Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Understanding Alcohol

Alcohol beverages are among mankind’s oldest home remedies and simple pleasures, so highly regarded that the ancient Greeks and Romans called wine a “gift from the gods,” and when the Gaels — early inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland — first produced whiskey, they named it uisge beatha (whis-key-ba), a combination of the words for “water” and “life.” Today, although you may share their appreciation for the product, you know that alcohol beverages may have risks as well as benefits.

By the way, throughout this section I refer to beverages made from alcohol as “alcohol beverages.” Yes, I know most people probably think the correct term is “alcoholic beverages,” but whenever I write or say those words, I get an immediate image of tipsy beer bottles. Besides, you’ve heard of “milk beverages” but not “milky” ones, or “cola beverages” but not “cola-y” ones. So do please indulge me.

When microorganisms (yeasts) digest (ferment) the sugars in carbohydrate foods, they make two byproducts: a liquid and a gas. The gas is carbon dioxide. The liquid is ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient in alcohol beverages.
This biochemical process is not an esoteric one. In fact, it happens in your own kitchen every time you make yeast bread. Remember the faint, beer-like odor in the air while the dough is rising? That odor is from the alcohol the yeasts make as they chomp their way through the sugars in the flour. (Don’t worry; the alcohol evaporates when you bake the bread.) As the yeasts digest the sugars, they also produce carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. From now on, whenever you see the word alcohol alone in this blog, unless otherwise noted, it means ethanol, the only alcohol used in alcohol beverages. (Yes, yes, yes. That definition applies backward, too. If you find the word alcohol in a previous chapter, it, too, means ethanol. Gee. Some people are sooooooo picky.)

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