Tempting as it is to write an ode to alcohol, one must exercise caution when addressing a public that is all too ready to jump at the mention of this age-old spirit. It is the most widely abused-of psychoactive drug in the world today, while simultaneously enjoying its role as the ultimate social lubricant. A few doses and it smoothes out the jagged edges that our stilted social skills seem to be chronically suffering from.

Alcohol has also been associated with hedonistic pleasures, landing me fairly and squarely on the plush, velvet cushions of Bacchus' palace, where I assume the round figure and the red, jovial face of my favourite deity. Champagne and oysters, whisky and cigars, wine and cheese, all marriages made in the most pleasurable of heavens, all featuring alcohol as the wedding ring, vows and consummation.

Yet there is a very good reason for thanking alcohol for our presence here today, and it is this more serious note that I shall delve into in a bit more detail. We shall take a voyage in time together and try to be as scientific as possible without getting the barbed hooks of jargon entangled in the fishing line of uncertainty.

Imagine a time when man’s knowledge of disease was sketchy at best. Very little was known about bacteria, or the ideal conditions for bacterial replication. Today we know that a jar of water left in the hot humidity of, say, a Jordanian summer would be lethal within a few days. So it is no surprise that Jesus left us bread and wine in remembrance of Him since they had realised that wine can be stored safely while water couldn’t be.

Consider cereals, today associated with bread, dough, pasta and rice. Long before the use of cereals for the baking of bread, an estimated 12,000 years ago, they were used to make beer. This was a very weak beer, as weak as economically feasible to maintain a low bacterial count in stored water, yet known to permit survival of the human species. Across the Western world, different alcoholic drinks, mostly grape- or grain-derived, kept the population healthy and flourishing. The richer one was, the higher the content of alcohol that was afforded so Lords and Ladies drank more potent stuff than the great unwashed. This leads one to presume that the alcohol consumed at every meal might have been partly responsible for the tortuous history that tore this side of the earth asunder during centuries of bitter wars.

So how about the East, where alcohol wasn’t such a strong social factor (although its discovery has been attributed to China)? The notion that tea and other infusions lengthen life is far from an unfounded belief. It is the boiling process that precedes every cuppa that effectively kills most bacteria, preserving the healthy state of the drinker and preventing life-threatening disease. This played a vital role in maintaining a healthy supply of water across the Orient. Could the absence of alcohol also be partly responsible for China being politically unified since 221 BC? If contrasted by the bitter bickering that riddled this side of the planet, this becomes a rather convincing postulate.

So alcohol in the West and boiling in the East have played a vital role in the survival of the species, permitting water to be stored during drought, freezing and all other conditions that conspire to dry up the supply of potable water. Then let’s pour ourselves a drink tonight, just a single unit will do (and is legal), and raise our glasses to alcohol, giving credit to the spirit that held our hands during millennia of warfare against unseen pathogens. At the same time we should spill a little, punishing the same spirit for clouding the minds of rulers throughout history, coaxing them into throwing caution to the wind and declaring war on an unsuspecting, and quite possibly sober, neighbour.

Caveat:
Alcohol is a depressant of the Central Nervous System. It also helps to reduce the effect of our inhibitory systems, which is responsible for the social effects I mentioned earlier. In large doses it seriously affects our ability to judge and discriminate and this almost inevitably leads to consequences that are hilarious at best but quite possibly tragic. Alcohol-induced errors of judgement have landed me girls who I definitely don’t deserve, which is not such a bad thing. The same errors of judgement applied to one’s driving skills lead to a much more tragic end to an evening.

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