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‘Proof’ Connects Distillation to the Heart of Civilization

Adam Rogers' new book "Proof: The Science of Booze" investigates how humans discovered the techniques of fermentation and distillation, how we continue to innovate in that field, and why alcohol is so important to civilization.

Photo credit: Celine Mikahala Grouard

Rico Gagliano: Tell me about your contention in the book that booze is “Civilization in a glass.”

Adam Rogers: Well it’s a little bit of plagiarism: I stole that from noted drinker William Faulkner. He said “Civilization begins with distillation.”  And, you know, you could talk about the metaphor — what distillation means, the boiling down, the getting to the heart of something — but I’m actually taking him literally, which is to say that when we learned how to ferment about 10,000 years ago — and then distill about maybe 2,000 years ago — that’s when we became people. Those are the moments when “homo-sapiens” becomes “human beings.”

Proof Cover - hires

Rico Gagliano: Why?

Adam Rogers: Well in the case of fermentation, that’s when we began to intentionally interact with our natural environment. Fermentation, the process of yeast eating sugar and excreting ethanol, goes on with or without us, right? It’s a natural process.  But when we domesticate that process we become a part of nature in a way that we hadn’t before. We’re going to use something that happens in nature to our own end.

Rico Gagliano: So, really, you’re saying that mankind started harnessing nature so we could get a little drunk?

Adam Rogers: Well, every culture has different reasons and rationales behind ethanol. I mean certainly it’s pleasant, and it has an effect, you know?  It has… in a time when there were no other medicines, it has an effect, it feels like you were doing something. And also it probably helped in some cultures and some places with just water purity.

Rico Gagliano: At various points in the book, you get into various types of alcohol and how  alchemical wizards today are perfecting them.  And they experiment in bizarre ways, sometimes, with alcohol.  Like aging booze on barges in the ocean. What was the most extreme of these methods that you encountered?

Adam Rogers: Oh boy… I mean, you mentioned the aging of distillates on a boat, to try and get it to slosh around and be in more contact with the wood.  What I actually like is the distillery that originally was playing rock-and-roll at the barrels, to try and get the vibrations to get the liquids to slosh around. They actually don’t use music anymore, they had an acoustician come in and set up the exact right wavelengths to really thump the bass.

Rico Gagliano: Did they find that there was a particular band that resulted in an excellent brew?

Adam Rogers: I think they played a lot of… if I remember right, it was a lot of dub.

Rico Gagliano: Really? Oh yeah, because of the bass!

Adam Rogers: But as far as I could tell they never really blind tested one next to the other. “Well this is the one we played dub-step for, and this is the one we played EDM!”

Rico Gagliano: But this all begs the question: are the improvements that result worth the trouble, really? I mean at a certain point aren’t they just… I mean, only exert palate is gonna be able to tell the difference, right?

Adam Rogers: Well, you seem to be thinking about it as if, like, “the arc of the universe bends toward better alcohol” or something.  And that’s not really what’s going on right? What they’re trying to do is make something different and make something that also tastes good.

You know, you could imagine wine makers trying to accommodate two impulses: One would be to make something that lived up to the specifications of, “This is exactly what a Pinot Noir is supposed to taste like,” and another one is, “This is a new version nobody’s ever had before, that they will think is delicious.”

Rico Gagliano: Early on in the book you tell a story about watching your mother order a martini on the rocks.  And the bartender says he won’t make it for her, because that’s just not the way you serve a martini.  And you have this epiphany about this idea that there’s a “correct” way to serve a cocktail. After going through all the science of alcohol beverages and how they’re made, is there a drink you now order differently because scientifically it just tastes better a different way?

Adam Rogers: That is a great question…. Oh! I really like single-malt whiskey. And I used to only drink it neat.  Now, I don’t. I tend to put an ice cube in it now, for a couple of reasons…

Rico Gagliano: Whoa, I know a lot of people right now are tearing their hair out at the thought.

Adam Rogers: Well, so: two reasons.

One is that it’s meant to be served at a colder temperature than we usually serve it.  You know, it comes from a place that’s a bit colder, and when it’s chilled down you’re getting a different experience of the different aromatic molecules that are coming off the top of that drink and into the head-space.  Different molecules are getting into the air — you’re smelling them in a different order than the distiller, or blender meant for you to smell them.

Also a lot of the whiskeys I get are cask strength or higher proof, and it comes out too hot for me — it’s too strong a drink.  So I put an ice cube in it, dilutes it a little bit, cools it off.

Rico Gagliano: Of course that then begs the question, why are you getting cask-strength stuff if it’s too hot for you?

Adam Rogers: Oh, well first of all because I want to taste it!  But also because it’s like buying concentrated laundry detergent; It’s just a much better deal.

Rico Gagliano: All right — we can’t not talk about hangovers. You end the book with the science behind hangovers. I leapt forward to it, actually. Give us the basics, what causes a hangover?

Adam Rogers: All the things that they tell you that first night of the first weekend of college are wrong.  They tell you it’s dehydration, it’s not dehydration.

Rico Gagliano: That’s not what’s causing it.

Adam Rogers: No. Sugary drinks? Not what does it. Mixing your drinks — you know, getting a strawberry daiquiri first, and then getting a beer — not what does it.

Rico Gagliano: I’m on the edge of my seat! What is it?

Adam Rogers: So: the cause… is not understood.  But the symptoms look an awful lot like an inflammatory response. So the same thing that happens in your body if you have the flu lets say, right?

So hey wait! Aren’t there some kinds of drugs called “anti-inflammatories?” And in fact one of the really good studies where drugs showed an effect on helping hangover used a drug called Clotam.  Kind of a nuclear-powered anti-inflammatory, they prescribe it for migraines in Europe and other countries, it’s not in the U.S. pharmacopoeia.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, of course.

Adam Rogers: But there’s a vitamin B6 analog called Pyritinol.  And there is prickly pear cactus extract — not surprising actually, because it’s supposed to have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Rico Gagliano: I believe that I read somewhere that it was… caffeine and aspirin are the only things that really help.

Adam Rogers: Yeah, they seem to help too. Here’s the thing about anti-inflammatories: they have their own side effects. Like, acetaminophen has liver toxicity, and your liver is already working overtime trying to deal with all the booze you just poured on it. So you should be thinking of a hangover as nature’s way of telling you, “You screwed up last night,” you know?  Not something to try and dodge around.

Rico Gagliano: Nothing scientific behind that — just get your acts together, people.

Adam Rogers: That’s right.