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Proof: The Science of Booze

Proof: The Science of Booze

by Adam Rogers

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Named a Best Science Book of 2014 by Amazon, Wired, the Guardian, and NBC
Winner of the 2014 Gourmand Award for Best Spirits Book in the United States
Finalist for the 2015 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
“Lively . . . [Rogers’s] descriptions of the science behind familiar drinks


Named a Best Science Book of 2014 by Amazon, Wired, the Guardian, and NBC
Winner of the 2014 Gourmand Award for Best Spirits Book in the United States
Finalist for the 2015 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
“Lively . . . [Rogers’s] descriptions of the science behind familiar drinks exert a seductive pull.” — New York Times

Humans have been perfecting alcohol production for ten thousand years, but scientists are just starting to distill the chemical reactions behind the perfect buzz. In a spirited tour across continents and cultures, Adam Rogers takes us from bourbon country to the world’s top gene-sequencing labs, introducing us to the bars, barflies, and evolving science at the heart of boozy technology. He chases the physics, biology, chemistry, and metallurgy that produce alcohol, and the psychology and neurobiology that make us want it. If you’ve ever wondered how your drink arrived in your glass, or what it will do to you, Proof makes an unparalleled drinking companion.
“Rogers’s book has much the same effect as a good drink. You get a warm sensation, you want to engage with the wider world, and you feel smarter than you probably are. Above all, it makes you understand how deeply human it is to take a drink.” — Wall Street Journal

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“Our history with the stuff is our history on earth, a history of humans becoming modern, tool-using, technology-making creatures,” writes Rogers, an articles editor at Wired and a former science/technology writer for Newsweek, who more than justifies that statement in this impressively reported and entertaining work. Alcohol and its related practices really do span human existence. The arrival of distillation some 2,000 years ago “gave rise to the modern study of chemistry,” while “an economic ecosystem surrounding aged liquor represents a signal moment in the early Industrial Revolution, a mile marker on the road to a more civilized world.” But like the story of us, the story of alcohol is incomplete—scientists are still trying to identify what ethanol, a major component of alcohol, does to the body; only theories exist for what causes hangovers—and at constant odds with the past. For example, technology exists that can artificially age whiskey and other spirits. The science here can be intimidating to process, but when enjoyed in leisurely sips, Rogers’s cheeky and accessible writing style goes down smoothly, capturing the essence of this enigmatic, ancient social lubricant. (June)
From the Publisher

"Lively...[Rogers'] descriptions of the science behind familiar drinks exert a seductive pull." —New York Times

“One of the best science writers around.” —National Geographic

"Rogers's book has much the same effect as a good drink. You get a warm sensation, you want to engage with the wider world, and you feel smarter than you probably are. Above all, it makes you understand how deeply human it is to take a drink." —Wall Street Journal

“A great read for barflies and know-it-alls—or the grad student who is likely both.” —New York Times’ T Magazine

"In this brisk dive into the history and geekery of our favorite social lubricant, Wired editor Adam Rogers gets under the cap and between the molecules to show what makes our favorite firewaters so irresistible and hard to replicate—and how a good stiff drink often doubles as a miracle of human ingenuity." —Mother Jones

"A comprehensive, funny look at booze...Like the best of its subject matter Proof’s blend of disparate ingredients goes down smooth, and makes you feel like an expert on the topic." —Discover

"A romp through the world of alcohol." —New York Post

"This science-steeped tale of humanity’s 10,000-year love affair with alcohol is an engaging trawl through fermentation, distillation, perception of taste and smell, and the biological responses of humans to booze...Proof is an entertaining, well researched piece of popular-science writing." —Nature

"A whiskey nerd's delight...Full of tasty asides and surprising science, this is entertaining even if you're the type who always drinks what the other guy is having." —Chicago Tribune

“Written in the same approachable yet science-savvy tone of other geeky tomes (think Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist and Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos), Rogers’ book sheds light on everything from barrels to bacteria strains.” —Imbibe Magazine

"This paean to booze is a thought-provoking scientific accompaniment to your next cup of good cheer."—The Scientist

"Follow a single, microscopic yeast cell down a rabbit hole, and Alice, aka Adam, will take you on a fascinating romp through the Wonderland of ethyl alcohol, from Nature’s own fermentation to today’s best Scotch whiskies—and worst hangovers. This book is a delightful marriage of scholarship and fun." —Robert L. Wolke, author of What Einstein Kept Under His Hat and What Einstein Told His Cook

