Booze & Drugs

Atlas Chugged

By Chris Kassel

My descent into the hooch underworld began when I was a teenager, thumbing through deep, serious Tennessee. I was plucked from the crossroads by a good ol' boy inside a supercharged aqua-buff Olds who'd spent the afternoon sucking from a jelly jar filled with an explosive homemade corn likker called mule. Naturally, when asked if I'd drunk it before, I replied "Lots of times," but I don't think he believed me. I was duly instructed to grip my forehead with my left hand and to sip carefully with my right. Why? He arched an eyebrow: "Just do it." Fortunately I did. Far form being a fraternal rite, skull clutching turned out to be a physiological imperative. With the hooch halfway down the hatch, I felt as if an air bag had gone off inside my occipital lobe, and I squeezed desperately to counteract my eyeballs' urge to explode forward onto the dashboard. Hence the moniker: I'd been kicked in the temples by the phantasmagorical mule.

Once the cobwebs had cleared - I woke up with a five-star hangover known colloquially in these parts as "corn palsy" - I found myself with an enduring fascination with mondo hooch, the native alcohols made around the world. On every trip I've taken since, I've made a point about inquiring about and, whenever possible, sampling that region's specialty, whether it be brewed, fermented, or delivered straight from the gods. These days, if you're lucky, or live in an ethnic neighborhood, you can find many of these strange brews in your local liquor store. Others will require a special trip and perhaps some mild disregard for the law.

Wherever humankind has gone, booze has followed. A couple more Apollo landings and there'd have been a pot still inside the Sea of Tranquility. Hooch is our habitude, and recorded manufacture of alcoholic beverages goes back much farther than the straight stuff. These old-school Mormons - women, women, everywhere, but not a drop to drink - are historical aberrations. Are you born again? Well, J.C.'s first miracle was water into wine, so that shows you where His priorities were. Some efforts, of course, have a more tragic ring: Irish émigrés in England apparently created a toxic potion made of wood alcohol. Others show a sort of savage genius: Primo, brewed from baker's yeast and fruit cocktail (or whatever's snaggable from the commissary), has made many a jailhouse rock. Even those inscrutable, philosophic Vedic Indians tempered their long meditations with a little moon juice, brewed from the Himalayan moon creeper plant.

Since ceremony tends to legitimize getting wasted, it's not at all surprising to find strong waters at the core of countless religious ceremonies. A ritual concoction used in the rural Mexican Santeria cult to cast spells on people is called nganga. It's made from fermented blood (occasionally human) and rum, among other things, and is definitely not recommended for consumption. A trifle friendlier is pulque, which is perhaps the oldest alcoholic drink in North America. It's a milky white brew made from the sap of the century plant and tastes like fermenting Cremora mixed with rotten apples.

Alcohol-based medicine has always been a good excuse for a buzz, not to mention a little cultural burlesque (I Love Lucy fans will recall the classic episode that had Lucy spooning herself silly with Vitametavegamin, and The Andy Griffith Show's Aunt Bee had a grand old time with her potent Indian elixir.) A popular Oriental potion is serpent bladder soaked in rice wine, which is said to be a surefire cure for rheumatism (as if fermenting bile isn't a savvy marketing tool all by itself). The Poles spooned gold dust into kummel to cure various physical ailments. They named it goldwasser, and though it tastes like caraway-flavored wood shavings, it looks strikingly beautiful when shaken. Marketing gurus in New Jersey recently introduced a wildly popular cinnamon-flavored version in the U.S. Called Goldschlager.

The Chinese, who've allowed a few worldly pleasers to pass them by, have a tipple called kaoliang, a rum-like distillate made from sorghum and flavored with rose petals. It tastes like decaying vegetation, but for those whoa re very fond of it anyway, the Chinese also apparently have their own brand of Alcoholics Anonymous, called Li Men, or the Door of Reason Society, with chapters in most Chinese cities. Another popular colorless spirit from China is called tiger tendon and quince (which, despite its name, has no actual tiger tendon in it). But for the truly adventurous, those who've outgrown the mescal worm can impress their friends with Cantonese snake wine, a ferocious bright green liquer in which a poisonous snake marinates.

Not all hooch is horrific, of course, and the world's most exclusive wine puts Montrachet in the class of Wild Irish Rose. Tokay Eszencia is made only from the nectar exuded naturally by Hungarian Aszu Grapes as they're waiting to be crushed; there are only a few barrels in existence, and they're state controlled. If you want an authoritative description of its taste, you'll have to consult a dead czar: Tokay Eszencia was, by tradition, reserved for the deathbed sips of monarchs.

Despite the Koran's tenets to the contrary, alcohol thrives in the Middle East, where the chug of choice is arak, an often anise-infused grape spirit. (The Turkish version, raki, is distilled from plums or molasses and the Egyptian version uses dates). The arak I got a hold of (at a corner liquor store) was vicious, volatile, and vile. For the really refined stuff, a trip abroad may be necessary. Among numerous other licorice-flavored spirits made worldwide, Pernod is said to be the successor to the Parisian crack of the 1890s, absinthe. A greenish, wildly intoxicating, and legendarily fatal drink, absinthe contains an herb called wormwood. It's rather difficult to find nowadays (try the Spanish black market), but in London during the '20s, a dash of absinthe was indispensable to a "proper" martini. Pernod, of course, does not contain wormwood.

A safer sip than absinthe is pisco, a brandy originally distilled in the Peruvian port city of the same name. A friend recently sent me a fifth from his native Chile which bore the Big Brothersque trade name Pisco Control. It contained no specific flavorings, but was marvelously complex, with an unforgettable aroma reminiscent of papayas and tropical flowers. It's sensational neat or slightly heated (like cognac).

But there are exceptions to rough-hewn hooch. A few years after the mule incident, my uncle, a Swiss priest, showed me the caves beneath his church, the medieval abbey of St. Ursanne, where several hundred dusty, hand-inscribed bottles stood on a dais. "You comprehend eau-de-vie?" he asked, referring to the bootleg version of a flora-based spirit distilled throughout the Alps. "Well, here we have collected the best of the best. Tax-free, from the heart." Made from holly berries (which are sometimes poisonous), gentian (an herb), rowan (a tree), and wild strawberries, then thrice distilled, this was perfectly smooth and ultimately wholesome stuff.

A thematic variation of eau-de-vie pops up incessantly in the lexicon of the spirit world. Aqua vitae, akvavit, the Gaelic uisge baetha (whiskey), and the Russian zhizennia voda (vodka) are all versions of eau-de-vie. Countless cultures have stumbled independently upon the phrase, which means "water of life": I drink, therefore I am. As if the tap variety were but a skanky surrogate to be taken only in the most dire emergencies. As if existence itself were diminished without it. As if sobriety were as profoundly inhuman a state as say, celibacy. Which, of course, it is.