Week of December 13, 2020

Bottoms Up


Raise your glass for a toast, which is named for…toast. Long ago, spiced and charred bread was put in the shared drink before speeches of praise or congratulations were said, and the bread made the often-bitter wine more palatable. The celebrated person might then eat the wine-soaked bread, and was then called “the toast of the town.”


Wine and beer are very old drinks, indeed. The earliest confirmed alcoholic drink of any kind was brewed about 9,000 years ago in China, and solid evidence of beer production goes back 5,000 years in Mesopotamia. There is evidence of wine production as far back as 7,400 years ago found in jars in modern-day Iran.


Referring to people as “dregs,” such as in the “dregs of society,” is a pejorative term that likens them to the useless solid residue which settles to the bottom of many drinks, like coffee and wine. However, the ancient Greeks made great use of these “useless” solids with a lively and challenging drinking game called “kottabos” in which wine dregs were launched at a bronze or clay targets.


The practice of labeling hard alcohol content by “proof” arose from a crude Middle Ages test for taxation. Higher-alcohol drinks were taxed more in England, so a drink’s potency was tested by soaking a gunpowder pellet with the booze to see if it was strong enough to then ignite. If it proved to be so by burning, it was called a “proof spirit” and taxed more. Fortunately, alcohol content measurements are more standardized and accurate nowadays, but the name remains.


Bourbon is named for the street, not vice versa. Early New Orleans whiskey sellers, well aware of the town’s large French population, put the stuff in oak barrels so the taste would remind residents more of congac, aka “French brandy.” “That whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street” eventually became called “bourbon whiskey.” Bourbon Street itself was named for the French royal family in power when the city planner plotted and named the streets in 1721. But despite the European origins of its name, authentic bourbon must, by definition, be made in the US.


Another spirit native to North America is tequila, though the drink predates bourbon by centuries. However, authentic tequila must come from Mexico, since the Mexican government declared the drink its intellectual property in 1974.


The name “brandy” comes from “brandewijn,” meaning “burnt wine” in Dutch. A 16th century wine-shipping Dutchman realized he could save a lot of cargo space by removing water from the wine before shipping and adding it back at his destination. The fruit wine concentrate he delivered became known as bradewijn.