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Alcohol: the story

Drink's been the main party starter for many millennia and one of the top reasons for pulling a sickie. Here's the story about alcohol.

What is alcohol and how is it made?

The alcohol we drink in the form of wine, beer and spirits is all made from one particular strain of alcohol, ethanol. In its purest form, ethanol is a volatile, colourless liquid, but 'drinking alcohol' is carefully brewed to refine its strength and add flavour. Weaker alcoholic beverages are made by combining yeast with fruit and cereals and grains to extract alcohol, while spirits are made by concentrating ethanol into fermented beverages through a process of distillation. The strength of alcohol is described by a percentage proof, which roughly translates as double the percentage of alcohol in the beverage - so, a beer marked 4% proof would contain approximately 2% alcohol. Spirits vary widely in alcoholic potency: vodka and whiskey is usually about 40% proof, but the strongest Russian vodkas exceed 80%.

Effects of consuming alcohol

When ingested into the bloodstream, alcohol promotes feelings of relaxation, cheerfulness and a lowering of inhibitions. Consumed in moderation it doesn't cause any serious health problems; in fact, there's evidence to suggest that it can even reduce the risk of heart disease.

Excessive drinking (binge drinking), however, can lead to impaired judgement, slurring of speech, a tendency to violent behaviour and loss of short-term memory, not to mention a banging hangover. In extreme cases, it can cause unconsciousness, poisoning and even death through asphyxiation by vomit.

Over the long-term, regular heavy drinking can lead to more serious problems like alcoholism, heart disease, stomach ulcers, fertility problems and liver damage. It has also been linked to other conditions, such as cancer of the mouth, throat colon and breast, depression, strokes and mental health problems.

Who discovered alcohol?

Archaeological evidence suggests that as far back as 10,000 BC, Neolithic man fermented an early form of beer.

Archaeological evidence suggests that as far back as 10,000 BC, Neolithic man fermented an early form of beer, while pottery jars found in the late Stone Age village of Jiahu in Northern China bore traces of an alcoholic drink made from rice, honey, grape and hawthorn dating back 9000 years.

The consumption of alcohol was a popular pastime in ancient Egypt. Pictographs suggest beer was a daily staple, while wine was considered a gift from the gods, and even came with its own deities. Hathor, the goddess of wine and intoxication, and Renentet, the goddess of plenty and harvests, invariably had a small shrine near the wine press. Alcohol was also commonplace in ancient Greece, where men of high society met to discuss matters of the day at the symposium, an informal after-dinner debate held on couches with a great deal of wine.

The Romans, though, were the most notorious of history's drinkers. The Roman Empire saw the import and export of wine take place on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Binge drinking was rife and alcohol was even prized for its medical properties. In his book On Good And Bad Juices, the Roman physician Galen prescribed daily wine for healthy living, while undiluted wine was used in the surgery as an antidote for everything from dental work to amputations.

Even in a Christian Europe, religion and alcohol would remain closely intertwined. The first large-scale brewing enterprises were perfected by monks, who produced beer and wine to sell to the public to raise money for the church.

Alcohol today

According to a recent report in the Lancet, one in 25 deaths across the world linked to alcohol. Global consumption is increasing, but currently the UK has one of the highest rates of binge drinking in Europe, with dangerous drinking amongst young adults contributing significantly to this. The number of women drinking too much has also soured. In 2002, women's average weekly consumption was 45% higher than in 1992.

This is having a considerable impact on the health of the nation. GPs are reporting more cases of cirrhosis in younger patients, and a recent report revealed 207,800 hospital admissions in 2006/7 compared to 93,500 in 1995/6 - one in 10 of these were under 18. The NHS currently spends an estimated 2.7b on alcohol-related injury and disease, making it one of the most challenging public health issues.

In an effort to curb the country's excessive drinking, the Government ran a 10m ad campaign about the units of alcohol in each drink, but consumption keeps rising. Low cost alcohol, amongst other things, has been blamed. According to the NHS Information Centre alcohol was 69% more affordable in 2007 than in 1980.

Updated: 06/06/2011

Written by Louis Pattison

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