Created | Updated Nov 14, 2011
Humans have been discovering and enjoying the effects of alcohol for thousands of years. Drinks containing alcohol, or more specifically ethyl alcohol, have been invented and produced across the globe. Even in the Bible there are tales of drunkenness; it is said that Noah planted a vineyard 'and he drank of the vine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent' (Genesis 9:20). h2g2 Researchers are no strangers to alcoholic drinks either, as the multitude of entries written on the subject testify.
Alcoholic drinks in the past have been strongly linked to different regions and have been made using the materials and techniques available locally. Today, with global transportation and modern industrial production, there is an unprecedented variety of alcoholic drinks available and there are new ones being constantly invented.
Alcoholic drinks come in many types and varieties. Alcoholic drinks are made through fermentation, either through straight fermentation or by brewing. To make drinks stronger, the processes of fortification or complete distillation can be applied.
One method of producing alcoholic drinks is brewing. Brewing is the process by which raw materials, made of starchy substances, can be turned into alcohol. The raw material is steeped in water, boiled, often with hops, and then fermented using yeast. This is the method used to produce the ever-popular beverage called 'beer'. Other names given to this drink are 'malt', 'mash', 'wash', 'wort' and 'ale'.
The terms 'beer' and 'ale' and 'lager' are often interchangeable with each other, but their meanings are sometimes different. Beer was originally weaker than ale, and whereas ale was brewed using hops, beer was brewed unhopped. Many people use the term 'lager' to describe a drink lighter in colour and alcoholic content from beer, but the words actually refer to the method of brewing. Lager is bottom-fermented, where the yeast sits at the bottom of the fermenting vat, and is given a long period of cold storage (lagering). Beer is top-fermented. The entry, 'What Makes it Lager or Ale?', gives a more detailed account of the differences. Stout is similar to modern ale, but is produced using some roasted barley or malt, giving a darker colour. Porter originated from London market porters, who would ask for a 'half-and-half' (two half pints mixed together into a pint glass) of ale and stout, giving an intermediate strength. Eventually, brewers started producing beer of this strength to meet demand. Cooper originated as another half-and-half mixture, this time a mixture of stout and porter. For more information see the Porters and Stouts entry. Real Ale is the name given to beers produced using traditional methods where the beer is cask-conditioned, and is served 'live'. Wheat beer is produced from grain wheat rather than barley.
Beer originally appeared in the UK in homebrew form in around 1200 AD. This was followed by 'brew and sell' operations, where beer would be produced in larger quantities and then sold to people where they would drink it at the same place. This was the early pub. As these pubs became more successful they formed chains, and it soon became more economical to produce the beer in a central location and transport it to the pubs. This is where the close relationship between pubs and breweries comes from, with 'free houses' being pubs who were not connected with any brewery. The breweries became fully industrialised during the Industrial Revolution. At some point, the UK government granted off-licenses so that beer could be sold for consumption away from the premises. In Britain these shops with off-licenses are affectionately known as 'offies'. Beer in off-licenses is usually sold in cans (nicknamed 'tinnies' in Australia), either singly or in the famous 'six-pack'. Most modern canned beers now contain a widget which give a large frothy head.
In a pub, beer is usually served in specially made glasses. These hold exactly a pint or a half-pint of liquid, and are filled to the brim, ensuring that you get a standard amount of drink. Increasingly beer is also sold in bottles. This isn't quite so pleasant but is easier in clubs when you want to dance holding your drink. Taking a pint of beer back to your table without spilling a drop becomes an increasingly difficult task for pub patrons as the night goes on, even with the handy ridge built into the beer glasses. For this reason, beer mats are provided (usually printed with a beer company logo) on the tables to mop up any spillage. In pubs, beer is also an essential ingredient for playing the game of funnelling.
Beer around the World
Different parts of the world have different types of beer available and will have different regional favourites. When travelling, if none of your regular beers are available you can always try drinking what the locals are drinking. In Texas, Bock Beer is strangely popular. The many beers of Germany require special explanation. Then there's Scottish beers, and beers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Drinking beer in Asia has a detailed entry about it. Shandies in the Maldives are also popular.
Brands of Beer
Most modern beer is branded with a name and logo. Though most people have a favourite beer, there are some brands which have special significance and have had entries written about them by the h2g2 Community. XXXX is considered very important by Queenslanders, Australia, Boddington's Bitter is ranked highly by the people of Manchester and Guinness is famous as the national drink of Ireland.
