Booze is nothing new. It isn’t even close to being new. Alcohol, as Adam Rogers explains in Proof: The Science of Booze, has been with us for ten thousand years, give or take, and we’ve been refining the process ever since. Yet there’s so little that we actually understand about the stuff. In fact, given what scientists know about other substances, it’s a bit strange that we know so little about alcohol – one of the most widely consumed substances on Earth.
So it’s time to look into that science, and Adam Rogers is just the man to do this. He’s articles editor at Wired magazine, and has a pedigree of writing about science for a range of famous publications. Though more accurately, Proof isn’t strictly the science of booze. This is the story of booze, as well, from the roots of human civilisation to the gene-sequencing labs of today. Proof is the narrative of how booze became so entwined with our culture. Though I’m approaching this review through the lens of a whisky aficionado – which Rogers confesses he is himself – this book is about the building blocks of many different kinds of drinks including beer, wine, vodka and, of course, single malt whisky.
The book uses a ground-up approach – starting from the smallest elements through to production and storage, all the way through to how booze affects us physically. First under the microscope (and perhaps more easy to fit under it) is yeast – a single-cell organism that’s neither plant nor animal. With a focus on brewing, Rogers discusses just how important yeast is – not merely in terms of the fact that yeast kick-starts the brewing process, but rather the different strains of yeast and how valuable and individual these strains are to brewers. It’s fair to say that for some breweries, such as Jennings, whose yeast store was once destroyed by flooding, are the yeast. It’s a brewery’s signature, and therefore there’s a lot of high-tech business involved in preserving yeast strains. Yeast is brand, in today’s language.
In the section on sugar, there were some particularly fascinating revelations for the whisky drinker. When it comes to malting – that’s the process of tricking barley to germinate, in order so that the grain breaks hard starch down into juicy sugars (the good stuff we need to ferment) – well, it was almost cut out of the process. The almost in that sentence is because of discoveries that came with sake production, which uses a koji (fungus) to process barley into sugars. Put simply: “If you could apply the koji-transformation to barley, you wouldn’t need malting at all”. So when Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese scientist, attempted to apply this to the whisky industry in the late 19th Century, it’s safe to say things didn’t go down too well. The maltmen didn’t like it, as there would have been no need for them. One of the great bits of the whisky process would not be here – and needless to say Serious Things Happened to ensure that malting remained a part of the process. But it’s certainly one of those fascinating “what ifs”.
There’s more for whisky fans. Proof contains a full-on chapter on distillation, travelling from Kentucky to Dublin, as well as a look at the history and science of casks being used to age alcohol. Rogers also looks at the dreaded black mould, a subject that no doubt has many a lawyer gathering around a cauldron in the dungeons of a drinks conglomerate. This mould is nothing new, and has in fact been around for decades – confusing scientists in the past as much as now. This is an equally fascinating chapter, when you consider the odds of a mould evolving in such a way that it could get use out of the whatever-it-is in the air around distilleries to actively thrive.
After the production process comes taste. Part of what Rogers explains here is to suggest that most experts are not really any better at tasting alcohol than general drinkers. Instead ‘experts’ tend to develop a greater bank of references over time (linking senses with memory) in order to be able to describe those tastes to others. Not to mention the fact that there’s just so much that can influence our opinions on taste at the time of consumption. Finally, there’s a fascinating look at the impacts of alcohol on the human mind and body. Put simply, whereas excessive drinkers clearly show negative effects, for most sensible drinkers, scientists have not really got a clue on what alcohol truly does to us. That’s quite some revelation when you think about it, given just how widely people consume the stuff.
This book is a cracking piece of popular science writing, because it makes science interesting in and of itself. I highly recommend getting a copy of Proof. Armed with this tome, you’ll easily be able to bore and correct your friends at the bar. In fact, of all the drinks books out there – even those on specifically whisky – I think this is the one you should read before any other. Why? Well, not only does it give you a thorough grounding in all things alcohol, but I’d wager a shilling that you’ll learn far more from this writing style – and be able to recall that information. Complex science is made ridiculously digestible – and fun! That’s not easy considering the difficult concepts and varied source material. It puts a lot of other drinks writers to shame in both ambition and clever use of language.
Adam Rogers has talked about Proof at Google, and you can watch the video here to get a flavour (pun intended) of what it’s about: