Drinking in Your World: Avoiding Alcohol Abuse for Writers

Note: This series has turned out so bloody long that I’ve cut the blog versions sharply. I was going to make an ebook out of the full articles, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet. –Leona

In America, we take for granted that a nearby store will offer glossy, gleaming shelves holding glass and metal containers of ruby, emerald, and sapphire; they come slim and sleek or chunky and oddly shaped, with colorful or demure labels, all glistening under fluorescent lights, many conveniently refrigerated. I am, of course, referring to alcoholic beverages. And it’s very easy to take a great deal for granted when writing a scene involving alcohol, but as with any other subject, generic assumptions are generally wrong.

For example, a sailor swaggering into a generic tavern and ordering a glass of rum seems perfectly reasonable. However, in our real world, rum was only developed fairly recently (seventeenth century); it did not exist during the Middle Ages or in medieval times. Even more important, rum is based on sugar cane syrup. If there aren’t any sugar cane plantations in your fictional world, there isn’t any rum. And if there are sugar cane plantations in a low-technology world, there probably ought to be slaves to run them; otherwise the price of rum will be so high as to make exporting it impractical, and it would only be a local drink, not one bought hundreds of miles away on another continent by a rough sailor.

And speaking of sailors, assuming that your world is advanced enough to have rum and unethical enough to have slaves, almost anything liquid imported from overseas was expensive enough to make further transport overland even more impractical (it’s a matter of load weight and limited space), so a generic tavern set in the middle of a continent, far from any ocean, wouldn’t stock rum–or, probably, most imported drinks–either.

What would a generic Middle Ages tavern stock, then? Probably ale (not lager!) and wine, but they won’t much resemble what modern shoppers can buy at the local Seven-Eleven at one in the morning. Beer began its journey thousands of years ago to arrive at today’s sleek, dark bottles by way of a bowl of fermented gruel. It must have taken great courage to drink the frothy mess, and probably a few serious hunger pangs as well. It probably wasn’t the first intoxicant discovered; on hot days, water with honey ferments readily into mead, and fruit juice into wine. But beer, as humanity slowly settled down and began cultivating crops, was easier to both reproduce and to store than any other option; when harvesting grain, some could be held aside and stored until needed.

Interested? Read the full (and rather long) article on my web site.


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