"Proof, this irresistible book from Adam Rogers, shines like the deep gold of good whiskey. By which I mean it's smart in its science, fascinating in its complicated and very human history, and entertaining on all counts. And that it will make that drink in your hand a lot more interesting than you expected." —Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

"Absolutely compelling. Proof sits next to Wayne Curtis’ And a Bottle of Rum and Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses as a must-read." —Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common and author of The Bar Book

"Proof is science writing at its best—witty, elegant, and abrim with engrossing reporting that takes you to the frontiers of booze, and the people who craft it." —Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think

"Rogers distills history, archaeology, biology, sociology, and physics into something clear and powerful, like spirits themselves." Jim Meehan, author of The PDT Cocktail Book

"A page-turner for science-thirsty geeks and drink connoisseurs alike, Proof is overflowing with fun facts and quirky details. I'm drunk—on knowledge!" Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks

"Adam Rogers writes masterfully and gracefully about all the sciences that swirl around spirits, from the biology of a hangover to the paleontology of microbes that transform plant juices into alcohol. A book to be savored and revisited." Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex and A Planet of Viruses

"Reading Proof feels just like you're having a drink with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic friend. Rogers' deep affinity for getting to the bottom of his subject shines through on every page." —Adam Savage, TV host and producer of MythBusters

"As a distiller I find most books on booze to be diluted. The science and history here are sure to satisfy the geekiest of drinkers. While the chapters, carried by stories, told through the lens of a rocks glass do not lose the casual. To get this kind of in depth overview of how spirits are produced, consumed and studied you'd have to read 20 books." —Vince Oleson, Head Distiller/Barrel Thief, Widow Jane Distillery

"An entertaining read...Rogers elegantly charges through what took me more than 5 years of research to learn...Proof will inspire and educate the oncoming hordes who intend to make their own booze and tear down the once solid regulatory walls of the reigning royal houses of liquor."
—Dan Garrison, Garrison Brothers Distillery

"From the action of the yeast to the blear of the hangover, via the witchery of fermentation, distillation and aging, Wired articles editor Rogers takes readers on a splendid tour of the booze-making process." —Kirkus Reviews, starred

