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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Skoal!

November 1st, 2006

BY JOEL HESS

To grasp the importance of intoxicating agents to our culture, one need only turn to the word “drunk” in the thesaurus, where you will be greeted by a large variety of alternatives: inebriated, bombed, plastered, schnozzled, tipsy, crocked, snockered, in one’s cups, smashed, fried, shitfaced, three sheets to the wind, crocked, stewed, half in joeldandy.jpgthe bag, besotted, sloshed, toasted, polluted, pickled, lit up, stewed, and dozens of others. Alcoholic beverages exist in virtually every society, and here in America we are lucky — or cursed? — to have access to the full spectrum.

That our Anglo-Saxon forebears fully appreciated their happy hours is evident in such words as “beer,” “ale” (Old English ealu), “mead” (from meodu, “honey”), “stout” (in the sense of “bold,” as in “stout-hearted men”), and “wine,” related to such Indo-European cousins as Latin vinum (source of “vine”) and Greek oínos (whence “oenolog”).

England, though, early on began importing from its closest neighbors, and so today we enjoy whiskey (Irish usquebaugh, “water of life”), brandy (Dutch brandewijn, “burnt wine”), and, more generically, booze (Dutch bousen, “to drink to excess”).

The production of liquor (from Latin liquere, “to be liquid”), and especially winemaking, was from an early date associated with monasteries and convents. Thus we have Dom Perignon, the monk who reputedly invented champagne; kir, from Canon Félix Kir; chartreuse, named for the Carthusian monks at Grenoble who developed it; Lacrima, which refers to the tears of the Virgin Mary; Benedictine; and Liebfraumilch, from the Liebfrauenstift, or Convent of the Beloved Lady, in Germany (milch meaning, of course, “milk”).

A great number of beverages take their names from the places where they are made. This includes most varieties of wine: Madeira and port (Porto) in Portugal; Rioja and sherry (Xeres, now Jerez) in Spain; Bordeaux, Chablis, Burgundy, and Médoc in France; Chianti, Frascati, and Asti Spumante (spumante, “sparkling”) in Italy; Riesling and Moselle in Germany; Tokay in Hungary; Shiraz (Syrah) in Iran. Gewurztraminer is from Germany’s Tramin valley, Gewurz meaning “spice.” Gin is from Geneva, and bourbon from Bourbon County, Ky. Tequíla is a town in Mexico, and Daiquiri is one in Cuba. A Tlingit village called Hoochinoo gave us the lovely slang term “hooch.” Curaçao is an island in the Caribbean.

People, both real and fictional, provide us with several drink names, especially the names of cocktails (which word is of uncertain origin, despite the best efforts of etymologists to connect it with the caudal appendages of domestic fowl). Tom Collins and someone named Gibson presumably were the originators of the cocktails that bear their names, while a cool dude named Harvey, according to legend, created the eponymous Wallbanger. Rob Roy was a famed Scottish freebooter, full name Robert Macgregor, while Bloody Mary was a nickname for Mary I, the Tudor Queen of England. Grog comes from the eighteenth-century English admiral Edward Vernon, who served it to his sailors. His nickname was “Old Grog,” from his habit of wearing coats made of grogram, a kind of coarse fabric. And add to the list the folks at Martini, Sola and Co., later Martini and Rossi, who blessed us with their classic cocktail.

Another major source for the names of spirits is the ingredients that they’re made from. Hence rye, from the grain; sambuca from Italian sambuco, “elderberry”; absinthe and vermouth, respectively, from the Greek (absinthion) and German (Wermuth) for “wormwood”; two varieties of cherry liqueur, kirsch (German for “cherry”) and marasco (Italian for “wild cherry”); and slivovitz, from the Serbian sljiva, “plum.” Water, of course, is crucial to the process of alcohol making, so, in addition to whiskey, it shows up in vodka (Russian, “little water”) and julep (Persian gul åb, “rose water.”

Related to this category are designations describing the taste, color, or consistency of a beverage. Soave is simply Italian for “sweet,” while amaretto is the diminutive of amaro, “bitter.” Muscat, muscadel, and Muscatel are all variations on “musk,” and retsina has a resiny flavor. Sangría stems from Spanish sangre, “blood,” and piña colada from “strained pineapple.” White and black Russians, pink ladies, and green opals obviously indicate color. Yet another derivation is the kick you get from imbibing; hence screwdriver and gimlet, stinger, jitters, Moscow mule, boilermaker, kamikaze, zombie.

Finally, many names whose origins are lost in the mists of history show us how drinking is an international phenomenon. Nobody knows the original meanings of ouzo, sake, rum, arrack, or toddy (originally Hindi tådi). Similarly, it’s unknown why a word for an Israeli settler (sabra) or a cold duck (translated literally from German kalte Ente) should come to be used for intoxicating substances, but somehow they have. I say don’t worry about it, and drink up. To your health! •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue, Hess | Link to this Entry

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