, Newburyport, MA


March 11, 2013

Name your poison!

“A good sherry sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

Shakespeare’s great comic hero Falstaff makes a pretty good case not just for sherry sack but for all kinds of “[in]temperance beverages” that are composed in significant part of ethyl alcohol. This simple chemical (C2 H5 OH) is a byproduct of many biological processes, and has been a much-sought-after drink immemorially — that is to say, from a “[t]ime whereof the Memory of Man runneth not to the contrary.” It’s been made, used and misused since at least 7,000 years BCE (although this may, if Bishop Ussher’s reckoning is correct, be some 3,000 years before the creation of the world.)

To paraphrase Poe, many millions have “sought to borrow from this drink surcease of sorrow;” and as many again have used the bottle to break out of the tedium of a harsh or unrewarding existence. As one Joseph Winner’s 1869 drinking song put it, “Ah, ha, ha, you and me, little brown jug how I love thee!”

It is put more elegantly in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“The Grape that can with Logic absolute,

The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:

The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice,

Life’s leaden metal into Gold transmute.”

More congenially, “One of the great pleasures in life is being in the pub with friends having a laugh and setting the world to rights, gradually getting pissed” (Author unknown). And more practically, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker” (Ogden Nash) or “Alcohol is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed be the facts” (Finley Peter Dunne’s Irish sage, Mr. Dooley).

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