And as prohibition hits Bihar, making it the fourth Indian state to close its doors on alcohol, a history of spirits materialises on the bookshelf. For as far back as most civilisations can remember, alcohol has been an integral part of social life. No one is too sure when the first berries fermented and someone realised they could be mixed with water and drunk for a pleasant buzz. And billowing clouds of ethyl and other alcohols have been discovered by astrophysicists in the areas where stars are born in the heart of the Milky Way—which, obviously, has some implication to bear on the origins of life, since fermentation was the earliest kind of spontaneously generated energy.
Phillips has done an in-depth study of the subject, which will be useful to academics, though his viewpoint comes from the role of alcohol in the western world. The opening chapters do discuss the drinking of ale and beer in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the focus of Phillips’s study is how alcohol drinking spread from Europe to the rest of the world from 1000 AD onwards, along with the introduction of distilled spirits. It does not talk about drinking histories in Asian civilisations.
His research cannot be faulted—especially the relation of certain religions to alcohol. As the spirit’s influence became known, people’s attitudes divided. Christians substituted grape juice for wine in the story of the marriage at Cana, for example, or Mohammed’s findings on wine. Phillips lists the poems and laws against drinking all too much—including the cautionary tale of a Roman who beat his wife to death for drinking. Apprentices in the 18th century were allowed six pints of ale during a working day and ship-builders in Venice were given energy boosts by a spirit called Bevenda instead of coffee and tea, as nowadays.
Phillips does fleetingly talk about the use of ale and beet in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but ignores the history of drinking in Asia.
The moment the immense power of alcohol over people was realised, governments strove to control it. A great deal of Phillips’s book deals with anti-alcohol laws and movements like America’s prohibition era, which fuelled the lives of gangsters and flappers. Part of the backlash against alcohol was spearheaded by the medical profession, angry at losing control over brandy and other spirits which were good for health. But mostly, control was sought by nations determined to take charge of profitable revenues. To this was added the problems of law and order caused by excessive drinking, which brought in the police. The result was a struggle for control that did not have any conclusive results—especially since the great prohibition experiment proved to be such an unmitigated disaster.
Alcohol is like cigarette smoking, a substance that can be abused and it represents a tussle between the social and the private. At its worst it has been used as a reward or as a controlling force—slave-owners encouraged their slaves to drink themselves into a stupor on holidays so they would represent no threat. There have been whisky rebellions, incidents of smuggling and pleas from African emirs to be spared the burden—much as the Chinese resisted the import of opium.
There is a wealth of trivia to be gleaned from the facts and figures that Phillips has gathered—such as an eighteenth century list of 99 ways to tell a man he was drunk. Sadly, the tone of the book is business-like and academic throughout, with very little room for levity. Phillips concludes with his observation that young people are drinking more responsibly these days, especially when drinking and driving. He feels that this is a sign that alcohol’s influence is on the wane. Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions.