Liquids And Useless Knowledge

May 04, 2021 - 8 min read

On drinking and myths

“The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other." - Orson Welles about Negroni

My hand goes around a low heavy-bottomed glass with a wide brim. I stare through the deep-red liquid it’s filled with. Slowly melting ice cubes look at me miserably from the inside and chill my palm and fingers sending a slight cold wave through my arm to the back of my neck. It's a special sensation. Sitting with a cold drink on a chilly terrace next to the heater can give it to you. To complete the effect my lips kiss a cool glass and let a bittersweet burst of botanicals and citrus hit the tongue, palate, and with fire and cold stream through the throat and settle in my stomach. No, I am not an alcoholic. I just appreciate the ritual.

I first tried alcohol when I was 24. I jumped over shitty drinks, things I would regret doing and things I wouldn’t regret doing; I can count memorable hangovers with fingers of one hand, still don't understand beer, and so on and so forth. Surely, I admit I missed a lot of fun. But starting up late resulted in building up a special attitude towards alcohol, "responsible" in a way.

The first thing I tried was red wine. It was... not that bad as I expected. The event it was accompanied by was more important for me so the dull remembrance of no-name red wine has washed out over the years. But my adult drinking career has started with cocktails, thanks to my ex-colleague and friend, whom I'm incredibly grateful for introducing me to that world. Drinking has become a journey of discovery – new drinks with distinct and unique tastes, and most importantly, myths and stories behind them.

Manhattan is one of the first cocktails I tried and still the most memorable. The most popular story says the drink originated at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the 1870s. Iain Marshall created the original recipe for a banquet hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill. The banquet was successful and the cocktail became popular. However, another story says that a man named 'Black' invented the drink earlier, in the 1860s, at one bar on Broadway. The friend of mine I mentioned told me another version, about the politician whose wife asked him to dilute whiskey with vermouth because she couldn't bear the strength. Now, Manhattan is even a traditional drink on the small island of Föhr in Germany. The story goes that many people from the island loved the drink so much and brought the cocktail back home from the immigration to New York City.

Manhattan has two main ingredients: one part of whiskey and one part of sweet red vermouth, plus a dash of Angostura bitters. The simplicity at its best. The cocktail is still quite strong and has recognisable herbal undertones which you cannot mistake for anything else. It's served in an elegant cocktail glass, with no ice and garnished with a maraschino cherry.

The next cocktail I want to mention (and probably my favourite) is Last Word. The name speaks for itself. It is a strong cocktail for a slow drink and has a really vivid and memorable taste (again). One night, I was sitting at a bar in St. Petersburg with my friends. I asked the bartender to make me Aviation, another cocktail I love, but they didn’t have all the ingredients for it so the bartender suggested trying something new.

Last Word is refreshingly tart and sweet, with a rich bitter herbal aftertaste and cherry flavours. The four ingredients in equal parts play in perfect harmony – gin, lime juice, maraschino liqueur, and the main performer, green Chartreuse, the only well-known liqueur with natural green colour. It's based on 130 plants, herbs and flowers, that only two Chartreuse monks can identify. They are also the only ones who know how to produce the liqueur, supervising its slow ageing in oak casks. A remarkable way of making the remarkable liqueur.

Are those all stories true? Like many things in history they are probably a result of successful marketing and were popularised by someone who wanted to make money. But do the stories make their drinks better? Yes! They matter, like any seemingly useless knowledge that a sommelier tells you about a bottle of fine wine, its history, its unique flavours and tones. They add meaning to a drink and turn it from being just a harmful liquid to a piece of our culture and history.

On etymology and random facts

“Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant.” - Bertrand Russell, ‘Useless’ knowledge

Speaking of “liquids”, my other occasional hobby is digging words’ etymology. I love history in general, and knowing at least an approximate origin and story of something small is a special kind of pleasure. Gradually expanding one’s understanding of a single word expands the understanding of the whole language, even multiple languages at once, and therefore, understanding of culture and life. That’s the belief I’m fond of.

Ah, sorry, so about “liquids”. Did you know that the verb “to liquidate” in addition to its economics matters also has the meaning “to kill someone, wipe out”? For example, instead of “The Terminator” you can freely say “The Liquidator” (oh, hey, T-1000). You might know that fact but you unlikely know that the meaning has leaked into English and other languages from Russian around the 1920s. The word was as widely used by the Bolsheviks and became a cliché. Some notable examples are the campaign of liquidation of illiteracy or liquidation of unwanted social classes. And later in the 80s as the Chernobyl disaster happened, the military personnel who carried the task of dealing with the consequences of the disaster were called The Liquidators.

The word “liquid” itself originated from Latin “liquidus”, which means “fluid”, “clean”, “serene”. From Latin, it got into Italian and then French as liquidation. Up to that moment, it hadn’t had a meaning “to kill”, though. In the 18th century, it got into Russian also with the meaning of “making liquid” and was used in cases such as making a wax liquid or removing chalk from the board to make it clean and ready to use again. Then somehow after a few iterations, it had acquired its modern violent meanings.

Remember the effect when you learn something new and start noticing it everywhere? It always feels odd, doesn’t it? I was reading Andrei Platonov’s “The Foundation Pit” recently. It’s a novel set in the late 1920s in the Soviet Union and tells a highly symbolic story about a group of builders digging an enormous pit for a future socialistic building. At that time, the Bolshevik government was conducting a nationwide genocide against kulaks, wealthy peasants, or simply the people who seemed too capitalistic and not poor enough.

To depict that event, Platonov satirically employs the widely used by Bolsheviks “to liquidate” literally. The order was “to liquidate kulaks”. So in the story families of peasants were put on rafts and sent down the river, practically, to meet their death. People were washed out with water from the communistic world like wax or chalk was washed off the board before.

A realisation of what Platonov does in there stroke me deep. Could you discover that without knowing the etymology of the verb? That might sound like a very niche case but, if you collect hundreds or thousands of such small details, life unfolds from a new angle, a truer one and more vivid. Random facts are the compound interest of learning, I would likely say if I were a popular Twitter influencer.

Another example can be found in Bertrand Russell’s essay ‘Useless’ Knowledge, which is one of the main sources of inspiration for what you’ve been reading last 6 minutes:

“I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them into India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word ‘apricot’ is derived from the same Latin source as the word ‘precocious’, because the apricot ripens early; and that the ‘A’ at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.”

Knowing random facts, myths behind drinks, the etymology of words and so forth, is practically useless. It won’t help you to become conventionally healthy, wealthy and wise. It’s not well-marketed insight porn, nor is it utilitarian knowledge that is supposed to make economical sense and make it easier for you to contribute to social well-being.

It is pure curiosity, often radical, childish and whimsical yet always joyful and deeply human. It is learning for the sake of intellectual pleasure, not for the sake of making more money, self-improvement or acquiring conformist “wisdom”. It is something that you do because you genuinely appreciate it and care about the process, not the result which society makes you want. And it is something I will keep doing.

Like a bee fills wax cells with a liquid sugary substance created from the nectar of thousands of flowers, I will keep asking “why” to indulge my curiosity and fill my brain cells with ‘useless’ knowledge. And one day, it will help me to write another couple thousand words and share them with you.

P.S. Specials thanks to Ajeet Gill and Matt Criscuola for helping me with the draft.

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