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Space Spirits and Quarantine Cocktails: A Conversation with Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall

In Distilled, their follow-up to A Natural History of Wine and A Natural History of Beer, authors Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall again use alcoholic beverages as a lens through which to gain a greater appreciation of natural history. Here, they talk with us about their writing process, alcohol’s place in a circular economy, and the future of the spirits industry.

You both come from non-chemist backgrounds: zoology for Rob, and anthropology for Ian. How did your interests in animals and people lead you to write natural histories of alcohol like Distilled and your previous books?

RD and IT: We have collaborated on a pretty diverse series of books ever since we cocurated the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2007. Invariably, while writing them we discussed progress over copious glasses of wine, the ideal lubricant for ideas, and in the process we realized that the beverage itself made an ideal lens through which to view almost the entire span of natural history. A Natural History of Wine accordingly followed, and then, because Rob is a dedicated home brewer, A Natural History of Beer. Distilled “naturally” completes the trilogy.

One of your chapters discusses Prohibition and anti-alcohol propaganda. Can you reflect on any connections you may see between that period and beverage sales today?

RD and IT: Prohibition hit the wine, beer, and spirits trade in many ways, but the main reminder of this unfortunate episode a hundred years later is the cumbersome distribution system for alcoholic beverages in the United States. Many bootleggers made fortunes as legal distributors following the end of Prohibition, and their financial interest lay in creating a many-layered system in which profits could be extracted at multiple levels. Today, the control of interstate distribution of alcoholic drinks lies within the purview of individual states rather than that of the Interstate Commerce Commission, leading to a bewildering and expensive morass of rules that often prevents consumers from obtaining wines directly from the producers of their choice.

You’re both scientists, and the book’s composition reflects that, from the chapter designing phylogenetic trees for spirit types to the in-depth chemical summary of toxic and nontoxic alcohols. Do you think consumers at large should be thinking more scientifically about their drinking experiences, and if so, what would that look like?

RD and IT: You certainly don’t have to know how the magician does his tricks to enjoy them, but we do believe that a little background will add a certain depth to every experience, and alcoholic drinks are no exception. A huge amount of technological expertise and sheer human brilliance and dedication goes into every excellent glass you consume, and knowing how that excellence was achieved, and how it works its magic on you, will add an extra dimension to your appreciation of it. But in the end, of course, we have to admit that the enjoyment of a well-made drink is a sensory and aesthetic experience and not a technological one.

In Distilled, you reveal that many spirits are made from the byproducts of other alcohol (e.g. cognac from white wine, grappa from the grape elements that remain after winemaking). What can the spirit manufacturing process teach us about circular production and avoiding food waste?

RD and IT: Our contributors Michele Fino and Michele Fontefrancesco point out that, like with many other spirits, the traditional rural production of grappa followed the “circular economy” model, making the maximal use of all the byproducts of the process, and thereby reducing waste to close to zero. The waste product of wine was made into grappa, and what was left over was used as a food preservative; a cooking ingredient; a medicine for cough, indigestion and headaches; and animal feed. Today, large industrial spirits producers are applying the same principles on a larger scale, emphasizing sustainability and responsibility in the production of raw materials, “circular making” that covers recycling of packaging in particular, and the conservation of water in all stages of the production process. The “draff,” the spent grain left over from the whiskey distilling process, may be used as a heat source, and the “bagasse” left after the cane has been crushed is burned to provide the electricity that powers the sugar plant and the rum-making process. Further down the line, point-of-sale initiatives have even included the recovery of lime rinds used in cocktail making and their conversion into lime concentrate. “Responsible hosting” at the retail level additionally extends to actively educating customers in the avoidance of alcohol abuse. At all points in the process, from the production of the primary ingredients to the dispensation of the end product, distillers are increasingly aware of the need to be ecologically and socially conscientious.

From comets that shed methanol as they float through space to Gorbachev-era vodka deals, this book is full of interesting spirit-related anecdotes. Without spoiling too much for readers, do you have a favorite?

RD and IT: Well, we have an embarras de richesses here, but one favorite would have to be the alleged origin of the term “moonshine,” which is said to derive from the lies that Wiltshire yokels, surprised by revenue officers during their nocturnal activities, would tell to distract the officials from the fact that they were hiding “duty-free” barrels of French brandy in the local pond. Or maybe we could mention that the widely esteemed Russian Tsar Peter the Great actually drank two quarts of vodka a day and advocated whipping wives who tried to drag their unwilling husbands out of bars; or perhaps we might equally disreputably cite the origin of the term “cocktail” in the nineteenth-century horse salesman’s highly unseemly technique for stimulating an elderly horse to emulate a young one by holding its tail upright.

There’s a lot in this book about each culture’s unique practices connected to the brewing and consumption of spirits. Is there an example that was most interesting for you to research?

RD and IT: This book was written during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when, thankfully, liquor stores were classified by New York State as “essential businesses,” and takeout cocktails became a mini-industry in our city. That in itself converted an extremely unfortunate situation into a great opportunity. But in comparative cultural terms, perhaps the most fun was learning about the making of palm wine, or “tuba,” by extracting and fermenting the sap from palm trees. This is likely one of the most ancient ways of obtaining an alcoholic beverage in tropical regions, and although it rapidly progresses from sweet and aromatic to pungent and repellent as fermentation proceeds, in the Philippines they manage, with some pretty primitive equipment, to distill it into a smooth and often eminently sippable alcohol they call lambanog.

Your closing chapter mentions how the spirits industry may change, from the rise of home mixology during COVID to the possibility for synthetic alcohols engineered to reduce hangovers. Which of these potential developments is most exciting to you?

RD and IT: For the time being we remain traditionalists, preferring cocktails that are mixed before our eyes, made from spirits powered by alcohol, and aged (if necessary) in barrel. But there is no denying the strides that have been made lately by those who “age” their spirits overnight, or even by those who seek to achieve the “burn” of alcohol by other means. We are not sure they are quite there yet, but it is always unwise to bet against human ingenuity.

Do you have a favorite cocktail or spirit? What makes it your favorite?

RD and IT: An impossible question! The most fascinating thing about spirits is their sheer variety, and one’s choice will inevitably vary from one day and place to the next. Here and now? Well, for freshness and immediacy there is nothing to beat a really good blanco tequila sipped straight at room temperature, while for sheer depth of flavor and length of finish it is hard to beat a well-blended hand-warmed Cognac. But ask us again tomorrow . . .

Rob DeSalle is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, Ian Tattersall is curator emeritus, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History. In addition to A Natural History of Wine and A Natural History of Beer, DeSalle and Tattersall are coauthors of The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs. They both reside in New York City.

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