Being a creature constructed to want more, however, this mere taste of the high life would have proven woefully inadequate. Indeed, by the time Greek civilization was going full blast—say, 500 BCE—Athenians, Egyptians, Chinese, and other less famous but equally thirsty civilizations had unlocked the secret of transforming low-alcohol beerlike brews into nearly pure alcohol. To this craft, nascent brewmasters introduced anise, mulberry, and other spices and flavorings with the intent of enabling imbibers to forget, if only temporarily, a world growing increasingly complex.
Thus, virtually every culture became associated with its own high-octane brew, with modern societies being no exception. We have reached a point where, after centuries of experimentation, different regions, countries, cultures, and geographies can brag about their own noble liquor—each with a unique taste, history, and rich story line that has made it sought after, if not necessarily good for you. Herewith are a devil’s half-dozen hall-of-fame libations notable for their taste, kick, and ability to impart a liquid ecstasy (if also a subsequent morning-after agony).
United States - Everclear
The rustic painting of a corncob on the label of Luxco Everclear hints that the world’s most potent liquor is brewed from good old-fashioned Midwestern corn. Where Everclear distinguishes itself is in its distillation to a purity that makes it virtually pure ethanol, the only alcohol not inherently poisonous to humans (unless one drinks way, way too much of it). Because it is tasteless, colorless, and distilled from grain mash, Everclear can be classified as a vodka.
Look more closely and you can see why Everclear is top-of-the-mark for anyone truly desirous of taking alcohol to the limit. At 190 proof, or 95 percent alcohol (“proof” is double the percentage), Everclear is chemically the most powerful commercial liquor on the planet—if only because at precisely 191.2 proof, ethanol and water become a saturated azeotrope solution, meaning the mixture simply cannot hold any more alcohol.
How potent is Everclear? Before Guinness went politically correct and eliminated the category, its Book of World Records listed Everclear as the “most alcoholic drink.” On a more singular level, contributors to the beverage’s online fan sites fondly recall their own initial experimentations. In one forum, the aptly named Mr. Blackout from Michigan recalled the burn from what he felt sure was the flesh of his own esophagus dissolving.
Everclear’s 190-proof incarnation is wisely banned in numerous U.S. states. It can, however, be enjoyed in a less-potent 151-proof version that still packs the kind of wallop that begs for dilution with fruit juice or water. Surprisingly, Everclear’s purity often means a less vicious hangover. Not recommended for beginners-—particularly not college freshmen—Everclear is well known as the all-American, frat-boy fuel in the “purple passion” punch that college Greeks have long used to stupefy potential pledges. It also makes an excellent antiseptic if you need to perform emergency surgery.
Switzerland - Absinthe
The saying “Absinthe makes the heart grow weaker” can now officially return to polite parlance since the elixir’s unbanning in the United States in 2007 after nearly a century in the prohibition doghouse. Absinthe is a brew that won its toga in Athenian times; the name derives from the Greek apsinthion, possibly meaning “undrinkable.” This designation presumably came from the bitterness of the various herbs used to brew absinthe as a treatment for various ailments, including anemia, cramps, bad breath, and jaundice.
The active ingredient that transformed absinthe into an enemy of polite 19th-century society was thujone, a toxic chemical component of the wormwood plant. Wormwood was believed to impart a mystical high and made the liquor known (depending on your disposition) as the “green fairy” or the “devil in a bottle.” Absinthe was most famously associated with trendsetting 19th-century artists such as Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Degas.
Legend has it that absinthe’s modern turn actually began in 1792, when the extraordinarily named French physician Pierre Ordinaire fled the blood-soaked excesses of Jacobin Paris and settled in Switzerland. On his medical rounds, Dr. Ordinaire would pick various herbs and botanicals, which he used to concoct his 136-proof elixir supercharged with an infusion of wormwood. Following his death, Dr. Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the French distiller Pernod, which produced absinthe in Europe and America and, following the drink’s ban on both sides of the pond in the late 19th century, substituted such anise-flavored drinks as Pernod and Ricard.
Rehabilitated, absinthe is back on the market. Today, there are several competing brands, including Le Tourment Vert (“the Green Torment”), Obsello, La Fée, and Kübler. Matching its exceptional past, absinthe also has a ritual and equipage all its own, generally entailing pouring the liquor through a sugar cube or cracked ice to take the edge off one of the world’s edgiest brews.
France - Chartreuse
Want to know how to keep a trade secret, secret? Entrust it to monks from a Catholic order practicing a vow of silence. That is more or less the story of France’s highest-proof concoction, Green Chartreuse, produced since 1605 by the Carthusian brothers at their Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble. A throat-scorching 110 proof, Green Chartreuse is a secret infusion of 130 herbs in a wine-alcohol base, its recipe known only to the order’s three top monks. So famous has Green Chartreuse become that its unmistakable lime hue, derived from chlorophyll, is an official color specification in the Web-coding language HTML.
Like absinthe, Chartreuse began as a medical elixir. By the 18th century, however, it had become a popular and potent drink served in taverns and restaurants across Europe. Green Chartreuse also became a literary favorite, making appearances in
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and Quentin Tarantino’s film Death Proof.
Today, the Carthusians produce an 80-proof Yellow Chartreuse, sweeter and less potent than the original. Their alcoholic pièce de résistance, however, is the 142-proof Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse. It is a liquor utilizing the same wine base and secret herbs as Green Chartreuse but with higher alcohol and sugar contents that pack enough wallop to make a Carthusian brother yodel in full voice across the Alpine slopes.
Puerto Rico - Bacardi 151 Rum
It is not hard to guess what Bacardi 151 rum does best, particularly since its bottle is the only one in liquordom with a flame-arrestor cap. But whether you intend to set your drink or yourself on fire, at 151 proof Bacardi’s best gives you big value for your money, along with the earthy aroma of Caribbean sugar cane and a history so rich that the act of smuggling any variety of liquor across county, state, or national borders is to this day referred to as “rum running.”
