Book Review: Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol

Book Review: Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol

There are plenty of wine books out there, and a smaller, yet not insignificant, number of books on beer. Spirits books, mostly focusing on the recent whiskey craze, seem to hit the shelves every other week. Few authors, however, attempt to cover all types of alcohol, much less place it in the context of recorded history, but that’s exactly what Iain Gately has done in his sizable tome Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.

To embark on digesting this 500 page volume is to, quite literally, go back to history class. The book begins with a deep dive into the role of alcohol in ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations and ends with a somewhat rambling discussion of the upward trajectory of booze consumption in the U.S. since Prohibition. In between, the author attempts to connect thousands of years of drinking history with a myriad of anecdotes and asides. Some are entertaining while others border on tangent. One example for the latter is an entire chapter on the role of alcohol in the colonization of Australia with an exhaustive examination of the differences between settler consumption and that of the convicts and how that drove both the politics and the economy of the young nation.

Drink is at its best when it doesn’t spend too long on one moment or place in history. The topics with less background or context to unpack become some of the most entertaining like Gately’s comparatively brief exploration of booze in South American civilizations where I learned that Aztecs could drink their fermented tree sap only at New Years or when they reached an impossibly old age. The sections on more recent alcohol trends in Asian cultures were also fascinating. Apparently, the Chinese have long considered whiskey a feminine drink, but they like cognac, especially in Hong Kong, because its tiers aid in identifying social hierarchy. In Japan, during the post-war boom, cultural norms allowed that a man could only question his boss at the bar, so getting blitzed at happy hour on the regular was literally viewed as the only way to climb the corporate ladder.

It’s gems like these that make it worth riding it out to the very end of Gately’s alcohol opus, and while it can be exhausting at times, there’s no way you won’t learn something about booze or world history, maybe both.


Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol




Drew Beard is assistant editor for Drinkhacker and winner of several booze-related merit badges, including Certified Specialist in Spirits and Executive Bourbon Steward. A former federal employee turned hotelier and spirits journalist, he looks forward to his next midlife crisis.

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