Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery
in an Age of Reason (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002)
Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan, Tequila! A Natural and Cultural History (University of Arizona Press, 2003)
David W. Maurer, Kentucky Moonshine (University Press of Kentucky, 1974)
Col. Joe Nickell, The Kentucky Mint Julep (University Press of Kentucky, 2003)
The consumption of alcoholic beverages is nearly as old as civilization itself. Alcohol has played a major role in the history and folklore of every society, as these four books attest.
Jessica Warner makes a persuasive case in Craze that the so-called gin craze in London in the early 18th century was the first modern drug crisis, and that the lessons from that period are relevant today.
Craze is a history of the introduction of cheap distilled alcoholic beverages to England in the early 1700s, and the effect it had on English life, culture, laws and social mores. It's a serious topic, but it's told with wit and even some humor. The book itself is divided into sections ("Acts") and chapters, whose titles are reminiscent of those that would have been found in the literature of the age, such as "Act I, In which a new and bewitching liquor is introduced to an unwary nation." Chapters with titles such as "Strong Waters" and "A Whig and a Prig," have epigraphs taken from poetry, songs or news accounts of the time.
But a popular history needs substance as well as style, and this book has it by the gallon. Although the core of the book is a social and political history of the various Gin Acts passed between 1729 and 1751, Warner also tells us about the social, economic and political factors that led up to the gin craze; gives us clear and concise biographies of the many political, legal and literary figures who played major roles the craze and efforts to suppress it; details how it was that women came to be major sellers and drinkers of gin; and explores the various social and political trends that rose and fell throughout the period.
The English working classes were used to drinking small beer, strong beer, ale and even wine, but when various factors combined to make distilled spirits available to them in the early 1700s, they didn't know how to handle it. Drinking it by the pint the way they did beer, they quickly became extremely drunk; many died, and many more became addicted. Warner summarizes how this came about:
. . .The Crown needed new revenues, and the landowners sitting in Parliament needed new markets for their surplus grain. To this extent the Crown and Parliament were prepared to . . . protect domestic distillers from foreign competition. . . . For their part, consumers now had disposable income to spend on gin, thanks in large part to the relative cheapness of foodstuffs in the first half of the eighteenth century.
Warner delves into why reformers were so keen on stopping the trend, and draws fine parallels between the 18th and 20th centuries in terms of drug scares. And she gives a cogent analysis of the various laws that attempted to stem the problem, why they mostly failed, and why the situation played itself out over the course of about a half-century.
For the most part, it's an entertaining read, with accounts from newspapers, broadsides and pamphlets of the period, and some startling historical details, such as that of the "puss and mew." This was an early vending machine, a cabinet really, which stood on the street. When a customer in the know approached and said "puss," the vender hidden in the cabinet responded with "mew," opened a drawer into which the customer put money; the drawer then closed and reopened shortly with a glass of gin.
It's that kind of glimpse into the life of the common people of the time that keeps the book interesting, and it's the authoritative analysis that makes Craze an important text for anyone concerned with the current "War on Drugs."
You can learn more about this book at the publisher's Web site or the author's Web site, MotherGin.com.
Valenzuela-Zapata's and Nabhan's Tequila! is a similarly informative text, though as written, it's of more specialized interest.
The past three decades have seen an astounding increase in the popularity of tequila, in the U.S. and worldwide. While consumption of hard liquor in the U.S. has declined by 22 percent in recent years, consumption of tequila has risen by 31 percent in the same period. The number of tequila brands marketed in the U.S. has doubled in five years. Today, 3,600 farmers supply agave to 50 distilleries in the Mexican state of Jalisco, home of tequila.
This, the authors say, is the "second tequila boom" in the United States. The first occurred around the turn of the 20th century, after a mescal produced by Sauza took top prize at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. But Mesoamericans have been pit-roasting agaves for up to 10,000 years, from the north rim of the Grand Canyon south to Guatemala, and cultivating the succulent plant for nearly as long.
