How intoxicating beverages shaped history and civilization
Harnessing fire was mankind’s first major step toward taking a seat at the top of the animal kingdom hierarchy. Drinking around the campfire apparently was second.
That seems to be the conclusion in a newly released book, “Drunk. How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.” Therein, author and philosophy scholar Edward Slingerland notes discoveries show the making of alcohol predates man’s invention of agriculture by some 4,000 years. It leads to the conclusion “the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread.”
On this side of the globe, according to “Drunk,” evidence of intoxicating beverages in ancient civilizations in Central and South America go back 9,000 years or more.
“Humans are the only species that deliberately, systematically, and regularly gets drunk,” Slingerland wrote.
Frederick the Great of Prussia threw a royal and well-documented fit upon learning many of his soldiers had taken to drinking coffee instead of beer. He didn’t believe coffee-drinking soldiers could be relied upon.
Soon after becoming president of the United States, George Washington pleaded with Congress to fund public distilleries to supply the country’s new army with all the hooch it needed.
Wine, beer and all sorts of distilled liquors might not have been the building blocks of the civilization or the United States of America, but they certainly were in the mortar. As author and humorist Mark Twain put it: “How solemn and beautiful is the thought that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary — but always whiskey!”
Texas worked very hard at being civilized.
In 1824, Stephen F. Austin founded San Felipe de Austin about 2 miles east of present-day Sealy. It was the unofficial capital of his colony. Four years later, it had a population of 200 people and boasted a hotel, blacksmith shop, three general stores and two taverns.
After 1836, when Texas was under new management, the influence of immigrants from the United States on drinking habits was significant. Not only were there lots of thirsty newcomers passing through — at one point Fort Bend County registered more liquor licenses than all other businesses combined — many arrived with a taste for “fancy drinks.”
Houston was buzzing because of booze, both in businesses and states of mind. In 1838, a store on Main Street advertised cognac, Champagne, brandy, gin, rum, Irish and rye whiskeys along with Scotch. These were in addition to shelves of claret, port, Madeira, hock, Burgundy, Sherry and beers. Hotels had established their own bars that included drinks like mint juleps and toddies.
Galveston, several steps above the muddy, mosquito-infested Houston, made sure visitors and residents of refinement had their own places to swagger and their own drinks to sip. One British traveler arriving by sea was astonished at what he found inside his hotel bar.
English writer, chemist, geographer and ethnologist William Bollaert recorded the drink menu he found by listing cocktails that included Tip and Ty, Moral Suasion, Gin Sling, Pig and Whistle, Smasher, Floater and the Deacon.
Notably, the hotel wasn’t unique in its drink offerings. It simply was competing with dozens of other fashionably trendy saloons, hotels and houses of additional services throughout the region. While Bollaert doesn’t name the hotel he resided in, among the glamorous hotels in Galveston at the time was The Tremont House, opening its doors in 1839.
Many of the cocktails were take-offs of popular drinks found in New York and Boston and can even be found in one form or another being offered today. A sling at the time of Bollaert’s writing was pretty much a toddy made with spirits, sugar and water, but had the addition of grated nutmeg.
The sling has evolved into a complex family of drinks made with citrus juices and other modifiers that can be found at almost any bar. Probably none are more famous than the Singapore sling and the gin sling, but there are many more. In fact, one way to get a taste of Bollaert’s experience is to wander into the Grand Galvez & Spa on the island and order up a Galvez Sling. While the hotel opened in 1911, the physical bar has a much longer Galveston history, and the drink itself recalls an era long gone.
For Galveston, satisfying imbibers remained profitable over the decades. But in 1920, the United States adopted the 18th Amendment — Prohibition. For the next 10-plus years, business was never better.
Galveston didn’t ignore Prohibition. The seaport city embraced it. With the help of look-the-other-way enforcers, establishments selling illegal alcohol became the most-popular go-to destinations in the city. With a ready supply of liquor off-loaded at sea near the port, shelves were full, seats were never empty and the parties weren’t hard to find. People from all over the country came to the island. Gambling added spice to the mixture.
Ending that era was the original Old Galveston Club, which long touted itself as the last of the speakeasies. The club, 21st and Postoffice streets, met the wrecking ball in 1993. Its last purveyor was Santos M. Cruz Sr., once a bartender at the Balinese Room and the man many believe invented the margarita. It also was home to an old mahogany bar brought there from the 1872 version of The Tremont House after the hotel was heavily damaged in the Great Storm of 1900. When the Old Galveston Club was about to be demolished, island-born oilman, developer and preservationist George P. Mitchell restored and placed the bar in what is now the Grand Galvez on the island. It’s on that very bar one can sip the Galvez Sling.
Shane Swope, director of operations a the Grand Galvez, is a fan of the “spirits” that inhabit Galveston’s drinking history. In addition to the Galvez Sling, one might also order up a Ghost Bride or a Jean Laffite’s Treat, two other signature drinks at the historic bar.
“I was honestly just looking for old-time glamour cocktails that may have been popular in the Rat Pack era,” Swope said. “The Ghost Bride is in reference to our “ghost” history and is our most popular cocktail by far, and the Jean Laffite is in reference to Galveston’s vast history of pirates and treasure hunting.”
Man has come a long way since first harnessing fire, but then maybe he hasn’t. In “Drunk,” famed author Jack London is quoted, “The saloon was the place of congregations. Men gathered to it as primitive men gathered about the fire.”
One can hardly go through history without wanting to drink it all in.
The Galvez Sling is a signature take on the 19th-century sling cocktail. It’s served at the historic mahogany bar, restored from the 1872 Tremont House, now at the Grand Galvez hotel and spa property, 2024 Seawall Blvd.
¼ ounce Belvedere Grapefruit Vodka
¼ ounce cherry brandy
Splash of sweet and sour
Splash of club soda
A few dashes of grenadine
In a cocktail mixer with ice, shake the first three ingredients. Strain into a cocktail glass with ice. Top with the club soda and then with a few dashes of grenadine.