Book Review: 'Proof: The Science of Booze' by Adam Rogers

In my continued quest to read everything about booze I just finished reading Adam Rogers’ Proof: The Science of Booze and damn do I love this book!

Proof The Science of Booze

When this book talks about “booze” it means all intoxicating things containing ethanol that humans drink. Which is a pretty broad definition, wine, beer and bourbon get most of the focus in the book, just as they do in real life. Outside of the big three only sake receives much attention.

Rogers splits the book roughly in half beginning with how the process for creating booze then moving onto how it rewards then ravages your body. Each chapter focuses on a different subject and intersperses scientific studies with personal stories. Those personal stories are told in an engaging fashion either structured as a strict story or a conversational interview.

Many of the more science oriented beer and bourbon books I’ve read get dry fast. They go on about complex chemical names and their hydrogen bonds, which makes for daunting reading. Luckily, if those books are dry, then this book is a monsoon, as seen below.

In fact, the rectum turned out to be a really good place to absorb ethanol, in the end. (Not sorry.)

Why is there a quote about how your rectum is a good place to absorb ethanol? Well, you’ll have to read the book to learn about that crazy scientific study. It’s clear that the author is not a scientist, but instead a journalist interested in science.

“23% of people do not get hangovers (the scientific term for them is “jerks”)”

Still not convinced of the humor present throughout the book? OK, I got one more.

“Few three-word phrases inspire less confidence than “according to yelp”

Don’t let all those quips throw you too far off course. The book is serious, it just doesn’t take itself too seriously. Getting back to the content, the yeast chapter is a history of our relationship to, and the meandering discovery process of, everyone’s favorite microbe. Next up is a chapter on sugar which is one of the more “sciency” chapters. Most of it is the story of the person who figured out what Koji is and how it works in making Sake [footnote]Who is also the same guy that gave D.C. its beautiful cherry blossom trees[/footnote].

I won’t dig into every chapter in the book, the fermentation, distillation, and aging chapters are all full of great info. However, the book truly began to get interesting to me when it hit the how alcohol affects us from “Smell and Taste” to “Body and Brian” and finally “Hangover.” Some books touch on these subjects, but I have yet to encounter one that delves so deeply. I’m not sharing all the awesomeness in these chapters because there is so much that it’d take a few blog posts! I am going to share one bit from each of those three chapters. Each of these represents my favorite of the notes that I took on the chapter.

The smell and taste chapter discusses trained tasters, including a study of trained vs. untrained tasters. It turns out the biggest difference between the two is vocabulary. The trained tasters produced more words about the flavors and aromas than the untrained while both scored similarly on identifying what was there.

“Body and Brain” devotes time to various Behavioral Alcohol Research Labs… B.A.R. Labs. These test how social and environmental factors play into drinking behavior. It turns out that expectation is one of the biggest factors involved in intoxication. Some subjects were given 1 part vodka five parts tonic water; it was indistinguishable from straight tonic water. No one showed signs of intoxication unless they were told they were getting the drink with alcohol, thus expecting to get drunk. Plus this awesome knowledge nugget that I couldn’t resist tweeting out:

The chapter on hangovers is pretty disappointing. Not because the chapter itself, but in the shocking lack of our knowledge on hangovers. I find it interesting how little formal research has been done. The book doesn’t formally declare this but does suggest that the reason so little research has been done is that no one wants to remove the punishment from drinking too much.

Another awesome tidbit from this chapter is the medical term for a hangover, veisalgia. Veisalgia doesn’t get cool till you break it down. Kveis is Norwegian for “uneasiness following debauchery.” Then we get -algia which is Greek for pain. So veisalgia is pain and uneasiness following debauchery, yep I’d call that the best description of a hangover I’ve ever heard.

As I said at the start, I love this book. If you share a love of science and a love of booze, then Proof: The Science of Booze is a must read!

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