Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, from The Physiology of Taste or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (Everyman 2009)
MEDITATION 9: ON DRINKS
53: Strong Drinks
A thing most worthy of note is that instinct, as general as it is imperious, which leads us to seek out strong drinks.
Wine, the most agreeable of beverages, whether we owe it to Noah who planted the first vine or Bacchus who pressed the first grapes, dates from the beginning of the world; and beer, which is credited to Osiris, goes back to those days beyond which nothing is certain.
All men, even the ones we have agreed to call savages, have been so tortured by this thirst for strong liquors, which they are impelled to procure for themselves, that they have been pushed beyond their known capacities to satisfy it.
They have soured the milk of their domestic animals; they have extracted the juices of various fruits and roots where they have suspected there might be the elements of fermentation; and wherever men have gathered together they have been armed with strong drinks, which they employed during their feastings, their sacrificial ceremonies, their marriages, their funerals, and in fact whenever anything happened which had for them an air of celebration and of solemnity.
Wine was drunk and sung to for centuries before it was suspected that the spirit in it which gave it strength could be extracted; but the Arabs taught us the art of distilling, which they had invented in order to concentrate the odor of flowers, and above all that of roses, so celebrated in their writings; and then we began to think that it would be possible to uncover in wine the cause of that exaltation of flavor which gives to its taste such a special excitement; and, from one hesitant trial to another, alcohol was developed, and then spirits-of-wine, and then brandy.
Alcohol is the king of potables, and carries to the nth degree the excitation of our palates: its diverse preparations have opened up to us many new sources of pleasure; it gives to certain medicaments a strength which they would not have without it; it has even become in our hands a powerful weapon, for the nations of the New World have been almost as much conquered and destroyed by brandy as by firearms.
The method by which we discovered alcohol has led to other important results; for, since it consists in separating and stripping down to their essentials the parts which constitute a body and distinguish it from all others, it has served as a model for scholars devoting themselves to like research, who have disclosed to us completely unknown substances, such as quinine, morphine, strychnine and the like, already or still to be discovered.
However it may be, this thirst for a kind of liquid which nature has sheathed in veils, this extraordinary need which acts on every race of mankind, in every climate and in every kind of human creature, is well worth the attention of the philosophical observer.
I have thought on it, as has many another, and I am tempted to put the desire for fermented liquors, which is unknown to animals, beside the fear of the future which is equally foreign to them and to regard both these manifestations as distinctive attributes of man, that masterpiece of the last sublunary revolution.