It is no secret that alcohol is an integral part of not only our culture, but virtually all cultures. Oft renowned for its spirituous (and damaging) properties, alcohol has also served as an outlet for many cultures’ creative energies. As noted in my previous article, “The History of Beer”, alcohol is as old as civilization itself. Its creation followed on the heels of the agricultural revolution, emerging first in Central Asia and either spreading or developing indigenously in North Africa, East Asia, Europe and the Americas as well. Wherever grains were harvested and sedentary living became the norm, alcohol soon followed. And in time, the process and products for creating alcohol became increasingly creative and complex. Wherever such beverages have historically been made, there is a long history of craft and artistic flare that have gone along with it. Without a doubt, beer making, winemaking and distilling are all proud, time honored traditions that are taken very seriously by their practitioners.
And yet, it seems that the most time honored and “interesting” varieties are the ones that we know the least about, at least in this country! In fact, it is quite staggering how little the average North American knows about the world of spirituous beverages, at least from a historical and cultural standpoint. However, with relative ease, one can become better educated on the subject. All it takes is a little research, some travel, and (of course!) some drinking. And the more one knows, the more they are want to know, and there is almost no limit to how much one can learn and experience. The only limits are those imposed by geography; and as we all know, the world is a pretty big place!
Absinthe: Often referred to as the “Green Fairy”, absinthe originated in the north-western region of Switzerland sometime in the 18th century. It achieved great popularity by the late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly amongst intellectuals, artists and bohemians. It is made from anise, herbs, fennel, and the flowers and leaves of the herb commonly referred to as “wormwood”. The result is a naturally green (but sometimes colorless) strong liquor that ranges anywhere from 50 to 75% percent alc/vol. (and sometimes even more!) Traditionally absinthe is drunk with sugar and water. The ritual is both time honored and complex, involving a special, porous spoon, a fire source and a contoured glass. Before the alcohol is even poured, the spoon and sugar cube are placed across the top of the glass. The absinthe is then poured over the cube, saturating it with alcohol. The sugar is then set aflame, water is then poured over it to extinguish the flame and dilute the liquor. All three are then mixed, and consumed.
Anisette: is a clear, colorless liqueur that is consumed in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Peru. It is made using aniseed (the seed of the anise plant which grows throughout the Mediterranean) rather than star anise (from the Chinese evergreen, star anise tree) which is used in making other anise-flavored liqueurs. It is sweeter than most anise-flavored liqueurs and also has a lower alcohol content (typically 25% by volume). It was even created as an absinthe substitute and comes in many varieties which includes Ouzo, Sambuca, Anis Mico and Cartujo.
Arak: Arak is another anise flavored drink, produced largely in the Middle East but also popular throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and parts of Central Asia. It is clear and colorless and is generally combined with ice and water. This causes the drink to become cloudy, due in part to the fact that the oil of anise is not soluble in water. What results is a drink that is milky in color, sweet, and refreshing.
Arrak: Arrack is a drink that is made from fermented fruit, grains, sugarcane, or the sap of coconut palms, mainly in South and South East Asia. It is especially popular in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. In the former case, it is made by taking the milky sap from the flowers of a coconut palm tree before the flowers bloom. This sap is then fermented to form a mildly alcoholic drink (known as palm wine) which is then placed into vats of wood where it is distilled. The end product is a strong alcohol with a taste that is somewhere between whiskey and rum. Where sugar cane is involved (particularly in China and Indonesia) the process involves combining the sugar cane with fermented red rice and yeast in a pot still, giving it a unique blend of flavors.
Beck Se Ju: the name literally translates to “100 years wine”. This is a Korean wine made from rice that was traditionally used for medicinal purposes. to This is due to the combination of herbs that were part of the distillate, which included ginseng, licorice, omija (Schisandra chinensis), gugija (Chinese wolfberry), astragalus, ginger, and cinnamon. The taste is somewhere between sake and herb liquor (like Jagermeister) with a strong ginseng aftertaste.
Grappa: literally “grape stalk”, grappa is a grape-based liquor made from the pomace of wine grapes (the solid remains that are left over after they are pressed for juice). The distillation process is done without adding water and without direct flame, relying on steam heat, which ensures a strong (between 35 and 60% alcohol per volume) and coarse tasting beverage that is often consumed after meals as a digestive. The name Grappa applies to any “pomace brandy” that is made in Italy, but there are regional variations of this drink as well. Spanish Orujo, which is also made from the distilled pomace of grapes, is one such example.
