Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Iain Gately: Drink

"The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer." That maxim, discovered on an ancient Egyptian manufacturing papyrus, isn't as catchy as "Beer me!", but it accurately sums up the attitudes of many cultures surveyed in Iain Gately's Drink: A Cultural History Of Alcohol. Still, in America alone, beer has gone from human right and potential curative (the Puritans and the Mayflower crew fought over whether sick settlers deserved their fair share of beer) to illegal substance and back again.

Gately has poured a ridiculous wealth of research into Drink, which chronicles the relationship between man and booze from approximately 8000 B.C.—when the first known alcoholic drinks were prepared among Sumerian hunter-gatherers—to Vladimir Putin's establishment of a Russian state-run vodka monopoly in 2005. Paired with the exploits of champion drinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Ernest Hemingway are diversions into the parallel history of the opposition to alcohol, from the pageantry of British temperance meetings to modern objections to Bud Light spokesdog Spuds MacKenzie. Of particular interest to Gately is the intersection of drinking and politics, like Napoleon III's interest in promoting the fruits of Bordeaux, which laid the foundation for how wine is classified today. Drinkers have always been a fickle sort, as the makers of Zima know; California miners switched to Mexican mescal because it was a cheaper intoxicant than lager, and a glut of English grain caused the government to (successfully) encourage small farmers to convert their fields into jars in the 17th century.

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In a sense, Gately's subject is his worst enemy, because even reading about the most disgusting, death-defying bender is entertainment secondary to being on one—a phenomenon Gately undoubtedly discovered when writing Tobacco: A Cultural History Of How An Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. (Teetotalers: Your mileage may vary.) But his pesky insistence on recapping the fundamentals of middle-school world-history surveys as a preface to discussing a particular society's attitude toward alcohol gives each chapter a fair amount of dead weight. Informing readers that Athens was considered the cultural center of ancient Greece, for instance, detracts from the real treasure of Drink, the wealth of tidbits Gately dug up. It's in the intellectual chapters, in which he examines cocktail consumption in La Dolce Vita, or illustrates the campaign of the popular press against London's "Gin Lanes," that the ferment of analysis and raw fact produces the most intoxicating blend.

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