In this post, I discuss how the chemical structure of alcohol lends itself to exceptional drinks.
First, a brief history.
We have had a love affair with alcohol for much of our history. The first definite records of human alcohol production date from 8000 B.C. After that, various cultures alternatively viewed alcohol as a source of nourishment, a preservative, or as a creative and social lubricant, depending on the situation. But although essentially all of humanity had mastered the art of producing alcohol by 1000 B.C., no one succeeded in distilling it into spirits until the 8th century, A.D.
(apparently, Aristotle actually got the basic idea, but only managed to boil wine into water – had he possessed a proper condenser, the he probably could have altered the course of human history.)
Distilled alcoholic beverages took off in the 14th and 15th centuries when shots of spirits were sold in Germany as a “health tonic.” Somehow, no one had the insight that spirits could be mixed with other ingredients to produce a beverage better than its constituents until the 19th century. In other words, nearly five hundred years of human history were wasted.
A note on nomenclature: cocktails vs. mixed drinks
The “cocktail” as we know it today began as a mix of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters. The origins and appropriateness of the term “cocktail” are subject to much debate, but the moniker “mixed drink” suits the libations it describes uniquely well. All cocktails are mixed – no one wants to drink 100% ethyl alcohol.
Water is special
Water is dihydrogen monoxide, or H2O. I will discuss the myriad properties that make water a unique and wonderful chemical in due time. To begin with, water is called the “universal solvent” because it is highly polar.
The oxygen in an H2O molecule has a higher electronegativity than the hydrogen atoms it pairs with. This essentially means that although the oxygen atom shares an electron with each of the hydrogen atoms, the oxygen atom gets a slightly higher share of the electrons’ negative charge. As a result, the oxygen end of an H2O molecule has a negative charge while the hydrogen end is slightly positive. The charge difference between two ends of a molecule defines its dielectric constant. Solvents are considered polar when they have a dielectric constant of 15; water’s dielectric constant is an extremely high 80.
Alcohol is special, too!
Most compounds in nature are slightly polar. For example, common table salt, or sodium chloride, is positive on the sodium side and negative on the chlorine side. Highly polar water rips the two ions apart with ease. However, polar solvents do not readily dissolve non-polar compounds like oils and fats. This is where alcohol comes in.
What we know as alcohol is actually ethanol, ethyl alcohol, ethene, or CH3CH2OH – an organic molecule composed of two saturated* carbon atoms terminated in a hydroxyl (OH) group. Any saturated carbon chain with a hydroxyl group is considered an alcohol. Methyl alcohol (the kind that causes blindness) has only one carbon atom; alcohols with more carbon atoms can be found in some fine spirits (much more on this later).
*in saturated molecules, hydrogen atoms are connected to carbons wherever possible.
Aside from its nutritive and social effects, ethanol’s most important property lies in its polygamous molecular structure. The OH-end of ethanol behaves like water; it is polar with a respectable dielectric constant of 24.55. Ethanol’s carbon chain side, however, has no charge and so will dissolve oils.
Without ethanol, even the mere idea of triple sec would not be possible. The citrus oils that give orange liqueur its distinctive freshness and slight bitter bite would rise to the top of water like an oil slick on the ocean.
It pains me to even think about a society where the concept of prohibition could even be pondered, let alone adopted. Cheap beer and binge drinking give booze a bad rap, but a properly mixed drink creates flavor possibilities that would not be possible using water alone.
An appreciation for classic cocktails has swept the United States since the beginning of the 21st century. As drinkers are beginning to tire of manhattan’s, negroni’s, and martinez’s, bartenders are being forced to find new and innovative ways to make their concoctions stand out. I say keep up the good work, for despite the maturity of the cocktail renaissance, we’ve barely scratched the surface of possibilities that could take the form of craft cocktails.