotamia, or from the coast of the Levant to Egypt, even before the well-attested traffic from the Mediterranean vineyards to northern people like the Celts and later the Germans. Recovered shipwrecks show the holds full of wine that crossed the seas and held the ancient world together.
Despite being steeped in classical lore himself, Roger Scruton’s crusty conservative philosophy ignores sordid economic details and takes a much more cerebral look at drink, with a libation to the spirits of ancient metaphysicians. His latest book, I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, is disdainful of spirits but even more so of the lower classes’ drinking habits. Alcohol becomes the principal criterion for imposing one’s snobbery. Equally, brands, or even grape varietals are nothing to Scruton: terroir is all, imbuing each bottle in his cellar with a sense of history and belonging. He discounts the revolutionary blind tastings in which French experts had, to their own chagrin, preferred Californian wines to their own. For Scruton, “blind tastings assume that wine is addressed solely to the senses, and that knowledge plays no part in its appreciation”, so for him, a bottle of a fine vintage is fifty years of direct history in a bottle, written on a palimpsest of generations of vineyard toil and tenderness. He ignores the questions that arise with the vodka brands he presumably disdains: Would he derive the same enjoyment from a bottle with a Burgundy label in which a prankster had substituted a Californian vintage? Is it the label or the wine that stimulates his higher faculties?
Scruton’s patrician condescension can be jarring, but he is surely right about the ubiquity of drinking and stresses not only that the word alcohol comes from Arabic but also that the assumed Koranic prohibition is no better founded than those of the prohibitionists who invoke the Bible. It is important to remember that Jesus turned water to wine, not to grape juice, and the Prophet originally promised believers a paradise with rivers of wine. And of course, many of its deeper thinkers have added depth to their thoughts with its aid. As Omar Khayyam acclaimed, “The grape that can with logic absolute, / The two and seventy jarring sects confute.” Scruton cites Avicenna, writing from what is now Iran, to refute the assumed Koranic declaration that wine intoxicates: “We should take into account whether potentially and actually, and whether a little, or a large amount”.
Apart from Sufi conclaves and Avicenna’s eminently rationalist approach, Scruton puts wine at the heart of Western philosophy: it was the social lubricant for the symposia of Socrates and Plato. He prefers to skirt discussion, however, of the bawdy Greek vase paintings. Those suggest that wine could be much less cerebral in its effects, liberating sexually and intellectually.
In the modern age, there are signs of actively rigorous repression. Breweries and distilleries were major businesses in both the North American colonies and metropolitan Britain. Both for general consumption and especially for the navy and army, they were part of early industrialization and capital accumulation, becoming some of the largest enterprises of their era. Rum was the fuel and the lubricant for the trade that kept the infertile New England colonies afloat as part of a circum-oceanic trade system. Otherwise relatively infertile, the Yankee colonies nevertheless had huge reserves of cod and timber, which they traded to the Caribbean in return for rum, which the better class of colonists drank, and for the molasses that made rum for the others, including the Indians, of whom Ben Franklin said in his autobiography, “Indeed if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited the Sea-Coast.”
The balance went to Africa, to be traded for slaves—“rum in the hold and a preacher on deck,” as the old saw had it. One can clearly see why the history of New England was bowdlerized into inanity after the Civil War. The South may have been institutionally reconstructed, but the North was made over historically to expunge its unthinkably close ties to rum and slavery. Their use of the rum, whether to ethnically cleanse the Indians or to trade for slaves, was doubly unpalatable to abolitionist and prohibitionist sentiment.
The Boston Tea Party, a smugglers’ heist of the competition, became a useful McGuffin to divert interest and attention from the real issue that poisoned relations between London and the colonies: the duties on molasses, for making New England rum, that the local merchants regularly tried to avoid paying. For much of the period during which Britain was engaged in a life-and-death global struggle with France, in part to secure the American colonies from the French threat, American merchants not only smuggled molasses without paying duty but also obtained it by trading with the enemy—the French Caribbean colonies. It is not surprising that the staunch commercialism of the Yankee merchants pragmatically embraced free trade to such an extent; rather, it is still anomalous that their descendants are still reluctant to embrace the (alcoholic) liquidity that was so important to the rise of trade and capitalism.
That same process of mass alcohol production also played its role in other epoch-making revolutions, not least in Russia and Cuba. Two recent books, Linda Himelstein’s account of Smirnov vodka and Tom Gjelten’s story of Bacardi rum, show just how innovative and influential drink-making dynasties have been in modern history. Along the way, these authors respectively illuminate the histories of Russia and Cuba.
Himelstein’s king of vodka, Pyotr Smirnov, was born a Russian serf, who then navigated his way upward through the hierarchy of the caste-bound czarist society, not to mention plutocracy. Of course, it always helped to make lots of money and spread it around in appropriately useful ways, and the Smirnov dynast’s astute brand-building exercises, from winning imperial approval to collecting international medals, went hand in hand with his calculated and effective social climbing. Vodka has had an almost-sacramental character in Russia, but it was equally important fiscally. The state vodka monopoly, to the disgust of temperance advocates like Tolstoy, paid for much of the government’s expenditures. Indeed, it may be that prohibition in 1914 contributed to the defeat of the czar’s armies by depriving the government of needed revenue, but that has to be countered by the novel effects of a sober soldiery, whose new found efficiency in the first months of the war amazed observers. Of course, in keeping with temperance movements elsewhere, high-class restaurants were allowed to carry on selling alcohol while the lower orders rapidly filled the market gap with illicit moonshine, known as samogen.