Wine is the fermented juice of grapes and alcohol is produced from the natural sugars in the grapes. The two grape varieties used, almost exclusively, are vitus and V. vinifern. Wine is traditionally produced in Mediterranean countries, as vineyards need warm climates. However, in recent decades there has been an explosion of New World wines coming from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Chile to name but a few. Wine is usually a very regional product, as production is traditionally done on a local scale. Vins de Pays is French for 'local and regional wines', and sticking to the strategy of buying regional wines is usually a good one.
White wines are light yellow to gold coloured. Flat white wines include white Burgundy, Capri and Muscadet. Sparkling white wines include the famous champagne, from the Champagne region in France. It is famous as a celebratory drink and is used in Formula One races where the winning three drivers spray each other with champagne. It is so heavily sparkling that opening champagne requires careful skill.
Rosé wines are pink in colour, and are the least popular of the three types. The Californian rosés are slightly sweeter than their European counterparts.
If spilt, red wine usually creates quite a bad stain, but getting rid of these stains is not necessarily that difficult. New Zealand Red Wine has a particularly good reputation as do the French clarets and Spanish Riojas.
Other Fermented Drinks
Mead is produced from fermenting the sugar naturally occurring in honey, and is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks, having been produced in those countries with colder climates such as medieval Britain.
Cider and Apfelwein are produced from apple juice. Cider is particularly important culturally in Britain and North France where apples were readily available. Real cider, as opposed to the apple-flavoured alcoholic drinks which make up most of the drinks called 'cider' today, is made from pure apple juice, with no added sugar or nitrogen. It is difficult to find in Britain today outside of the Westcountry and Somerset. Like Real Ale, 'Real Cider' is a concept also being promoted by the Campaign for Real Ale organisation.
Perry, often associated with cider, is produced from pear juice ('pear-y', geddit?). Other fruits used in various locations include plum, cherry and mixed berries.
Fortification is the process by which fermented drinks have their alcohol content raised by adding a stronger form of alcohol produced by distilling. Fortified white wines include Muscat and Vermouth. Fortified red wines include the famous port, from Portugal. Sherry is another common fortified wine, being very popular with female alcoholics, as it's apparently the optimum strength for getting alcohol into the bloodstream in the fastest time.
Distilled alcoholic drinks are stronger than ordinary fermented drinks. The alcoholic content is raised through the process of distilling. This is based upon the different boiling points of alcohol (78.5° Celsius) and water (100°). If the fermented mixture is heated to a temperature between these points, the alcohol vaporises while the water remains liquid. This alcohol vapour is re-condensed (converted from vapour to liquid again through cooling), leading to a liquid high in alcoholic strength.
Distilled liquor is usually made from natural sugars such as honey, ripe fruit, sugarcane, beetroot and milk, or a starchy substance which can be easily converted to sugar. Because distilled drinks can be produced to higher strength drinks than purely fermented drinks, and because much of the original flavour is removed from the drink during distillation, distilled liquor can be made from just about anything, and around the world different populations have made use of locally-available products to make their drinks.
Historic Distilled Liquors
The first distilled drinks were produced from either honey, making mead, or grapes, called either brandy, aqua vini (from Spain) or cognac (from France).
Whiskey is distilled from malted barley, the same raw material that beer is made from. This drink dates back as far as 1500 AD in Scotland, and to 1100 AD in Ireland, where they used a mixture of oats and barley malt to produce usquebaugh.
Milk has also been used as a material from which distilled liquor can be produced. In Corsica, mare's milk is used to produce skhou, in Asiatic countries cow's milk has been used to produce arika.
Distilled liquors made from rice have been produced in China, Japan, Sri Lanka and India. In Japan, rice was used alone to produce shochu, in China with millet to produce saut and in Sri Lanka and India with molasses or palm sap to produce arrack from as far back as 800 BC.
Popular Distilled Drinks
Vodka (this Researcher's most appreciated spirit) is one of the most pure forms of distilled liquor, containing a high proportion of alcohol and virtually no other flavourings. The word and the term comes from Russia, where vodka is usually made from potato. From it you can make many nice mixes, and also the fabulous party food, vodka jelly. Gin is similar to vodka but is infused with more flavour. It is usually served with tonic water, making up the famous Gin and Tonic, often abbreviated to the nicely phonic 'G & T' (ice and slice?).
