Category Archives: Drink

Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver











In 1930, the legendary bartender Harry Craddock prescribed a popular cure for revellers who stumbled into London’s Savoy Hotel for breakfast and complained of throbbing hangovers. Craddock had fled Prohibition in the States in 1920 and found work at the American Bar in the Savoy, and he knew a thing or two about the ailments of his customers. To ease their pain, he invented a classic cocktail with an unforgettable name—Corpse Reviver #2. Then he published the recipe in a book that bartenders still cherish today: The Savoy Cocktail Book.

This cocktail is a particular favorite of mine—with its pallid greenish hue, its ingenuous blending of slightly tart ingredients, and a name guaranteed to warm the heart of any archaeology writer. But how wise is it to down a drink whose ingredient list includes absinthe, a herbal concoction first blended by a French physician in 1789 as a tonic and later condemned and outlawed by legislators in Europe and the United States as a poisonous social evil? Absinthe, after all, contains oil of wormwood, Artemesia absinthium. Its active ingredient, thujone, is a known natural insecticide.

Please click here to read more.

Women, The Earliest Brewmasters?

Until last night,  I had never given much thought to the  gender of the world’s  ancient brewmasters.   But while surfing the net in the wee hours,  I came across a British newspaper article with an irresistible  headline:   “Men Owe Women for ‘Creating Beer’  Claims Academic.” According to the Telegraph, British author Jane Peyton now proposes that Bud Lite, Tsingtao and Victoria Bitter drinkers around the world owe their favorite suds to women brewmasters.

Peyton furnishes several examples in this article.   Only women,  she noted, were permitted to brew beer in Mesopotamia.  Much later, among the Vikings,  women owned all the equipment for beer making and controlled the entire process.  And until the beginning of the 18th century,  most of Britain’s ale came from ale-wives who worked out of their homes for extra income.   But the mass production of beer during the Industrial Revolution apparently put a end to all these  female microbreweries.

The Telegraph article made no mention,  however,  of who Jane Peyton is.  So I googled her and stumbled upon a whole unsuspected world of beer pedagogy in Britain.   Peyton is a tutor at the Beer Academy in London.   She  is also the principal of the School of Booze,  an outfit whose model is “Think While You Drink,”  (a splendid oxymoron) and which offers tutored beer tastings.   Clearly there are a lot of  beer connoisseurs  out there who want parity with wine snobs.

I don’t know where Peyton is getting her info from or whether she has a book on the way on feminist beermakers.  Her website offers few clues.  And because of this,  I might have dismissed the article entirely,  but for one thing.  Peyton mentioned that before the Industrial Revolution,  people thought of beer as a food:  as a result,  many cultures deemed beer-making women’s work.

Although my knowledge of early brewing is very limited,  I recently read a wonderful paper by Justin Jennings, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto,  on the Andean art of making chicha,  or corn beer.   According to Jennings,  Andean families have long brewed two types of this beer–one thin,  the other quite thick.   They reserve  the thicker and more filling chicha for daily consumption as a food.  But they prepare  a thinner corn beer for festivals, so that celebrants can drink more and get pleasantly high faster.

As Jennings points out, “gender roles are often fluid in the Andes,”  but “chicha brewing is primarily a female activity. ”  He then goes on to note that “the preparation and serving of chicha,  like all food,  is central to women’s identity,  and for women who sell chicha [today] the drink offers considerable social power and autonomy that they aggressively defend.”

I think Jane Peyton is on to something here.

Liquid Time Capsules

I’ve never had the pleasure or good fortune to travel to the quirky resort town of Rehoboth,  Delaware.   Rehoboth,  I hear,  has charm,  fine beaches,  a boardwalk,  and something known as the Sea Witch Festival.  Washingtonians flock there each summer to escape the city heat.   But what interests me most about Rehoboth is a very cool pub there,  known as Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats.    Its founder and proprietor, 40-year-old Sam Calagione,  specializes in brewing ancient types of grog–what he likes to call liquid time capsules.

I first came across a mention of Sam Calagione  in a very funny article in the New York Times last September.  Calagione and two researchers from the Penn Museum–Patrick McGovern (mentioned in my post yesterday) and Clark Erickson–had decided to brew a batch of the ancient Andean corn beer known as chicha.   The kicker was that they decided to make this beer the traditional way,  by chewing wad upon wad of milled Peruvian corn,  just as women in the Andes once did.   Natural enzymes in human saliva break down starches in the corn, and turn them into fermentable sugar.   And because the chewing happens before the boiling,  the final result can be drunk quite safely (though most chicha makers in South America today use a different and far more sterile method to make their brew).

But Calagione and his two companions gamely attempted to chew their way through 20 pounds of purple Peruvian corn.   Here’s what happened,  according to New York Times reporter Joyce Wadler:

“As befitting a bold craftsman, Mr. Calagione took the first chomp, grabbing a small handful of corn and plopping it into his mouth. A small puff of flour escaped his lips. Mr. Calagione choked, concentrated and then chewed. After a few minutes, he removed a gravelly, purple lump from his mouth and put it on the tray.  It resembled something a cat owner might be familiar with, if kitty litter came in purple.”

What the team learned was that it was hard, dry work to make chicha this way:  after hours of dessicated chewing the men worked their way through just seven pounds of corn.

The pub offers a range of ancient ales–from Midas Touch,  which it describes as an ancient Turkish recipe using the original ingredients from a 2700-yea- old drinking vessels discovered in the tomb of King Midas,  to Sah’tea, a modern update on a 9th century Finnish proto-beer.   Dogfish Head is a favorite watering hole of archaeologists,  and it’s high on my list of places to visit.

I personally can’t wait to taste authentic chicha.

