Proof: The Science of Booze

Reading the whip-smart and witty Proof: The Science of Booze, I kept thinking that its author, Adam Rogers, would be an awesome guy to get a drink with. But midway through the book, it became apparent that he might not feel the same way about me. In a chapter on the aging process, he contacts a company that’s developed a technology to make liquor taste old without actually going to the trouble of aging it. The CEO sends along samples of gin, tequila, citrus vodka, rum, brandy, and bourbon. ”I open each in turn,” Rogers writes. ”Well, I ignore the citrus vodka, because come on.” Orange vodka with tonic has long been one of my staple cocktails, a choice I now feel more ashamed of than ever.
Rogers, an editor at Wired, is passionate about booze, so it’s no surprise that he has strong opinions on the subject. Indeed, his apology to his friends for becoming ”the snottiest of snotty bar know-it-alls” in the acknowledgments notwithstanding, his unrestrained expression of those opinions is part of what makes Proof such fun. (A Bloody Maria, tomato juice with tequila, is fine, ”as opposed to the Bloody Mary, which is just a ruined glass of tomato juice”; nonalcoholic beer can be good, but dealcoholized red wine ”tastes like existential death.”) The many experts Rogers encounters on his travels, from brewers to distillers to coopers to chemists, are equally ardent. When Rogers hits a brewpub with Charlie Bamforth, the — no joke — Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at University of California, Davis, the professor cannot conceal his disgust with the insufficiently frothy pint he’s served, saying, ”Look at this beer. I mean, look at it. It’s pathetic.” Once he lays out the scientific basis for that judgment — which involves the bubbles in a properly poured beer attracting glycoproteins that form a protective membrane around them, causing them to stick to other bubbles nearby — Rogers sees the light: ”It’s a freaking disaster, this beer. How could I not have seen it?” 
But Rogers has more on his menu than issuing pronouncements and cracking jokes. He has a profound reverence for alcohol, and he’s out to demonstrate that its manufacture represents ”the apotheosis of human life on earth,” ”the culmination of human achievement, of human science and apprehension of the natural and technical world.” The word miracle appears several times within the text.
The core miracles he describes are fermentation and distillation. Fermentation, the process by which yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, occurs naturally, but we humans began to make use of it around 10,000 years ago, long before its chemical nature was understood. Distillation, on the other hand, is a wholly human invention, one that dates back only 2,000 years or so and sounds simple enough: it involves boiling a liquid and collecting the resulting vapors. As a California craft distiller tells Rogers, however, “If everything goes right, anyone can do this. What experience gives you is how to handle it when things go wrong. And things always go wrong.”
As much as scientists have learned about fermentation and distillation, there are many remaining mysteries to alcohol, and some version of “we still don’t know why” appears in almost every chapter, from the very specific (what causes hangovers?) to the significantly broader (why does alcohol affect us the way it does, and why do we like it so much?). Despite coming to the topic as a science reporter, Rogers recognizes how subjective and contextual the experience of drinking is. “Sure, that bottle of red from the little village you found when you and your first love got lost in Tuscany on that rainy night was the best bottle of wine the world has ever made,” he writes, before tacking on this warning: “Just don’t try the same bottle again alone, sitting in front of a Star Trek rerun.”
As that riff suggests, drinking is not just about organic chemistry but about emotion, psychology, history, sociology, and memory, too. The mix of factors at play is borne out by a study in which subjects expecting liquor but given a placebo still exhibited physical signs of intoxication. Rogers has an almost religious veneration for booze, so it’s apt that he embraces the unknowns. (His celebratory approach to drinking also means that he includes only fleeting mentions of such downsides as alcoholism, drunk driving, and correlations between drinking and violent behavior.) Still, mysteries aside, you’ll finish the book with a much greater appreciation for how your cocktail ended up in your glass. And if you find yourself tempted to use what you’ve read to become one of those snotty bar know-it-alls, that’s fine — but you might want to buy your friends a round first.