Book Reviews, Charles, Life Advice, Practical Skills
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Proof: The Science of Booze (Adam Rogers)

“Proof” is an outstanding book. Neither too short nor too long for its topic, it crisply discusses various elements of the production of (ingestible) alcohol. The author, Adam Rogers, an editor at Wired magazine, writes in a compelling, engaging fashion, including enough science to be interesting and not superficial, without putting in so much science that the average reader gets bored.

Rogers discusses in turn every major element of the process. First, he covers yeasts, ranging over their history in the happenstance production of alcohol, through the modern production of specialized yeasts for different processes. Then he discusses sugars, the raw material on which yeasts act, and then fermentation—the process of yeasts acting on sugar. This sounds very technical, and parts of it are. But Rogers manages to smoothly intersperse simplified scientific discussions with anecdotes and conversations with individuals tied to each topic of interest. It all fits together quite well.

“Proof” then moves on to secondary steps in alcohol production: distillation and aging. Rogers ends with ancillary topics: the mostly subjective area of smell and taste, and then the objective, but poorly understood, area of the effect of alcohol on the human body and brain. Finally, Rogers caps off the book with a discussion of hangovers.

Perhaps controversially, Rogers implies that he believes two heresies: that all vodka is the same and therefore perceived taste differences in vodka are delusional, and that much wine appreciation is similarly delusional. As to vodka, I have no idea, although a liquor company executive once told me the same thing and blind taste tests tend to prove delusion as well. Rogers faintly contemptuously points out that vodka has no congeners and is merely pure alcohol, and that while “die-hard vodka drinkers believe that the purest vodkas really do differ in flavor, on its face, that claim doesn’t make sense.” He notes that “one hypothesis for why they don’t says that [water] forms crystalline molecular cages called clathrates, trapping ethanol inside. . . . . [but] it’s not like there are taste buds for hydrogen bond strength.” He never quite comes out and says that perceived vodka differences are fantasy, though.

As to wine, Rogers seems to believe, with long discussion, that most wine perception is purely subjective, although with training, experts can sometimes use the same language to describe the same wines—but they are likely perceiving things differently, even though they are using the same language, and nearly all perceptions of relative quality are purely subjective, both to the person and the situation. Yes, an expert can identify a specific wine—but only one that he is familiar with, in most cases. His own description of an unfamiliar wine will usually vary from the descriptions of others, even when supposedly using a common vocabulary. Rogers notes studies that wine tasters who are given white wines to taste, then the same wine colored red, report wildly different tastes, appropriate for red wines, for the colored white wines. Rogers notes studies that show that no human can actually distinguish more than four flavors or smells blended together, in wine or anything else. He implies that he believes that people like Robert Parker “are essentially making it all up. Or, like some storefront psychics, possibly they think they know what they’re talking about, when in actuality they’ve merely intuited their way into a con.” So this book may enrage the haute vodka or wine drinker.

For the book as a whole, its net effect is something like watching “Modern Marvels” or “How It’s Made,” but in print and in more detail. Of course, if you hate shows like those, you won’t like this book. But if you do, you’ll love this book.

3 Comments

  1. Charles,

    I found this through the link on the new “Liquid Rules” review. I agree that vodka is pretty much all the same, although some cheap vodka does have some off flavors that probably come from poor distillation practice. But once you get past the $15 a fifth range it is all pure ethanol in water and is the exact same thing. I completely disagree on wine though. The chemical difference between a pinot grigio and a grenache is massive, and many of the differences are in the regions of our tastes that are most active – sweetness and bitterness. The smells are also very different. They just aren’t particularly similar liquids.

    Many books and pop-sci articles have used the dyed red study as proof that wine tasting is a fraud, but they get key details wrong. The study was given to first year oenology students at the University of Bordeaux – not to “experts!” It was given as though it was an assignment. The students were certainly trying to describe things in order to meet expectations. That is no surprise – expectations make a huge difference.

    The real story here is just how much social pressure and expectations shape subjective experiences. People are amazingly malleable under the forces of perceived status.

    This is a pretty good short book excerpt on the topic – https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/10/you-are-not-so-smart-why-we-cant-tell-good-wine-from-bad/247240/

    BTW – much of wine tasting is absurd, and the once you get beyond a moderate price point the quality difference is really quite small.

    • Charles says

      Well, I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage, since I have little taste myself. I think the point is not that all wines are the same, but that since experts who are supposedly using a common vocabulary describe the same wine in totally different ways, the experience is purely subjective. But since I drink whatever’s put in front of me, I can’t really say.

      You are correct about the study, though. Miodownik doesn’t give footnotes, but he does say it was a 2001 study with fifty-four participants, so that’s the one. On the other hand, first-year wine students, especially in a discipline where the question is whether it teaches anything, should be pretty competent in their chosen field already.

      That said, if expectation can influence the results that dramatically, it suggests that the results are much more malleable, for wine, than we are suggested. Which is, I suppose, the Atlantic article’s point.

      • Charles,

        I completely agree that the subjective experience of enjoying wine is extremely malleable. If I have a decent bottle with my wife on the beach at sunset, I’m likely to enjoy it a lot more than In my dingy basement along. My point is just that most experiences are likewise subjective and malleable. Most people have some topic or another about which they feel they are something of an aficionado. Maybe its steak, or beer, or cigars, or bourbon, or marijuana – or more experiential like music, or literature, or obscure religious texts – or maybe it is a bit more substantial like boots, or clothing, or cars. The subjective experience of all of those things are driven by the expectations and status connotations. But people are prone to believe that the thing THEY really care about is different. They aren’t being influenced by the same social forces as everyone else.

        The story of the descriptors of wine is really interesting. Prior to the mid-20th century we didn’t have all of this black fruit, cherry, licorice, etc. to describe wines. Someone in the Ag Department at UC Davis thought it would be helpful to have a uniform (and insider) language to use when tasting wine so they came up with a tasting wheel with all of these descriptors you can use. Prior to that people usually described wines with character traits like noble, or virtuous, or aggressive, or gallant. Shows a very 19th century martial spirit. Obviously those earlier descriptors didn’t even make an effort at being objective and grounded in particular characteristics of the wine.

        I say all of this as a wine lover – on a budget!

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