By Aaron Cheesman
A long, long time ago, on a planet called Earth, a tribe of thirsty nomads happened upon a mysterious nectar made from fermented vegetation. They found it really got the hunting party started, but it was also hard to come by. That’s when humankind really got its act together.
1. Alcohol started civilization and kept on rocking
Having tasted and experienced naturally occurring alcohol, man’s first attempts at agriculture–the first important step toward civilization–may have been an effort to recreate that old magic feeling.
Archaeologist Patrick McGovern found neolithic pottery shards in China with traces of tartaric acid, suggesting early man was making the beverage from grain as far back as 9,000 years ago. The process was probably initiated by chewing on wild rice, turning the starch into malt sugar.
Early farmer/brewers would rate the resulting mash on a scale of “mildly repulsive” to “extremely revolting” and mix the best of it with honey, wild grapes and hawthorn fruit — all ingredients that could be found in their miserable surroundings.
Not only did alcohol make it easier for hunters to go talk to basket weavers, it also provided valuable calories in a commodity easier to produce, store and consume than bread. Millennia later, 20-year-old mankind still thinks that on Friday nights, a beer-only dinner will be “all good, no problem.”
Alcohol later turned out to to have other advantages, too.
2. Alcohol made humankind more creative
The world of art has had more celebrated drunks than one can count. Think Poe, Coleridge, Bukowski, Winehouse. Though alcohol may have destroyed people’s lives and livers, science indicates it also made them more creative. In a recent study published in Consciousness and Cognition, men who got moderately drunk did better on tests of inspired thinking.
Researchers divided their test subjects into two groups. One was served vodka and cranberry juice. The other group was offered a tall glass of shut the fuck up. All were then given a battery of word association questions such as “What is the common word linking arm, tar and peach?”
The study found that if you’re drinking right now, you’ve got about a 30 percent edge on guessing the correct answer (which is pit, by the way). If you’re smoking weed right now, you’ve got about a 55 percent chance of forgetting the question altogether and moving on to the surrounding pictures of boobies.
The buzzed group not only solved a significantly higher number of problems, they also solved them nearly four seconds faster and reported the answers frequently “came to them” in a flash, rather than through systematic thinking. Unfortunately, this unleashing of creative capabilities does not improve math scores, dating skills or driving ability. Trust us on this one.
3. Alcohol saved innumerable lives from painful death on land and sea
The ancients called alcohol “aqua vitae,” Latin for “water of life,” because it sure as shit was safer to drink than water itself, which was actually often called “water of crippling diarrhea, followed by death.” That’s because it often carried a stunning constellation of parasites and pathogens. There were two known processes to make water safe for consumption: boiling it for tea (safe & boring) or turning it into an alcoholic beverage (safe and awesome).
In the golden age of exploration, low alcohol beer (also known as small beer) was essentially the British sailor’s Gatorade. After all, the already sketchy water supply wasn’t going to improve over months of storage in unsanitary wooden casks. They might as well have put out deck chairs for all the worms and germs to sun themselves on before ushering them into the all-you-can-eat sailor intestine buffet.
When cholera epidemics broke out in Victorian London, those with strong survival instincts knew it was better to shun the well and hunker down in the local pub. No one knew exactly what it was about the water that made people sick, but eventually alcohol merchants would step in to fix that, too.
4. Wineries protected their investment and accidentally advanced medicine in the process
As late as 1856, wine makers didn’t know what caused perfectly good product to turn to vinegar. So one manufacturer commissioned a bright young scientist named Louis Pasteur to determine the cause. Pasteur looked closely at good wine and spoiled wine under a microscope and observed particular microbes were to blame–and that heat could kill them.
Pasteur determined the exact time and temperature required to preserve the wine without changing its taste in a process he called–wait for it–Pasteurization. Years later, he would apply the same concepts to the origins of disease, leading to some of his greatest contributions to science and medicine, including vaccines for anthrax, rabies and chicken cholera.
I made you my specialty: Chicken cholera vaccine and a trough of gravel & grubs.
5. Alcohol has also saved man from starvation–on at least one occasion
One fine Sunday afternoon in December 2011, Alaska man Clifton Vial decided he’d hop in his pickup truck and explore how far north a road would take him. After about 40 miles, he got his answer.
When in doubt, ask yourself, “What Would Ice Road Truckers Do?” Then do the opposite.
Vial had gotten his truck irrevocably stuck in a snowdrift. Apparently, he also hadn’t told anyone where he was going on his one-way adventure. While this may seem an astonishing lapse of judgement to readers from the Lower 48 (and other sane regions) this approach aligns with what Alaskans call the “Frontier Total Lack of Self-preservation Spirit.” He did, however, have the presence of mind to bring beer–also a strong Alaskan trait.
While Vial waited three days for people to notice he was gone and search the most illogical route imaginable, he survived sub-zero temperatures and fought starvation by eating frozen Coors Light like tinned food.
This is, of course, the only acceptable way of ingesting Coors Light without the aid of a lawnmower and a scorching hot sun.
6. Alcohol saved the White House from total destruction
Andrew Jackson was the first truly popular President, swept into office after new election laws had tripled the number of registered voters from 365,000 to a nearly million. When it came time to swear him him in, the literally swamped capital became figuratively swamped with about 20,000 rowdy frontiersmen who wanted to personally shake Old Hickory’s hand. Immediately after a speech at the Capitol that no one could actually hear, the mob surged through street barriers and followed the president back to his pad. Jackson wasn’t in a celebratory mood–he was still mourning the recent death of his wife, but that wasn’t going to get in the way of an epic White House Par-tay.
The crowd poured into the presidential palace and immediately began trashing it. Invited guests described the scene as rife with “scrambling, fighting and romping.” Men were seen with bloody noses. Ladies fainted. Mountain men in mud-caked boots stood on upholstered chairs for a better view. So many squeezed inside that the whole building creaked and shuddered. Loyal friends of the new president formed a ring around him so he wouldn’t be crushed. At 4 P.M., Jackson escaped through a first floor window and hid out in a hotel while the party raged on.
It wasn’t until around sundown that servants figured out the perfect solution: They passed barrels of liquor and ice cream out the window in order to get the revelers out onto the lawn, where they could do less damage. It worked. Problem solved, liberty preserved. The whole affair was no skin off Jackson’s nose. He soon got Congress to approve a $50,000 budget to fix the place back up. It’s good to be the President.