The Science of Booze

Friday, June 13, 2014

Red wine. Red wine. (Copyright: lenetstan/Shutterstock)

Adam Rogers, articles editor at Wired Magazine and the author of Proof: The Science of Booze, talks about the chemistry, physics, biology and metallurgy behind alcohol's taste and effects.

A Few Adam Rogers-Approved Cocktails to Get the Weekend Started

  • Corpse Reviver #2: gin, Cointreau, Cocchi Americano (can substitute Lillet), lemon, absinthe rinse
  • Sazerac: rye, Peychaud's Bitters, sugar cube, absinthe rinse
  • Mai Tai: rum (two different kinds), orgeat (a sweetened almond syrup), curacao
  • Bloody Maria: just like a Bloody Mary, but with tequila instead of vodka (and vastly superior, according to Adam Rogers)
  • Excerpt: From the Introduction to Proof: The Science of Booze

    I’ve had perfect bar moments. They led to this book. Here’s one: I was supposed to meet a friend for an after-work drink on a swamp-sticky Washington, D.C., summer day, and I was late. I rushed across town to get to the bar and showed up a mess, the armpits of my shirt wet, hair stuck to my forehead.

    The bar, though, was cool and dry — not just air-conditioner cool, but cool like they were piping in an evening from late autumn. The sun hadn’t set, but inside, the dark wood paneling managed to evoke 10 p.m. In a good bar, it is always 10 p.m.

    I asked for a beer; I don’t remember which one. The bartender nodded, and time slowed down. He put a square napkin in front of me, grabbed a pint glass, and went to the taps. He pulled a lever, and beer streamed out of a spigot. The bartender put the glass of beer in front of me, its sides frosting with condensation. I grabbed it, felt the cold in my hand, felt its weight as I lifted it. I took a sip.

    Time stopped. The world pivoted. It seems like a small transaction — a guy walks into a bar, right? — but it is the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history. It happens thousands of times a day around the world, maybe millions, yet it is the culmination of human achievement, of human science and apprehension of the natural and technical world. Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that the production of beer induced human beings to settle down and develop permanent agriculture — to literally put down roots and cultivate grains instead of roam nomadically. The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It’s the apotheosis of human life on earth. It’s a miracle.

    Two miracles, actually. It took 200 million years of evolution to make the first one happen. Fermentation, the process by which a fungus we call yeast turns simple sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, is a breathtakingly complex bit of nanotechnology. Fermentation and ethanol happened on earth long before we humans got here, and ethanol’s pleasant effects on our brain are a mere side effect of its use as a chemical weapon in the invisible, eternal war among the microbes with whom we share our planet.

    Despite its importance in all sorts of industrial chemistry, the biochemistry of fermentation is still fodder for research. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the greatest chemists and biologists in the world were arguing about what yeast was. Figuring out that Saccharomyces cerevisiae — brewer’s yeast — was alive and was the thing that did the fermenting made Louis Pasteur famous and gave rise to modern cell biology. The genetics of the present-day versions of fungus still have secrets to tell: when it developed the ability to make ethanol, and why, and when we humans tamed it to our own ends.

    It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago that we humans took control of fermentation for ourselves, entering into a partnership with that fungus long before we knew what it was. We domesticated that microbe, the same way we domesticated dogs and cattle, to do a job: make drinks.

    Two thousand years ago, give or take, we humans built the second miracle for ourselves: distillation, one of the earliest tools used by the earliest scientists. Invented by alchemists searching for the fundamental spirits that inhabit everything on earth, the still accidentally gave rise to an entirely new way to convey flavor and aroma, and an array of drinks that became a staple of human consumption. Plus it gave rise to the modern study of chemistry and made possible our petroleum-based economy.

    Those miracles make the bar moment possible; what happens in the seconds and hours after that first sip, or second cocktail, is no less amazing. Ethanol has a flavor unlike anything else, and it conveys other flavors unlike anything else. Making it is a craft — the people at Wild Turkey or Abita or E. & J. Gallo don’t have to understand molecular biology, yeast enzyme kinematics, metallurgy, or the organic chemistry of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (Though they often do understand those things.) They know that the shape of a still, and the metal it’s made of, changes how a spirit tastes, and they know that different wood in the aging barrels alters the flavor of the final product. (Japanese oak makes whisky taste spicier than the American oak used in bourbon and Scotch. Weird, right?)

