The Science—and Miracle—of Booze

The Science—and Miracle—of Booze

Even at the most basic level, scientists don’t yet understand why booze makes us feel the way it does.
Kyle Peterson
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Proof: The Science of Booze, By Adam Rogers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $26).

Whatever may be your drink—bitter India Pale Ale, Christmassy gin and tonic, smooth single-malt scotch—you will never look at it the same after picking up Adam Rogers’s Proof: The Science of Booze.

Rogers, the articles editor at Wired, is a former science journalism fellow at MIT, and at times his book will give squishy humanities types flashbacks to their high school chemistry classes. But for a man who makes his living explaining to lay persons the meaning of terms like “hydroxyl,” he’s surprisingly comfortable throwing out another word when describing the discovery and creation of alcoholic beverages: Miracle. Truly, the overriding sense one gets from Proof is that it’s amazing we can make the stuff at all.

Consider the number of things we still don’t know: Yeast, the single-celled fungus responsible for fermentation (the conversion of sugar into alcohol), seems to have been domesticated about 12,000 years ago, but we don’t know for sure where it came from, why it makes ethanol, or why some strains do it better than others.

The physics of distillation are well established, but nobody knows who invented it—an alchemist in ancient Alexandria called Maria the Jewess?—and getting a consistent taste from the finicky process is more an art than a science.

All of this uncertainty makes brewers and distillers a superstitious bunch.

Aging in toasted barrels clearly does hooch good, as the wood breaks down and the liquid penetrates its pores to mix with tannins and other molecules. But the final flavor of a spirit depends on everything from the temperature in the warehouse where it is aged to the climate where the trees are grown, and attempts to create synthetic processes to season liquor quicker (read: more profitably) have come mostly to naught.

Even at the most basic level, scientists don’t yet understand why booze makes us feel the way it does. Alcohol’s mode of action in the brain is much more complicated and elusive than that of a drug such as heroin, which locks into specific, identified receptors meant for natural neurotransmitters. “The truth is, we don’t know at the molecular level what alcohol is binding to,” Rogers quotes the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as saying. “It’s never been resolved.”

For Flavor, Sing To Your Beer

All of this uncertainty makes brewers and distillers a superstitious bunch. Just a quick sample from Proof: When a brewer of Belgian lambic beers, which are fermented by wild yeast in open pools, needed to have his facility’s roof fixed, he was so worried about upsetting the microbial feng shui in his rafters that he simply built a new structure on top of the old one. The shape of a still can so affect liquor’s taste that when one needs to be replaced, the double is built to “replicate all its structural idiosyncrasies down to dents and dings.” One New York whiskey maker, attempting to improve aging by increasing the liquid’s interaction with the wood, came up with a novel “sonic barrel maturation” technique. “The distillers moved speakers into the warehouse, a 1788 gristmill,” Rogers writes, “and at night cranked up A Tribe Called Quest and dubstep.” Deep bass equals deep flavor?

Taste is a subjective sense that we mostly communicate about through metaphor.

Equally unclear is how consumers perceive those flavor differences, since taste is a subjective sense that we mostly communicate about through metaphor. It doesn’t help that some of these drinks are extraordinarily complex: Rogers writes that whiskey contains more than 150 congeners—byproducts of fermentation that are responsible for a spirit’s flavor and aroma—some of which can be tasted at levels of parts per billion. He describes a lab at the Scotch Whiskey Research Institute that vaporizes and separates these compounds and then runs them one by one through what looks like an oxygen mask, so that a technician can attempt to categorize the smell of each. And then there’s vodka, which pushes the science even further. Technically, vodka is supposed to consist of nothing but water and ethanol. So when sozzled aficionados swear that the premium stuff tastes better, are they detecting the difference in the strength of hydrogen bonds in the molecular structure of the water? Or have they just been bamboozled by the marketing, the way wine drinkers rate bottles higher if they think they’re expensive?

Rogers ranges in this book from a 10,000-year-old shard of pottery showing evidence of fermentation to yesterday’s hangover, and he has a light, witty touch that keeps even the most scientific passages flowing like good drink. Proof is full of party trivia for the interested imbiber: Jokichi Takamine, who donated thousands of the cherry trees that now ring the tidal basin in Washington, D.C., spent a portion of his career trying to commercialize an enzyme that would have eliminated the need to malt barley, but his employer’s distillery burned in a suspicious fire. Some rum makers toss leftovers from production, like old fruit, into a hole in the ground called a “dunder pit,” where it ferments for years before being mixed as starter into a new batch. The medical term for a hangover, veisalgia, comes from the Greek for “pain” (algia) and the Norwegian for “uneasiness following debauchery” (kveis). The way some yeasts stick together into clumps that then sink is called flocculation, which you should add to your daily vocabulary.

Proof begs to be enjoyed with a beer or a cocktail in hand (if you’ve made it this far through the review maybe that goes without saying), and it will certainly deepen your appreciation for your drink of choice. As you read, hold up your glass and watch the light filter through the liquid, the bubbles whizzing quickly up, the ice melting slowly down. Inhale and try to name the aromas. Take a sip and savor the culmination of thousands of years of technological advancement.

It’s science. But as even the scientists will tell you, it’s magic, too.

Kyle Peterson is managing editor of The American Spectator.

Kyle Peterson is managing editor of The American Spectator.
Photo By: Simon Cocks

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