Herbero: is a Spanish liqueur that is produced in the Sierra de Mariola, a southwestern region of Spain renowned for its mountains that are rich with herbs and medicinal plants. The plants used in the production of herbero include at least four of the following: sage, chamomile, pennyroyal, lemon verbena, blessed thistle root, peppermint, cattail, fennel, anise, melissa, agrimony, savory, felty germander, thyme, and French lavender. The result is a clear liqueur that is often light yellow, green or red in color.
Mead: also known as honey wine, mead is a very multicultural alcohol that is known throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Though mead has consistently been honey-based, regardless of where or when it was produced, there are a number of local traditions and varieties. Some involve spices, fruits, or grain mash, and its strength and level of sweetness vary from place to place. Its exact origins are unknown, but it is believed to be prehistoric in origin and even predate agriculture itself. The earliest archaeological evidence of mead dates back to around 7000 BCE, where pottery vessels containing mead were found in Northern China. In Europe, residual samples were found in ceramics that date back to the 3rd millennium BCE. During the Golden Age of Ancient Greece, mead was said to be the preferred drink. Mead halls were also a common feature in Norse, Danish, and English towns during the Middle Ages where mead was the drink of choice amongst warriors. It is even mentioned in the Old English epic poem of Beowulf. For many centuries, mead became an obscure drink, produced mainly in monasteries as a by-product of beekeeping. More recently, mead has become popular again with the emergence of craft brewing and attempts are being made to revive this prehistoric drink.
Mezcal: is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from an agave plant known as “maguey” that is native to Mexico. Agave grows in many parts of Mexico, though most mezcal is made in the southern region of Oaxaca. The exact origins of the drink are unclear, but it is believed to be the product of both the indigenous Mexicans and the conquering Spanish. The former had been fashioning an alcoholic beverage from the sap of maguey plants for some time (known as Pulque), whereas Spanish settlers began to experiment with maguey sap and distillation. The result is mezcal, a clear, smoky flavored liquor that is often drunk as an alternative to tequila.
Pisco: Pisco is liquor distilled from grapes. It was originally developed by Spanish settlers in South America as a cheap alternative to Orujo that had to be imported from Spain. It is originally named after the conical pottery in which it was originally aged, which was also the name of one of the sites where it first was produced in Peru. It is now a widely popular drink in Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Raki: is a grape-based, anise-flavored liqueur popularly consumed in Turkey and the Balkans. Raki is traditionally produced by distilling grape pomace and then flavored with aniseed. In this respect, it is similar to Ouzo, Sambuca, Arak, Grappa and Orujo. It traces its existence back to the Ottoman Dynasty, and is today considered the national drink of Turkey, surpassing the consumption of ouzo, arak and even wine. It is usually served with mezze (a small meal consisting of appetizers) as an aperitif, though it often accompanies larger meals, usually consisting of seafood. It is consumed with either a glass of water on the side or is mixed with water and ice.
Soju: a clear, slightly sweet distilled spirit that is traditionally made from rice, though soju makers have been known to add or even substitute other starches such as barley, wheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and even tapioca. It typically has an alcohol content of about 20% alc. by volume. Its origin in Korea has been linked to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, where the Mongols were believed to have brought arak with them from Persia. In the region of Kaesong, Korean distillers began to make their own version of this liquor, known as arak-ju. Over time, Koreans perfected the process and substituted rice and other starches for anise to make their product. Today, soju is by far the most popular Korean drink available, due in part to its inexpensive nature but also its easy drinking taste, which is best described as “vodka-like” but milder and with a certain sweetness.
As Homer Simpson so eloquently put it: “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” Well… be that as it may, alcohol has also served as an outlet for artistic and creative energies for thousands of years. Beginning with the most basic of ingredients and processes; vintners, brewers and distillers have never stopped honing their craft. Even today, they are hard at work combining different elements, processes, and ingredients to give our palettes something new and exciting to play with.
Far from being valued solely for its deleterious effects, alcohol has historically served a number of important social functions and as a cornerstone to the culinary industry. Regardless of where it was produced, alcohol was a means of making contact with the spirit world, marking social occasions, conducting ceremonies, and enhancing gastronomic experiences. There is scarcely a culture in the world today that did not rely to some extent on alcohol to conduct their rituals, rites, and even daily activities. In short, alcohol is and probably always will be a part of our culture, and there seems to be no limit to what we can do with it, within reason of course!