Adam Rogers’ brilliant book, Proof: The Science of Booze, brims with words you might not have heard since chemistry class. Thus it appears best suited to intellectual imbibers. If you’re just at the bar to get hammered...well, actually, there’s a chapter on hangovers you might find useful. And just about anyone can appreciate his colorful and clear descriptions:
“From the stomach, that ethanol gets pulled mostly into the portal vein, a direct line to the liver. There, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase oxidizes the ethanol, converting it to acetaldehyde. And acetaldehyde is a bastard,” Rogers writes, in explaining how ethanol intoxicates the human body.
At Wired magazine, Rogers is the articles editor. Out at the bar he’s that guy, the one spouting fascinating factoids about everything from how the shape of a beer glass affects drinking speed (curved sides make us drink faster) to how to get a better head on your beer (pour from higher up to acquire stabilizing atmospheric nitrogen). At one memorable dinner, a trio of science-writer colleagues—beneficiaries of his encyclopedic effusions, no doubt—suggested that he write a book.
“I’m grateful they pointed it out to me that night, because I hadn’t noticed,” Rogers confesses in his acknowledgments, where he offers this apology: “My head full of booze data had turned me into the snottiest of snotty bar know-it-alls. To all of you whom I victimized, I apologize.”
No apology needed for readers, who will find Rogers a personable guide to a wonderful world. With the honed curiosity shared by scientists and journalists, he investigates booze from inception to consumption and beyond, breaking down processes of production and enjoyment to show how they work.
“That is my way of understanding the world,” says Rogers. “I’m not saying history and connoisseurship aren’t interesting or important, but to understand how something works connects you to it better. The exciting part of science is what you don’t know—where the questions are, where the fog is that you’re trying to cut through—and there’s a lot of that at every stage of the science of alcohol, even though human beings have been consuming it for 10,000 years. That has a romance to it.”
Rogers waxes romantic on his subject, calling booze “civilization in a glass.” “There is a very interesting disagreement in anthropological and archeological circles about whether domestication of crops happened, to reduce this simplistically, because people wanted beer or bread,” he says. Rogers tracks booze facts from the experimental bars of New York City to distilleries nestled in the picturesque Scottish highlands, visiting yeast storage strongholds and laboratories where PhDs study everything from the mechanisms of addiction to hangovers.
Regarding the latter, Rogers enlists some friends for his own experiment: get really drunk and see which reputed hangover cures are effectual. “What a stupid idea that was,” says Rogers, who suffered for science.
His exuberance is matched by many of the quirky personalities he encounters along the way, individuals who have dedicated their lives to the study or production of alcohol. These spirited types include a family that played high-volume dubstep to their whisky barrels to maximize the exposure of whisky to wood.
“There’s a lot of beauty in the narrative that surrounds booze. The stories that we can tell each other and that we learn about the things that we drink make it even more important. That cultural significance comes from the history and our susceptibility to narrative as human beings, rather than the actual science behind what’s in the bottles,” Rogers says. “I tried not to minimize the tradition and culture and history, but to say, ‘Listen, you can look at this with a more scientific eye and get just as much pleasure out of it’—that it doesn't need to be in the marketing of the biggest distillers in the world. They’ll insist that it’s still super-traditional guys in the back woods, and of course it’s not—it’s a factory. It’s a beautiful factory, and I was trying to celebrate that a little bit.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.