The authors are among the first generation of botanists to specialize in the study of agave plants. Today, they're engaged in efforts to help stop a plague that is wiping out the blue agave that is grown in Jalisco a plague due largely to modern monocultural farming methods that ignore traditional practices developed over the millennia.
As the title says, this is both a natural history and a cultural history of tequila. The natural history part is pretty detailed, written largely with other botanists in mind. The cultural history portion at times feels randomly scattered throughout the more technical parts of the text, and the authors tend to stumble a bit when attempting to write in a folksy or artful manner.
But Tequila! is an important little book, especially if it succeeds in drawing attention to the challenges faced by the industry and, in particular, the small-scale farmers who continue to form the backbone of the industry doing the hardest work, taking many of the risks, and facing the gravest hardships in times of crop failures or economic downturns. Let's hope some of the crucial and fascinating information in this text makes it into the popular press.
You can learn more about Gary Paul Nabhan's work at the Web Site of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, and more about this book from the University of Arizona Press.
"They call him the king of the mountain
A Blue Ridge businessman
He's an independent contractor
Doin' the best that he can."
King of the Mountain, Southern Culture on the Skids
The late David W. Maurer, a retired University of Louisville English professor, observes some parallels between the Gin Craze and the phenomenon of moonshining in the American South, particularly in the bourbon state of Kentucky. This is a historical and sociological look at the making and selling of illegal whiskey, which he traces all the way back to . . . the reign of Charles II in the late 17th century in England.
This is an informative if slim volume, whose value is undercut by the fact that it is 30 years old, and hasn't been updated since its original publication, though much has undoubtedly changed with regard to the subject.
Maurer can be an avuncular writer, as he is in the first chapter, in which he takes the reader through the process of making and using a still in his or her own kitchen. A good example of his better prose comes early, as he describes the role of the moonshiner in American society:
The moonshiner as a criminal is so old that he has become a part of American tradition. He has become respectable in a certain sense; his reputation does not suffer in his own community in proportion to the penalties imposed on him by law. He is a sort of illegal pet, carefully protected from extermination by both the law and society, but hunted with just enough diligence to make him constantly aware that he is a criminal.
You'll note that the author uses the pronoun "he" exclusively. Even though this was written well before political correctness came to academic writing, this isn't an oversight. Just about all moonshiners are men, although women are often involved in bootlegging, the transportation and sale of the product.
If the book is mostly readable, it does descend into academic gobbledygook occasionally, especially in the later chapters. This is from the chapter on the moonshiner's vocabulary: "Professional criminal subcultures are consistently parasitic, and agglutinate (sic) against the matrix of a legitimate society already vastly experienced in symbolizing its values through language."
The book was written before The Dukes of Hazzard became a popular television show in the late 1970s, but it touches on the close relationship between the bootlegging culture and that of the stock-car racers of what we now call NASCAR. The book also covers the construction of different types of stills, the social, geographic and economic factors that make Kentucky and other parts of the south particularly prone to moonshining, moonshine financing, moonshining as industry, and law enforcement.
A more consistently folksy and, dare I say, easier to swallow book is Joe Nickell's little volume on the official libation of Kentucky, the mint julep. For such a short book (75 pages), it's packed with information the etymology of the word julep, a brief history of whiskey and bourbon, and a folk history of the mint julep itself.
In case you don't know, the julep is made from Kentucky whiskey, water (preferably Kentucky limestone spring water), sugar, ice and mint leaves. As with all mixed drinks of any longevity and popularity, this one can be made in many different variations, all of which have their fanatical supporters.
Nickell, an honorary Kentucky Colonel who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., gives a sampling of julep lore, a number of standard recipes, some from historic figures including the American statesman Henry Clay, and some modern recipes, even one that uses artificial sweetener. There are variations such as cordials, one that is sweetened with honey, and a champagne mint cocktail, as well as non-alcoholic mint drinks. And a blank page for you to add your own julep recipe, as well as an itinerary for a tour of seven major Kentucky distilleries.
Mint Julep is a beautiful little book, too, nicely produced, designed and printed.
You can learn more about these two books at the Web site of the University Press of Kentucky.