Food & Spirits: Notes on My Liquor Lecture

This past Thursday, I gave a lecture on the history of liquor at Brookdale Community College. To my happiness, it was very well received, with many participants asking if I would present a sequel in the spring. I tried to cover as much as I could. Such an extensive topic could not be condensed into just two hours. We began with the beer and wine brewed by the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, before jumping thousands of years ahead to the Whiskey Rebellion. This was a young America’s first domestic insurrection, where hundreds of whiskey and bourbon distillers in Pennsylvania and Kentucky revolted in protest at a new tax being levied against their products. With the nation more than $70 million in debt, Alexander Hamilton thought the fastest and least unobtrusive way to make that money back was a tax on liquor. He was only correct on one of those assertions—you can guess which.

A famous absinthe painting.
A famous absinthe painting.

We then went to Prohibition before going in-depth on absinthe and how it has been vilified over the years. Literature and propaganda of the time could almost be compared to our modern “War on Drugs” today. I made a direct comparison between marijuana and absinthe, and then we had a 15 minute discussion debating the legality of marijuana vs. alcohol in general—how both are mind-altering substances and only one is legal at the federal level. There were 13 audience members, ranging in age from what appeared to be mid-twenties to the sixties and seventies. A class poll over whether or not they felt marijuana should be made legal (at least in New Jersey) rendered a vote of 10-3 in favor.

The class wrapped up with a profile of different whiskeys, educating people on “which whiskey is which” and then an overview of the cocktails that are popular now, along with some of my own personal recommendations and recipes. Before the class began, I went around and asked everyone their absolute favorite drink. I posed the question as if you were going to die tomorrow, what would you drink tonight? The results were six gin & tonics, three vodka martinis, one Jameson black label, one bourbon, one Scotch sour, and one Cabernet. My choice was a Maker’s Mark.

It was a fun couple of hours. Many of the stories and focuses of the presentation allowed for humor, especially the “fun facts” I threw in during the lecture at various points; facts such as the Vikings drinking honey mead wine out of the skulls of their conquered victims, it being illegal to serve alcohol to a moose in Alaska, the ancient Romans believed eating fried canary the night after heavy drinking would cure a hangover, and at any given time there are 50 million people drunk in the world. However, it is unknown how many of them live in Ireland.

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