"Impressively reported and entertaining...Rogers's cheeky and accessible writing style goes down smoothly, capturing the essence of this enigmatic, ancient social lubricant." —Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
Rogers (articles editor, Wired) contends that the perfect alcoholic beverage represents a pinnacle in human achievement, as it encapsulates millennia of experimentation in chemistry, engineering, sociology, and biology. To demystify this sprawling story, Rogers follows alcohol through its lifecycle from creation to fermentation, distillation, maturation, and consumption by a person who may experience the "perfect bar moment" (and a subsequent hangover). Rogers takes readers to yeast archives, malt breweries, and whisky distilleries, and interviews mycologists, coopers, and brain researchers. Through his investigations, the author shows how booze inspired scientists to ask questions such as: Where does ethanol come from? How was yeast domesticated? How can starchy grains be prepared more rapidly for fermentation? What causes alcohol dependence and hangovers? Each of these questions furthered human understanding in diverse scientific fields, as Rogers explains in clear, cogent language. The author takes care to guide lay readers through complex scientific processes by providing helpful analogies, background information, and anecdotes. VERDICT Foodies will likely enjoy Rogers's primer on the science behind alcohol, and other consumers of science journalism will savor his absorbing and enlightening account. Readers at various levels of engagement with this topic will find something to appreciate here.—Talea Anderson, College Place, WA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-04-22
From the action of the yeast to the blear of the hangover, via the witchery of fermentation, distillation and aging, Wired articles editor Rogers takes readers on a splendid tour of the booze-making process.Though he is the kind of person who likes to understand how to get from point A to point B—e.g., grain to single malt, rice to sake—the author appreciates that nothing would have been achieved if experimenters worried about figuring out the properties of fungal hunger for sugar or why esters delight us. Rogers dips into history to track alcohol's progress from the Alexandrian alchemist Maria to all the proto-chemists making improbable hay from fermentation and distillation to America's annual consumption of "465 million gallons of distilled spirits, 836 million gallons of wine and 6.3 billion gallons of beer." Rogers conveys it all with lucidity, brisk enthusiasm and humor, which helps lighten the science. In an illuminating chapter on taste and smell, the author shows how microeconomist Richard Quandt set the "professional reviewers" Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker straight with his article "On Wine Bullshit." The author also recounts discussions with sensory scientist Hildegarde Heymann, the chief merit of whose "approach is that it cuts through Quandtish bullshit." Not that Rogers' humor can't dive low—inevitably the morning comes after a night of ethanol-induced debauchery: "You are so screwed….Your guts are in full rebellion; whatever happens next is going to happen in the bathroom"—but he is a rationalist and a serious investigator. And, he notes, difficult mornings are often worth the pain—e.g., deeply experiencing Lance Winters' apricot eau de vie, "the philosophical qualia of apricot. It is like drinking the design spec."Rogers gives booze a thorough going over, complete with good cheer, highbrow humor and smarts.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Deep in New York’s Chinatown is a storefront made nearly invisible by crafty urban camouflage. The sign says that the place is an interior design shop, which is inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter because a cage of scaffolding obstructs the words. Adjacent signage is in Chinese. Even the address is a misdirect, the number affixed to a door leading to upstairs apartments. If you weren’t looking for this place, your eye would skate right past it.
   But if you have an appointment and can figure out that address-number brainteaser, you might notice a scrap of writing on a piece of paper taped into the window at about waist-level. It says booker and dax.
   A savvy New Yorker would know that Booker and Dax is the name of a homey, brick-walled bar on the Lower East Side, about twenty blocks north of here. Drinkers revere the place—it is, arguably, one of the most scientific drinking establishments in the world. Cocktails at Booker and Dax aren’t poured so much as engineered, clarified with specialized enzymes and assembled from lab equipment, remixed from classic recipes to more exacting standards by a booze sorcerer named Dave Arnold.
   The Chinatown storefront is the sorcerer’s workshop.
   Trained as a sculptor at Columbia University, former director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, technologist behind some of the world’s most experimental chefs, host of a popular radio show and blog on cooking techniques, Arnold is more than anything an inventor ​— ​of gadgets and devices, yes, but also of cocktails. He makes familiar drinks taste better than you’d believe, and crazy drinks that taste fantastic.
   Stocky, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair, Arnold is talking from the instant he comes through the door. He squirts himself a glass of sparkling water, carbonated via the workshop’s built-in CO2 line to his exact specifications—he likes bubbles of a particular size—and starts running through a bunch of projects. The sorcerer is in.
   The workshop is narrow, maybe twenty feet wide, and the basement is wired for 220 volts and full of power tools. On the main level, a whiteboard covered in project notes and a drying rack for laboratory glassware dominate one wall. The other is all shelves, books on the right and then bottles of booze. Arnold recycles bottles to hold whatever he’s working on; ribbons of blue tape affixed over the original label say what’s really in them. For example, a square-shouldered Beefeater gin bottle is half-full of brown liquid instead of clear, a dissonant image for anyone who has spent significant time staring at the back shelves of bars. Arnold pulls the bottle down and puts it in front of me, alongside a cordial glass. “Only take a little,” he says. The handwritten label reads “25% cedar.” I pour a half-ounce and take a quarter-ounce sip. It tastes like stewed roof shingle. Arnold watches my face crumble inward, and then snorts a little. He hasn’t quite got that one right.
