Adam Rogers calls it the “perfect moment”—“the moment when a bartender places a drink in front of a customer and the customer takes a sip,” he writes in his new book, Proof, The Science of Booze. The journey that leads to that sip—the science of making spirits, beer and wine—is the thread that takes readers from the primal roles of yeast and ethanol in its first chapters to a last chapter that tries to understand the mysteries of hangovers, a journey he says spans 10,000 years.
Rogers, a self-described “cocktail nerd,” and an editor at Wired magazine, based Proof on an article, “The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus,” which won him a science award. He will be speaking at a Smithsonian Associates lecture on Wednesday evening at 6:45.
On Monday morning, at an hour not typically associated with booze (though, to each their own), Rogers talked with us about drinking, over-drinking, and the dreaded morning after.
You say the moment a guy first walked into a bar and took the first sip of a drink was the “single most important event in human history.” Why?
Obviously I’m being hyperbolic, but that interaction, that moment, is a moment when we’re interacting with deep time, experiencing the weight of 150 million years of evolution and years of human industry and interaction with nature and engineering know-how and technology. In that single sip. It has the entire weight of human science behind it and in front of it, the universe revolves around it.
You quote Faulkner that booze is “civilization in a glass.” So what about the youthful trends of pounding and binging?
It’s true. People use it and abuse it, and the misuses are massively consequential. They cost in money, heartache, and health; it’s dangerous on the road, and people die because of misuse. Basically my book is about a drink and a half. It takes place when you are three sips into your second round. It touches only glancingly on addiction.
Is there a risk of overthinking it, making it too precious, taking the conviviality out of the experience?
That’s interesting. I come down in thinking that understanding mechanisms and underlying science is the way to appreciate things more. There’s certainly a strain of connoisseurship that overplays that hand. I find that to be especially true in wine. Mixology, bartending, that’s mixing. That’s recipes. I’m more about how it gets made and in the bottles.
Can it become too precious? Sure. I’m probably the single most annoying person in the world to have a drink with because when I am drinking with somebody I start to talk about how something is made and how it should be used and whether it shouldn’t be there.
Who makes the best booze in the world?
Oh. [long pause] You’re killing me with that. Okay. I’ll give you a few places.
First, the region around the river Spey in Scotland. Single-malt whiskey. Exquisite. It’s an area about as big as Napa, California. Gorgeous. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. They make something that is just special.
Second, the grape- and apple-based digestifs of France—Brandy, Armagnac, Calvados. The individual varietals. Those are amazing, the depth of flavor. They are just starting to hit their stride at 20 to 25 years in a barrel.
Third, the American South, Kentucky and Tennessee. I would add in the US right now three small craft distillers who are making really interesting, really delicious, very characteristic spirits: St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, is making gin; Balcones Distilling in Texas is making whiskeys, and Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, makes a wide range of stuff, but the one I love the best is their Slivovitz (blue plum brandy).
Do you have to pay premium prices for premium alcohol?
No. There are very, very good drinks for not a ton of money, but you have to be thoughtful. For example, right now it’s possible in the United States to get very good sipping rum, which is as complex as any single-malt whiskey, for $25 a bottle.
The rush to get the [trendy bourbon] Pappy van Winkle is a fad. It might be justified in terms of how Pappy tastes, but there’s a brand of bourbon called Bulleit. It is the most industrialized and commercialized bourbon you can imagine, but it’s cheap and it’s delicious.
When and where was the first cocktail made?
The standard story is that it was the Sazerac in New Orleans—rye and an absinthe rinse. But now I think that date has been pushed back and I don’t know how far.
How do you go about ordering a drink?
My favorite way to order now is to tell a bartender or sommelier, “Give me something weird.” You will get such an interesting drink or bottle of wine.
There’s that other thing: I walk into a bar, and I have this whole checklist in my head. For example, is there fresh fruit? Don’t go drinking with me; I have this algorithm.
Is it fact or myth that mixing different types of alcohols—say, having a vodka cocktail, followed by wine, and then maybe later a beer—is a recipe for having it all come back up?
It is a myth. It might contribute to some stomach upset, but you’re throwing up because you had too much ethanol.
There are a lot of theories—brown versus clear, white wine versus red—but what’s the best alcohol to drink to minimize the chance of a hangover?
I hate to be a downer. [The theories] are wrong. The reason people think red wine is going to give them hangovers is the sulfites, but white wine has a lot of them too. Bourbon will give you a hangover, and vodka will, too. If you drink a lot of drinks, you are going to be hungover.
There are some compounds that researchers are looking at to minimize hangovers. I tried many of them, and they haven’t worked for me.
How many hangovers did you suffer in the process of writing the book?
Three years of writing the book, one whopping hangover I write about. I don’t actually drink much when I’m working—but more than I should have. The hangover to me has become a signal I screwed up. I work very hard to have it not be part of my life.