'Alcoholica Esoterica': The Culture of Drinking

Renee Montagne talks to Ian Lendler, author of Alcoholica Esoterica, about the culture of booze and the basic groups: whiskey, rum, tequila and more.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When people pop champagne bottles to celebrate the new year, they will add to a long tradition of drinking. In fact, the oldest clay tablet with writing on it, from Sumeria in 3300 BC, has a reference to beer, which is one of the many facts found in the book "Alcoholica Esoterica." Author Ian Lendler recounted more for Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's a bit of esoterica to help you sparkle just that much more at a New Year's Eve party. In a standard bottle of champagne, there are up to 57 million bubbles. Ian Lendler also passes on this quote, "Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it." Madame de Pompadour said that in the mid-1700s. She was the official royal mistress of Louis XV.

Mr. IAN LENDLER (Author, "Alcoholica Esoterica"): She was actually very responsible for the idea of champagne as this very highfalutin drink that we have now because, when Louis XIV died, Louis XV was very young and basically the French court got taken over by sort of like just this hedonistic orgy. And at that time, the newest craze was this thing champagne that, you know, this monk had invented in the countryside of France. And as it is now, it just seemed to be a drink that the ladies liked, and there was this group of mistresses in the court that held a lot of sway. They were called Le Grande Horizontal, The Great Horizontals, which you can probably figure out what that might mean. But they basically controlled a lot of the court's decisions through their horizontal actions and champagne was just their drink of choice, and it really became the drink of royalty after that.

MONTAGNE: And that French monk in the countryside, the one who famously cried after sipping the first-ever glass of champagne, `Come quickly. I'm tasting the stars.'

Mr. LENDLER: Dom Perignon, you know, the name that we all know, is like the greatest champagne of all time. I mean, it's named after the guy who is normally associated with inventing champagne, but to be honest, that's kind of a French myth. The English really sort of invented the idea of champagne. The French basically just had this wine that kept producing bubbles in the bottle, and this very much upset the French and they tried and tried and tried to get rid of these bubbles. But the English were the first to go, `Hey, actually these bubbles are kind of fun,' so they actually invented a way to sort of make more bubbles. And then the French picked it up and then Dom Perignon, this monk, perfected the technique. The English came up with the idea of putting the champagne and all these bubbles in bottles that could hold them, because before this, most of the French monks had to work in cellars with iron masks on because these bottles kept exploding, and a lot of them would lose their eyes from flying shards of glass.

MONTAGNE: Seventy-five years later, a defeated Napoleon was further punished with champagne. As the story goes, the British not only banished him to the isle of St. Helena but allowed him only one bottle a day.

A few more decades and the martini arrived on the scene. As H.L. Mencken put it, `The only American invention as perfect as a sonnet.' Everyone thinks they have the perfect martini...

Mr. LENDLER: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: ...but the basic ingredients are pretty simple.

Mr. LENDLER: Oh, yeah, just gin and vermouth. Only the use of the vermouth has become kind of creative, and it's sort of like a race to see who can be more creative. For instance, Churchill would make these martinis with gin and then he would take the bottle of vermouth and he would simply acknowledge the gin across the room by sort of dipping it towards it and that was it. It wouldn't actually get to the other side of the room where the martini was.

MONTAGNE: And the bar that one might lean on while sipping a martini? Ian Lendler says it comes from the word `barrier.'

Mr. LENDLER: I mean, it's one of those things where as soon as you hear it, you're like, `Oh, bar is simply short for barrier.' I mean, it's the thing that bartenders had to come up with to keep the customers from getting at all the booze.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to a condition that every culture in the world seems to have an expression for: the hangover. `In Sweden,' writes Lendler, `it's called a pain at the roots of the hair.'

Mr. LENDLER: In Germany and the Netherlands, the word for hangover translates as `the wailing of cats.' That's one I quite like.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. LENDLER: In Portugal, it's simply `Kill the beast.' In Myanmar, their phrase for a hangover means `Clapper of the temple bell.'

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

MONTAGNE: Remedies for the hangover go back to the ancient Romans, who suggested eating a fried canary. The ancient Libyans prescribed drinking seawater with wine. In a long line of cures, best known is the hair of the dog.

Mr. LENDLER: And actually that phrase comes from the 16th century, from this medieval idea that if you were bitten by a dog, you need to take clippings of the hair of the dog and lay it across the wound. Obviously that didn't work, but the concept stuck around in European medicine long enough for when people came across the idea of having another drink, you just go back to what hurt you first time.

MONTAGNE: Ian Lendler wrote the book "Alcoholica Esoterica."

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