   Further to the left, after the bottles, are white plastic tubs and bottles of chemicals. “I don’t even know what some of this is,” Arnold says. He pulls a tub off the shelf and reads the label. “What the hell is ‘Keltrol Advance Performance?’”
   Xanthan gum, is what it is—an emulsifier, good at making combinations of liquids and solids stick together and stay creamy. In fact, most of Arnold’s chemicals come from one of three classes—thickeners like the Keltrol, enzymes to break down proteins, and fining agents, things to help pull solid ingredients out of liquids. “My standard response to a new fruit or flavor is to clarify and see what happens,” Arnold says. Gelatin and isinglass are good for removing tannins; chitosan (made of crustacean shells) and silica can pull solids out of milk. But vegans can’t eat chitosan, gelatin, or isinglass—they’re all animal products. Arnold would like another option to offer at the bar. Chitosan made from fungal cell walls might get past the vegan barrier but doesn’t clarify as well, he says, and neither does the mineral bentonite. Arnold also uses agar sometimes; it comes from seaweed. “I prefer agar clarification to gelatin,” he says. “There’s a flavor difference. Sometimes it’s a benefit and sometimes it’s a detriment. Depends on the application.”
   The point of all this stuff is to bring to bear the most sophisticated chemistry and lab techniques in the service of one singular, perfect moment: the moment when a bartender places a drink in front of a customer and the customer takes a sip.
   So, for example, Booker and Dax makes a drink called an Aviator, a riff on a classic pre-Prohibition cocktail called an Aviation—that’s gin, lemon, maraschino liqueur, and a bit of crème de violette. Made properly, it has a kind of opalescent, light blue hue and an icy citrus prickle. Arnold’s version uses clarified grapefruit and lime and actually manages to improve on the original in terms of intense, gin-botanical-plus-citrus flavors while remaining water-clear. Alcoholic beverages are, in their way, much more complicated than even the most haute of cuisines. This is the kind of insight that drives Booker and Dax. Though Arnold doesn’t really cop to that. “I’m not trying to change the way people drink. I’m trying to change the way we make drinks,” he says. “I’m not trying to push the customers out of their comfort zone.”
   Quite the opposite, in fact. Arnold says that all his tinkering and tuning, all the rotary-evaporatory distillation and chitosan fining, is about pushing people into a comfort zone. He’s trying to take a rigorous, scientific approach to creating a perfect drinking moment, every time.
   That said, while appreciating Arnold’s sorcery doesn’t require that a customer know the secret to the trick, it helps if the customer at least notices the magic. “Sometimes,” Arnold acknowledges, “if a customer doesn’t know anything about what we’re doing, it can be problematic.” In the early days of Booker and Dax, when Arnold was still working behind the bar every night, a guy came in and ordered a vodka and soda. It’s arguably the dumbest mixed drink ever invented. In most bars, the bartender fills a tumbler with ice, pours in a shot of cheap vodka—not from the shelves behind the bar but from the “well” beneath it, where the more frequently used house labels are—and then squirts in halfheartedly carbonated water from a plastic gun mounted next to the cash register.
   Not at Booker and Dax, though. Arnold thought about it for a moment and told the guy he could make one, but it would take ten minutes, and could the customer please specify exactly how stiff he wanted it? Arnold was going to calculate the dilution factor you’d ordinarily get from ice and soda, titrate vodka and maybe a little clarified lime with still water, and then carbonate the whole thing with the bar CO2 line.
   It seems like a lot of trouble in the service of an unappreciative palate. “Why serve it at all?” I ask. “Vodka and soda is a crap drink.”
   “I think a vodka and soda is a crap drink because it’s poorly carbonated,” Arnold answers. “If I can make it to the level of carbonation I like, it won’t be crap. I will not serve a cocktail that will make me sad.”
   I push the point. “But the customer wants a crummy vodka and soda, with soda from a gun, because that’s what he’s used to.”
   “Look, it’s not our place to judge people’s taste preferences. But I won’t serve you crap.” Arnold pauses for a moment, sips at his house-carbonated water. “I’ve never had someone not like the better version.”I’ve had perfect bar moments. They’re what led to this book. Here’s one: I was supposed to meet a friend for an after-work drink on a swamp-sticky Washington, D.C., summer day, and I was late. I rushed across town to get to the bar and showed up a mess, the armpits of my shirt wet, hair stuck to my forehead.
   The bar, though, was cool and dry—not just air-conditioner cool, but cool like they were piping in an evening from late autumn. The sun hadn’t set, but inside, the dark wood paneling managed to evoke 10 p.m. In a good bar, it is always 10 p.m.
   I asked for a beer; I don’t remember which one. The bartender nodded, and time slowed down. He put a square napkin in front of me, grabbed a pint glass, and went to the taps. He pulled a lever, and beer streamed out of a spigot. The bartender put the glass of beer in front of me, its sides frosting with condensation. I grabbed it, felt the cold in my hand, felt its weight as I lifted it. I took a sip.
   Time stopped. The world pivoted. It seems like a small transaction—a guy walks into a bar, right?—but it is the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history. It happens thousands of times a day around the world, maybe millions, yet it is the culmination of human achievement, of human science and apprehension of the natural and technical world. Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that the production of beer induced human beings to settle down and develop permanent agriculture—to literally put down roots and cultivate grains instead of roam nomadically. The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It’s the apotheosis of human life on earth. It’s a miracle.

Meet the Author

ADAM ROGERS is articles editor at Wired, where his feature story “The Angels’ Share” won the 2011 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. Before coming to Wired, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a writer covering science and technology for Newsweek.

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