The ancient drink whisky, mentioned before, is another popular spirit. Scotch Whisky is a kind of whisky, as are Sang Thip and Mekhong Whisky, which are as powerful as they sound. Bourbon is another variation, the main feature being the use of much corn as well as malt and rye being used to produce it.
Tequila is an increasingly popular drink of Spanish origin, served in a strange way involving lemons and salt. Raki is a grape-based spirit that comes from the Greek island of Crete. Absinthe is a legendary green spirit of very high percentage, made from wormwood, and produces hallucinations. Rum is produced from molasses and Pusser's Rum is a fine example of this beverage. Aquavit is another spirit which is popular in Scandinavia.
Cocktails are basically drinks mixed together. The h2g2 Community has usefully put together The Ultimate Cocktail List. There's also Traditional Oxford Cocktails Parties and an entry describing How to Make and Enjoy a Very Good Margarita. Cocktails often require cocktail sticks and there are some cocktails made for the stars (that's showbiz stars not the things in the sky) - no one knows who the Tom Collins cocktail is named after though. Madras is another cocktail, as is Green Death and Embolism. The Dirty Piscitelli basically involved throwing anything you've got together...
You might not always want to drink your spirits 'straight', so it's a good idea to use a mixer to dilute the drink down. As well as the usual soft drink mixers, like cola, nowadays many people like to use isotonic mixers like Irn Bru or Red Bull, which contain caffeine. This drug cocktail mixes alcohol (a depressant), and caffeine (a stimulant), with somewhat mixed consequences.
Alcohol in Food
Occasionally, alcoholic liquor is put into food and eaten. Famous examples are 'brandy butter' (though many modern brandy butters only contain brandy flavouring), fruit cake with brandy or other liquors in it, and chocolate liquors. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and cider are also often used in cooking, but the alcoholic content is generally removed by the heating. In Australia and New Zealand, Tim Tams, a kind of biscuit which can sometimes contain alcohol, are served now and again.
Pubs are the normal place in Britain where people go especially to drink alcohol. Indeed, as explained previously, pubs were the original places where beer was produced. Pubs aren't just about drinking though, they also serve as a social meeting point. A good pub should have friendly bar staff, and a nice atmosphere. Traditional pubs may also have games to play, such as pool, or, even better, bar billiards. Alternatives found in various pubs are darts, pinball machines and some pubs may even provide board games. Most pubs also contain fruit machines, but these are more of a nuisance as the flashing lights are an irritating visual distraction, and gambling is a mug's game anyway... One of the most social pub games, involving the whole pub, is the Pub Quiz.
Sometimes it is deemed good fun to play drinking games. Drinking games are usually designed to get someone drunk, either yourself or your opponent, depending on how you look at it. A common drinking game is simply where a selection of drinks are bought, often a mix of beers and spirits, and two opponents race to see who can drink them all first. This game is rather tacky, and really not a very good idea, as it can lead to serious illness or vomiting (hospitals admit many casualties from this game). More sophisticated drinking games include Revolver and The Rose. A great drinking game that mixes intelligent strategy with reckless drinking is 'shot chess'. Here the basic rules are the same as regular chess, only for every piece you take, a shot of drink (or gulp of beer) must be drunk. This leads to interesting strategies as the more you drink, the worse your chess-playing becomes. The game can be played with a regular chess set using separate glasses, or with one of the rather nice glass 'shot chess' versions available in some shops, where each of the pieces holds a measure of spirit.
