Alcohol is a two sided beast, and hence no doubt an admirable mirror to explain humans. On the good side it produces relaxation, conviviality and a party but the dark side then involves violence, liver damage, and a nice night in a concrete cell. It has been the invention of Gods and derided as the invention of the Devil. While – so far – a human invention, it travels the paths of time and space in fiction.
Alcohol has been with us for some time – with evidence of beer 10,000 years ago. Wine was being produced by 7,000 years ago. The basic process is to produce ethanol by fermentation of grains, fruits, honey, tree sap, or vegetables. Fermentation is started with natural or introduced yeasts which act on the natural or added sugars to produce alcohol. Some spirits induce fermentation by chewing the grain – the Peruvian chica with corn. It can be then further concentrated and produce spirits.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_alcoholic_drinks)
Once produced, it can be used in many ways. Certainly drinking, but also as a medical disinfectant or a medicine with the addition of herbs. Apparently boiling wine with salt increases the flammability of the vapours. Over time, this grew from ‘flaming water’ to ‘the water of life’ in alchemists labs. As with sugar, it’s bad qualities were not discovered for some time.
As with many enjoyable things, alcohol gets regulated by politicians who can spot a tax opportunity, and also religion, who can equally spot a way to make people feel guilty. The Prohibition of the 1930’s not only led to fairly poisonous bootleg brews, it also encouraged people to experiment with other drugs.
As with boiling water for tea, brewing water to make alcohol also reduces water contamination. So for many people, weak beer is a good source of clean water, as well as vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.
Drinking has it’s own culture and rules. Drinking age and gender based drinks. I don’t think Conan would order a Fluffy Duck cocktail unless it was renamed Blood of Your Enemies and served in a skull! Drinking games, pub crawls, giving it up for Lent and the sun’s past the yardarm are all ways society regulates drinking. Other cultures consider alcohol the gift of the Gods, or have a God devoted to drinking and excess.
So how does it make it’s way into fiction? For historical fiction, the author has a plethora of ways to use it. The type of drink has been used as a class indicator – a madeira instead of gin for a Regency romance. Make sure you use the right type of glass in the fifties! A sixties hippy or a genteel maiden aunt making home brewed herbal wine. Women were the original brewers, so there is a story in that tidbit of history! (https://theconversation.com/women-used-to-dominate-the-beer-industry-until-the-witch-accusations-started-pouring-in-155940#. ) One interesting account is in ‘Ghost Fox’ by James Houston, which details birch beer, using birch leaves and sap and using rotting meat as the fermenting source.
Fantasy also can make use of historical brews. Ale, beer and wine, but also mead can be speciality brews of particular species or locales. It is hard to think of dwarves without also thinking of beer and drinking songs involving gold, thanks to Terry Pratchett. We can also thank him for scumble, a suspicious drink made ‘mainly from apples’ but a potent brew. Fantasy also brought us butterbeer and fire whiskey as warming draughts in Harry Potter, as well as a more genteel gilly water. And don’t forget the hobbit growing Ent draught. Given the wide base of ingredients that can be used, a drink can be invented to suit the people, economy, and climate.
Science fiction is probably the winner in drink inventions. Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster from The Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy. Syrian Panther Sweat was the preferred drink of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison. Addictive and simultaneously repellent Slurm in Futurama. One interesting variation was the sour milk in Alien Nation which produced an alcoholic effect on the alien arrivals. Star Trek has given us blue Romulan Ale and Klingon Bloodwine. And let us not forget the green Thala-siren milk that apparently sustained Luke Skywalker in a somewhat revolting milking scene. I don’t know if it was alcoholic, but it should have been. Using engineering equipment to distil bootleg alcohol is an engineering room perk.
Dystopian writers might use home brewing or the long history of moonshine making. Good moonshine would be an alternate currency in a world that barters. Colonial Australia had a vibrant secret rum trade which saw people make fortunes, only to lose their money and position when the government changed. Home brewing could be a community activity, from sourcing grains to bottling and trading. The movie ‘The Great Escape’ had a good practical demonstration of a use for potato peels to make vodka, cheering up a prison population.
So from a discovery of fermented grains 10,000 years old, to the alien brewed bloodwine, a simple drink has come a long way. Drinkers as well as authors are limited only by their imagination. For some, drinking and writing are a companionable mix, although I suspect editing has to be done sober.
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