    People sometimes think science is about discovery. But the action in science, the fun part of doing it (or reading about it), isn’t answers. It’s questions, the stuff we don’t know. Behind every step of the process that produces fermented beverages and then distills those into spirits, there is deep science, with a lot of researchers trying to figure it all out.

    That’s what this book is about. The bar moment is the culmination of the human relationship with our environment, the pinnacle of our technology, and a critical point for understanding our own bodies, brains, and behavior. William Faulkner is supposed to have said, “Civilization begins with distillation,” but I’d push even farther — beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, mead, sake . . . all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.

    Excerpted from PROOF: THE SCIENCE OF BOOZE, © 2014 by Adam Rogers. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.


    Adam Rogers

    Comments [12]

    Peter Gauge

    Hey, Brian, you turd eating spooge guzzling cunt. Please go back to work as Obama's mobile toilet seat and quit sucking on the public tit you oozing little scab.

    Jun. 14 2014 11:20 PM

    R u lightweights gonna air the Corolla interview??

    Jun. 14 2014 03:55 PM
    Promo from nyc

    This segment was handled in a very superficial and hasty manner.
    Not enough in-depth discussion on the topic, listeners expect more than just a 10 minute promo spot.

    Jun. 13 2014 06:57 PM
    Mike Antonoff from NYC

    Celiac reference -- See this and vote:

    Jun. 13 2014 11:49 AM
    Barry Cox from Mexico City

    Hangovers are caused by the lack of water in the brain due to the alcohol which removes it. That’s why a beer in the morning resolves it, but it’s better to drink water, although that goes against the grain of alcoholics.

    Jun. 13 2014 11:45 AM

    I can't get through on the phones but I really want to know the answer to this question:

    How do they powder alcohol? It sounds like powdered water...

    Jun. 13 2014 11:35 AM
    Angelos Taplatzidis

    Best cocktails to start off your weekend:

    1) Espresso Martini: espresso coffee, vodka or vanilla vodka and any combination of illy liquer, tia maria (kahlua as an alternative), creme de cacao, Frangelico. Straight up with 3 coffee beans

    2) Breakfast Martini: bitter orange marmalade, good gin (Tanqueray 10, Beefeater 24) orange curacao or cointreau, fresh lemon juice. Straight up with orange twist

    3) Collins (classic): hefty pouring of a good gin (see above), fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup, dash angostura, on the rocks with soda float - only accepted variations are elderflower and lavender

    4) Tommy's margarita: hefty pouring of a good tequila (start from anything 100% blue agave) agave syrup and fresh lime juice. Straigh up or on the rocks. None of the pansy salts and sugar rims

    Jun. 13 2014 11:31 AM
    Jill from Metuchen

    I L O V E the buzz from drinking - but I've been told all alcohol increases breast cancer risk - and I'm recovering from having had breast cancer a few years ago - have been told even a small amount of alcohol can increase risk - so now when I drink I feel so scared and guilty I'm not sure it's worth it - but I don't want to give it up!
    sorry - I know this is a buzz-kill type of question.......

    Jun. 13 2014 11:24 AM
    High Proof Stuff from nyc

    "women's tolerance for alcohol is less than men's tolerance for alcohol"
    So many rapes can be explained just due to this little fact.

    Jun. 13 2014 11:24 AM
    Winnie from NYC

    What about certain races that don't break down the enzyme and alcohol and they turn red?

    Jun. 13 2014 11:23 AM
    john from office

    Like nicotine, isn't alcohol a poison?? Are all intoxicants really just poisons??

    Why does mixing drinks, wine and beer or beer and shots increase the effect??

    Jun. 13 2014 11:05 AM

    A glass of water and an aspirin (or pain reliever of your choice) before you go to sleep. The water helps with the dehydration and the aspirin for the headache.

    Jun. 13 2014 10:23 AM

    Leave a Comment

    Email addresses are required but never displayed.

    Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
    We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.