Bacardi 151 can also serve as the base for libations such as the Hemingway Hammer, a fruity recipe thought to have been invented by Ernest “Papa” Hemingway himself on a slow writing day. It calls for combining an ounce each of Bacardi 151, Bacardi white rum, blackberry brandy, and strawberry and banana liqueur with a cup of crushed ice—all shaken and garnished with a lime. The drink is still a favorite at Sloppy Joe’s bar, one of Hemingway’s favorite haunts on Key West.
If you decide to top it off with a slug of ignited Bacardi 151 for some extra Hemingway heat, you might want to follow the excellent advice of DrinksMixer.com to “always extinguish a flaming drink before consuming it.”
Austria - Stroh 80
Alpine Austria would seem to be a strange home port for a beverage derived from sugar cane, but Stroh 80 is a 160-proof “spiced rum” brewed from sugar cane by-products and coming in nine proof stronger than Bacardi 151. Rarely consumed without first being diluted, Stroh 80 is another example of the Germanic genius at chemistry and its ability to produce synthetics such as margarine, coal oil, and, it turns out, rum. Generally reserved as “inlander rum” for domestic consumption, Stroh 80 is noted for its use in punches such as the terrifyingly incandescent Feuerzangenbowle.
Mexico - Sierra Silver Tequila
Invented by grumpy conquistadores who had finished off the last of their European wine and brandy—along with most of Central America’s native population—tequila was the result of a hunt through “New Spain” for a kick-ass high-alcohol substitute. According to the brewers at Sierra Silver, the conquerors came up with a 150-proof tequila distilled from the sap of the piña, or heart, of the blue agave plant, grown in what is the modern-day Mexican state of Jalisco.
Following 48 to 72 hours of fermentation and a time-consuming double distillation process, the sap is tickled into a deadly, 150-proof, clear liquor, which in most tequilas is cut in half with distilled water. Sierra Silver, however, forgoes this last step, leaving an unadulterated triple-digit brew similar to the conquistadores’ version. The result is a tequila nicknamed “the rock that bites.” It’s distinct from tequila varieties such as “gold” (colored and flavored), reposado (aged for up to a year), or añejo (aged in oak casks for one to three years). Sierra Silver is also easy to find at liquor stores; it is the only clear tequila with a red sombrero cap.
People’s Republic of China - Maotai
If you have ever attended an official banquet in the PRC, you will have noted that partway through the affair your delegation starts to look much the worse for wear compared with your Chinese hosts. This is not accidental; if you look closely at the libation being poured for each of your 25 toasts, you will note that while your hosts are drinking low-alcohol plum wine, your glass is being attentively recharged with Maotai, a savage beverage with an unmistakable whiff of soy sauce. Maotai (also written Moutai or Mao-Tai) is China’s favorite variety of baijiu, or “white liquor.”
Brewed from sorghum, Maotai is legendary for its ability to serve as paint thinner and fuel for out-of-gas autos. First concocted during the Qing Dynasty, not coincidentally China’s last, Maotai comes in a distinctive toilet-white porcelain bottle and can reach potencies well over 100 proof, high-octane enough to merit a warning to keep the fiery liquor away from actual fire.
At official banquets, it is considered impolite not to toast. It is never, however, considered out of order to bribe a waiter to substitute water for Maotai. Another good thing to keep in mind is that half of all Asians lack the enzyme required to metabolize ethanol, which virtually all European descendants do possess. Thus, if you notice your Chinese host beginning to turn cherry red, you can be pretty sure that he or she will pass out or do something incredibly stupid before you do. And remember, green tea is the hangover cure of choice in China, a civilization that has been drinking and suffering the consequences for at least five millennia.
5 Ways Alcohol Can Kill You
Alcohol can kill you in many different ways—slow or fast, and virtually every way in between. What is amazing is that we would willingly introduce such a toxic substance into our systems in the first place, let alone do it over and over again. But hey, we’re only human. Just so we can be clear-headed about it (until we start drinking, that is), here are a few ways that alcohol can do you in:
1. Alcohol can dull your reflexes in fatally dangerous ways. Drink too much in a bar, walk outside into traffic, and you will discover that the world is suddenly moving at a life-threatening speed. What is really happening is that your brain, awash in an ocean of powerful chemical depressants, is dulled to the extent that everyday activities take on sinister levels of difficulty.
2. Alcohol can give you a false sense of confidence that could get you pummeled. As the emergency-room doctor finishes putting those stitches in your face, you think back and realize that it wasn’t such a good idea to try to hustle the girlfriend of that 6-foot-8 former NFL linebacker. But it was no dumber than telling your wife about your fixation with the curvy blonde at the office. Remember, alcohol-loosened lips sink ships, not to mention relationships.
3. Alcohol can pickle your organs. Not only can a long-term alcohol jones cause your liver to stop filtering toxins out of your bloodstream, it can also tax the kidneys, nervous system, heart, and particularly the billions of brain cells soaking up that daily dose of methanol. There should be some consolation, however, that alcohol in moderate amounts is actually good for the heart.
4. Alcohol can replace a well-balanced diet with empty, sugar-based calories and even cause malnutrition and obesity. It should also be noted that alcohol on an empty stomach can reach the brain within a minute. To paraphrase Ed Moose, one of San Francisco’s legendary barkeeps, “Why ruin a $15 high with a $20 meal?”
5. Alcohol can give you an unwarranted confidence that you can handle heavy equipment. Put simply: Drinking and driving is very stupid and, in far too many cases, fatal.
© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2012
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Wednesday, 15 August 2012