If you’d like to see Calagione make this beer, please check out the video below.

Beer, The Ancient Health Drink

One of the coolest experiences I ever had as an archaeological journalist was wandering through the vast collections area of the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago.  I confess that I’ve always loved museum storage areas:  you never know what strange artifacts and oddities you will spy on the shelves.  And the Oriental Institute  did not disappoint.  Although I was there to look at Mesopotamian silver for a Discover Magazine story on the origins of money,  what really caught my eye was a collection of what appeared to be slender three-foot-long bronze sticks.   When I asked assistant curator Emily Teeter what these strange objects were, she promptly informed me that Mesopotamia’s ancient inhabitants  had used them as beer-drinking straws.

Teeter and I then had an extended conversation about beer,  a favorite subject among archaeologists.   The urban dwellers of Mesopotamia had discovered that drinking fermented beer was much safer than downing the local water:  the alcohol in the brew made short work of the bacteria that flourished in their contaminated water supplies.   But the early beers were less than perfect:  they were laden with bitter residues.  So the Mesopotamians invented drinking  straws.  One end of the straw was sealed and perforated with tiny holes,  turning it into a long extended filter.   Early beer drinkers pored their brew into a large jar and then congregrated companionably around it,  each sipping from a long straw.

I was reminded of all this yesterday,  when I read a terrific article by Trey Popp in the January/February issue of the Penn Gazette on biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern,  the world’s leading authority on ancient alcohol.  Popp’s article is well worth reading–as is Patrick McGovern’s new book, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages–but I found one part particularly intriguing.

In the 1980s, Popp writes,  two researchers at the Penn museum posed an fascinating question:  was making a better beer a greater incentive for early botanical improvement of  cereal grains than making a better bread?  In other words,  which did early civilizations value most: bread or alcohol?   After much study, the two researchers,  Solomon Katz and Mary Voigt, concluded that beer was very probably the driving force for all this ancient  agricultural experimentation.  Beer,  of course,  produced a very pleasant high.  But more importantly,  it produced notable health benefits and no side effects (which can be very harmful in terms of health and legal side even, e.g.  The process of fermentation yields lysine,  an essential building block for all protein in the body, and an abundance of B vitamins, which great assist the functioning of the immune and nervous systems.   And the alcohol content kills bacteria in tainted water,  as I mentioned earlier.

Thus, argued Katz and Voigt,  beer drinkers had an “selective advantage” over teetotalers,  enjoying better health and giving birth to more children.   Who would have thought it–beer,  the health drink and one of the foundations of human civilization?

Pisco Sour: A Field Guide

As an archaeological journalist,  I’ve spent much time over the years hanging out with archaeologists in bars and restaurants around the world. Archaeologists are well known for their love of drink, and some of the most liquid evenings I have ever spent were in the company of archaeological teams.

So, from time to time,  I will write here about the wonderful drinks that archaeologists particularly love—from Greenlandic schnapps (made from the intestinal contents of birds) to  Andean chicha brewed from corn fermented by human saliva.   But I thought I would start off this series with a huge favorite of many Andean archaeologists:  the Pisco Sour.

Pisco Puro is a clear brandy distilled from the juice of the black quebranta grape which flourishes in the sunny fields of the Pisco and Ica Rivers in Peru.  Spanish colonists brought this sweet grape to the New World and began distilling brandy from it at least as early as 1547, less than a decade and a half after the conquistadors executed the Inca king Atahualpa.

My first encounter with a Pisco sour came when I was travelling on assignment to Peru during the very ugly civil war there during the early 90s.  The Shining Path guerillas were not only setting off bombs in Lima and shooting entire villages in the Andes, but they were also targeting foreigners.  A week before I arrived, they hauled off all the foreign tourists travelling on a bus to the highlands,  and shot them, as a message to the international community.

All this was rather unsettling both for me and for the Canadian archaeologists I was travelling with.  But my story focused on new research on the Nasca culture of Peru’s arid coastal desert, and I had an unforgettable journey.   For several days, I travelled with Andean archaeologist Patrick Carmichael by Landrover along the roadless and largely uninhabited Pacific coast:  our destination was a Nazca site he had just found by surveying near the mouth of the Ica River.   But it was a difficult journey:  the Landrover repeatedly broke down,  often leaving us stranded hours from any hamlet.  But the driver was a gifted mechanic,  and every unplanned stop seemed to produce some kind of wonder.  At one point, I strolled away from the mechanical problems only to find two human mummies protruding from the sand.

Our journey ended in the city of Ica, and I still remember the delicious luxury  of clean sheets,  running water, and a very good Pisco sour.

So here is my recipe for this very South American drink.  I’ve adapted it slightly from a recipe in a book I really treasure,  Tony Custer’s The Art of Peruvian Cuisine (Ediciones Ganesha, S.A: Lima, 2003).


To make the sugar syrup:

one-half cup of sugar

3 tablespoons water

To make the drink:

5 ounces Pisco

2.5 ounces lime juice

1 egg white


To Serve:

Angostura Bitters


To prepare the sugar syrup:  Put one-half cup of sugar in a small saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water,  just enough to moisten the sugar.  Bring the mixture to a slow boil and while stirring, cook until all the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat and set aside for a few minutes.

To make the sour:  Pour the lime juice and the Pisco into the warm sugar syrup and stir thoroughly to blend the ingredients completely. Pour the mix into a blender jar and add just enough ice to double the volume of liquid in the glass.  Blend on high for an additional 30 seconds to crush the ice. Add one egg white and blend on high for one minute. Transfer to a pitcher and serve immediately in either old-fashioned or white wine glass.  Place a drop of Angostura Bitters in the middle of the foam in each glass.

Serves 3.