Purveying pleasure

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

Cheers, we say, and there's no denying alcohol can be a mood-lifting  social lubricant, as long as we don't come to depend on it 

‘Wine is a constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – Benjamin Franklin.

I delight in telling new acquaintances that I work in the pleasure business. Whatever claims wine, beer and spirits make as to health, in reality they all have but one purpose in life – to bring enjoyment to those that drink them. And alcohol plays a vital part in that gratification. I may like researching the social and cultural background behind wine and visiting the regions that produce it, but without the alcohol, it just wouldn’t be the same.

There is no getting away from the fact that alcohol is a mind-altering addictive drug, classified as a depressant rather than a stimulant. It is probably the most widely abused drug in the western world, and would quite possibly be banned if it were only now being introduced.

However, the opposite is the case; alcohol of some kind has been a core part of most European and other cultures since time immemorial. All you needed to produce something alcoholic was a non-nomadic society with a vague understanding of the fermentation process. Leave grain lying in water and, in the right conditions, it will form maltose sugar first, and then in contact with wild yeasts in the air, transform itself into the slightly fizzy, lightly alcoholic drink that we call beer. In other primitive societies those storing grape juice or honey might find it changed into wine or mead. These drinks had the added advantage of being safer to drink than water; beer was often consumed throughout the day.

Northern countries tended to drink beer; southern wine. Both drinks also played an important role in religious rites. Distillation came later, but formed an equally important part of life throughout Europe. Looking at what people drank and how they drank it gives an insight into that society; in many it was closely linked to fun and enjoyment, and attempts to ban it, such as prohibition in America, were a miserable failure.

Sharing a drink was and is an important demonstration of friendship and hospitality. The shared glass has both a symbolism and a function. In primitive societies it is believed that people meeting for the first time would use straws to drink from the same vessel, thereby proving that it was not poisonous. This is the origin of the clinking of glasses when we toast each other before a meal.

Meeting a friend for one or two pints of stout in the local, has long been an important ritual in Irish life. It forms an important social function. Much of this is forgotten in the rush to condemn binge drinking and other forms of excess consumption. Alcohol is the great social lubricant, adding levity to any occasion and doing away with inhibitions. It is inextricably linked with social interaction; it is a pleasure that is meant to be shared.

Ireland is certainly not the first society to have problems with overindulgence; from the gin craze of Hogarth’s London to the Bacchanalian feasts of ancient Rome, mankind has always worried about the ill effects of bingeing. With dangerous drugs, societies seek to create rules, regulations and boundaries for their consumption. In most social situations, the drunk is an embarrassment and being able to control your intake a sign of adulthood. When drunkenness becomes something to be proud of, perhaps that society has a problem.

Does a drink make you happy? All alcohol is in some way linked to happiness – until you cannot enjoy life without it. Many of us link particular events to specific bottles. Drinks companies know this and spend a fortune trying to attach special feelings of enjoyment or excitement with their products.

If you cannot be happy without a drink, then you probably have a dependency problem. That doesn’t mean that various social occasions are not improved greatly by a few glasses of wine, beer or a spirit of some kind. I am slowly learning that happiness is not a whole new way of thinking espoused by some guru, but the ability to enjoy and appreciate little moments of pleasure in everyday life. For me wine, and to a lesser extent, beer and spirits, certainly provides some of these.

jwilson@irishtimes.com

BOTTLES OF THE WEEK:

Delheim Pinotage Rosé 2012, Stellenbosch, 12.5%, €11.99 Rosé means summer, light and frivolous. This has lovely fresh, crisp, strawberry fruits.

Stockist: O’Briens

Ch. Turcaud 2010, Bordeaux, 13%, €13.95 Clean, fresh, ripe blackcurrant fruits with a dry finish. Stockists: Fallon Byrne, Exchequer St; Michael Wines, Deerpark; World Wide Wine, Waterford; Le Caveau, Kilkenny.

Ch. Coing St. Fiacre 2010, Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, 12%, €14.20 This is a superb example with zingy mineral fruits. Stockists: Corkscrew, Chatham St; MacGuinness, Dundalk; 64 wine, Glasthule

Mount Bluff Brut NV, New Zealand, 12%, €17.99 The Champenois convinced us that every celebration needs fizz. This delicious fresh crisp sparkler with its racy apple fruits will do the trick nicely. Stockist: Marks Spencer