After the revolution, the game was up. Vladimir Smirnov fled to the West to sell the brand, which went from France to the United States and is now in the hands of the formidable booze giant Diageo, which straddles the world market and has returned to the Russian market that gave birth to the brand. Russia, through czars to commissars and now oligarchs, is still wrestling with the social consequences of alcohol, which has reduced average life expectancy, and indeed productivity, to third-world levels but without emulating the birth rates. Vodka was probably more effective in undermining the Soviet empire than were Ronald Reagan and Star Wars.
The Smirnoff attention to advertising and image creation anticipates the success of Grey Goose. Vodka is the ultimate in consumerist commodities. It is, after all, a clear, colorless, aromaless mixture of pure alcohol and water, and the difference between brands is somewhat metaphysical. Flashy spenders are prepared to pay huge premiums for those metaphysics—or more banally for a fancy label and bottle. It is with a less articulate sense of Scruton’s terroir that Sidney Frank invented Grey Goose and had it made in France, feeling correctly that people would find French origins considerably more chic than any of the former homelands of vodka, let alone the industrial alcohol plants of the United States. Just as during the tech boom bankers spent thousands of dollars in steak houses for fine wine that they drank as if it were Coca-Cola, a bottle of Grey Goose on a nightclub table sends a signal as potent as a padded codpiece about the purchaser. Bacardi paid billions for the Grey Goose brand once Frank had launched it.
Rum has been an even more powerful historical force than vodka. Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba demonstrates just how innovative the Bacardi family has been, with an impressive array of pioneering business innovations, even discounting those they claimed that might not pass the fact checker’s scrutiny, such as the origins of the cuba libre. The family truly appreciated the value of branding, so much so that when Castro’s Marxist regime nationalized their company, the materialist compañeros would have caviled at the family taking actual barrels of rum out with them into exile but had no inkling of the value of the immaterial trademark registrations they carried out in their pockets.
In fact, Bacardi had already offshored from Cuba to become one of the world’s first transnationals. When the family left the island, they lost their home but not their headquarters—which they had already moved to the Bahamas, close to the U.S. coast (and gaining what was at the time British imperial trading preferences). With similar foresight, they had already built a plant in Puerto Rico from which to assault the American market as Prohibition ended.
The Bacardi family had grown this market by appealing to refugees from Prohibition and by sending in large shipments through illegal rumrunners before repeal. It is little remarked that while the Bacardi family was growing its market this way, another dynasty was building its political fortunes in the same business. No more than we hear about Washington’s distilling and slave trading do we usually hear in reverent obituaries of the Kennedy clan how the proceeds of rum-running originally stocked the family’s political war chest.
Bacardi itself has kept rum to the fore in regional and international politics. The family had a rebellious tradition, and despite making rum by appointment to the royal court in Madrid, it supported José Martí and the rebels in the war against Spain. Indeed, they bankrolled Castro’s shock troops in the Sierra Maestra and greeted the arrival of the long-haired, bearded rebels at Bacardi headquarters with a banner declaring “¡Gracias, Fidel!” Pepin Bosch and Daniel Bacardi, two of the family’s heads, served on the first postrevolution trade mission from the island to Washington. Of course that made Castro’s nationalization of their Cuban operations all the more galling.
Bacardi blows hot and cold on its Cuban connections, but as one of the largest private, family-held companies in the world, it does not have to answer to shareholders for the millions it has expended on this grudge fight with the revolutionary regime they helped distill and market. Its lobbying power has bankrolled the maintenance of the embargo on Cuba, and in a fit of pure pique, Bacardi sought out the former owners of Havana Club and bought their tenuous claim to the trademark that the Cuban government had acquired by default. Litigated inside a United States hostile to Castro, their ownership of the trademark is not recognized in any other country and has on occasion threatened the whole global structure of international property rights. It has done little to stem the sales of Havana Club outside the United States, not least since one of the world’s liquor giants, Rémy Cointreau, markets it outside Cuba, which is what almost precipitated a trade war between the United States and the European Union over the case. Alcohol still fuels history!
Although the other authors discuss the historical impact of drink, Scruton correctly stresses its social and intellectual impact on those who drink it, not just those make and trade it. Readers who savor fine single malts or aged rums do not have to subscribe to his excessive oenophilia to appreciate the good sense of his argument about the centrality of drink to our culture, ranging from its role as the icebreaker, the social lubricant, to its role as Titanic, going down with all hands when imbibers lose control and hit one ice cube too many.
But between is that golden-glow territory, where people appreciate fine wines and spirits, and indeed beers, which stimulate them into expansive conversation, if not greater thoughts. Scruton begins his book by telling us: “Throughout history, human beings have made life bearable by taking intoxicants.” He memorably counters the modern day prohibitionists with this exhortation: “The worst use of money is to add to the junk pile of old cars or kitsch houses. The best use is to buy mega-expensive wine, so turning your money into biodegradable urine and returning it to the primordial flux,” or even perhaps, as the universe ferments and distills its ingredients over the eons, into the clouds of ethanol that waft across the center of the galaxy.
History, and the universe, seen through the bottom of a glass, can indeed reach further than the Hubble. From the likes of these recent titles, it appears that such an appreciation is growing on the bookshelves, and as Scruton above all would agree, no home library is really complete without bottles and glasses to accompany the reading.