One of the reasons why alcoholic drinks are so popular (indeed it may be the only reason), is the effect that consuming alcohol has on the body. Alcohol can enter the body through a number of different ways. A small amount may be absorbed directly into the blood through your stomach walls, but unless you are snorting or 'eyeballing' a bottle of spirits, most of the alcohol is absorbed whilst in the small intestine, from where it is rapidly circulated throughout the body. The rate of absorption is affected by a number of factors, which have led to many theories about what you should do before drinking. Food present in the stomach slows down the absorption of alcohol, as many people know. Fat molecules are especially good at soaking up alcohol, so a good plate of chips before drinking will slow down the speed in which you become intoxicated. Other people sometimes suggest a glass of milk. Alcohol drunk with other carbonated drinks will normally be absorbed more rapidly for some reason, so that a vodka coke (and other any other cocktail using a fizzy drink mixer) becomes one of the most rapidly absorbed alcoholic drinks. Other contributory factors can be the state of mind that the person is in, and their physical size (this doesn't affect the rate of absorption, but affects how diluted the alcohol is in the blood stream). Surprisingly, drinking high quantities of strong alcohol, such as spirits, can actually slow the absorption of alcohol. When spirits are downed on an empty stomach, the high alcohol solution may cause the stomach to tense up, slowing the release of the liquid into the small intestine.
Alcohol present in the blood affects, to some degree, every part of your body, as the blood circulatory system reaches every organ in your body. Generally this causes a drowsiness to the limbs. The main effect, however, is on the brain. Initially the alcohol may cause some loss of inhibition, a feeling of pleasantness, and makes you feel generally a bit better... On the negative side, the alcohol will also slow your reactions, making driving more dangerous, and may cause loss of co-ordination. As the alcohol level in your blood increases, this lack of control becomes more apparent, and things may begin to get messy. This is what is generally referred to as 'being drunk'.
As the old barmaid's greeting, 'What's your poison?' proves, alcohol is indeed a toxin to the body. As soon as you throw an alcoholic drink down your throat, your body will start working to get rid of it. Small amounts of alcohol may be released through breathing and sweating, but the majority of the work is done by your poor old liver. It is the liver that usually suffers most from heavy prolonged drinking over a lifetime. The more alcohol you drink, the more drunk you get, and the longer it takes for the alcohol to leave your body. Alcohol can still be present in the blood for upwards of 12 hours after heavy drinking sessions.
Getting drunk can be either pleasant or unpleasant. Being in a state of drunkenness increases the chances of you doing embarrassing things, such as singing, attempting to make meaningful conversations on subjects you know nothing about, or making a pass on someone you really shouldn't be trying to chat up. Try to look sober when drunk, but if you end up vomiting it is a bit of a giveaway, as this Cautionary Tale from New Zealand explains. Though strong doses of alcohol are extremely dangerous and can be fatal, alcohol has relatively few side effects. The main one is a slight headache the next morning, affectionately known as the 'hangover'. There are many suggested Hangover Cures, but the most scientific way of avoiding hangovers is to make sure you are properly hydrated. Alcohol dehydrates your body, especially when combined with dancing, and it is this that is the main cause of a hangover. Drinking glasses of water alongside your alcoholic drinks (especially spirits), is a good move.
Alcohol is not generally addictive, but it can be. Alcoholism is an increasing problem, and many people are now becoming more aware of the potential damaging effects that alcohol can have. For this reason, many people, such as those abiding by the Straight Edge Philosophy, don't drink at all.
The reason why you need the toilet so much after the first few drinks is due to alcohol inhibiting the release of a hormone called anti-diuresis. This hormone has the effect of reabsorbing water into the blood, so it isn't lost in the urine. Without it, it tends to mainly go through.
Because of the effect that alcohol has on the body, in most countries there is some kind of restriction on how alcohol can be drunk. It is usually illegal for children to drink anything other than very small quantities of alcohol, and the serving and selling of alcohol is tightly regulated. The Beer Laws and French Wine Law entries discuss the issues surrounding these laws.
Measures of Alcohol
Because quantity of alcohol is very important, in health, legal and getting drunk terms, there are many rules and regulations about measuring alcoholic quantities.
On drink labels, the alcoholic content (which is scientifically tested) may be either labelled by 'ABV' or by 'proof'. Surprisingly, considering how important it is, many people (well, maybe it's just young people) misunderstand these percentages. ABV means 'Alcohol By Volume' and is a straightforward assessment of the percentage of the liquid volume that is alcohol. While 'proof' sounds like an impressive, certain word, a 'proof' percentage isn't actually based on volume, but an older method of comparison to a particular drink. So a drink with an alcoholic content of 100% proof (US measure) isn't pure ethanol, in fact it's only 50% by volume. This same drink would be 87.6% proof by UK measures.
In the UK there is also a system of 'units', which is often used when talking about alcohol limits for driving. One alcoholic unit is roughly equivalent to half a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a measure of spirits.