COLUMN: Liquid alchemy

Al contemplates alcohol and the holidays

Al Lehmann

Not long ago I watched a small flock of drunken robins careening around our mountain ash tree. One is inclined to wonder whether or not they enjoyed the experience. They sure seem to love the orange berries, which, when they reach a certain stage of ripeness, produce ethyl alcohol. Colorful little sots!

Presumably these birds did not remain drunk forever, but have the same or similar enzymes in their livers (alcohol dehydrogenase the most common) that metabolize alcohol in humans.

The seemingly magical alteration of our perceptions and mood under alcohol’s influence was sometimes interpreted as the workings of a god (e.g. Dionysius in ancient Greece). In ancient Christianity, wine suitably blessed was considered a holy transmutation of Jesus’s blood.

Inebriate joy has been sought after by human societies for millennia. Ancient Egyptians brewed beer at least 5,000 years ago. Wine was produced in the Caucasus region around 6,000 BC!

In the ancient Persian city of Nishapur, Omar Khayyam devoted dozens of the verses in his Rubaiyat to the raptures of wine.

XLV. The Grape, that can with Logic absolute The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute: The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.

Even Rumi (another Persian poet) argued, “Give me more wine or leave me alone.”

In 14th c. England, the King’s authorities understood that Englishmen had the right to a gallon of beer a day, even children as young as seven. (There must have been a considerable amount of drunkenness in society at the time.)

Not much has changed. We have an amazing variety of alcoholic beverages available for prices ranging from a few dollars for plonk to tens of thousands (a 73-year-old bottle of French Burgundy sold for $558,000 at auction in 2018). And though this latter bottle has perhaps not yet been drunk (one imagines not), contemporary society has embraced regular indulgence in alcohol with gusto.

The BC Liquor Stores are amazing places this time of year! Cases of hard liquor of every variety, featured wines, and beers from all over the world are positioned and stacked in displays of cunning appeal.

British Columbians consumed more alcohol during the first year of COVID than they have in any of the past twenty years. This level of indulgence was the equivalent of 9.32 litres of pure alcohol per capita for each person aged 15+ in the province. (Given that over 20% of adults do not drink at all, we can bump that average higher for those who do.)

The pandemic contributed to this indulgence. As COVID has inhibited our ability and inclination to pursue other activities (e.g. public games, organized theatre, shopping, and so on), more and more people have been purchasing an appealing assortment of boozy treats and drinking them at home.

There are plenty of reasons not to drink. It’s costly. It impairs various functions such as reaction time or motor control. It releases inhibitions that would sometimes be better left alone (it correlates strongly with domestic violence, for example). It’s poisonous, depending upon how much is imbibed over what time period.

But as Louis Pasteur announced, “A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.”

The Christmas holiday can be a joyful time, one that a judicious and pleasurable dram or two of this alchemical elixir can enhance quite nicely. Merry Christmas!