A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Spirits Symbol Analysis

Spirits Symbol Icon

Spirits have symbolized multiple, contradictory things to different peoples over time. For the Muslims, who refused to drink alcohol, spirits (even more than other alcoholic beverages) symbolized sin and depravity—the violation of Islamic law. Yet for the Americans of the early 1800s, spirits (such as whiskey and bourbon) had an entirely different symbolic meaning: spirits represented strong opposition to the decadence and tyranny of the Europeans, whose love for wine was well known. It is perhaps this second symbolic meaning that the book portrays as the most influential: while whiskey has lost its specifically anti-European overtones, it continues to imply the same rugged masculinity and adventurousness apparent in the early culture of the United States.

Spirits Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The A History of the World in Six Glasses quotes below all refer to the symbol of Spirits. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Walker Publishing Company edition of A History of the World in Six Glasses published in 2006.
Chapter 5 Quotes

It soon became customary for Europeans to present large quantities of alcohol, known as dashee or bizy, as a gift before beginning negotiations with African traders.

Related Symbols: Spirits
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In the early modern era, the European explorers sailed to Africa, the Americas, and Asia. During the course of their expeditions, they traded extensively with the native peoples of these "new" continents. It's disturbing to think that the Europeans made sure to offer their trading partners alcohol before they began their business deals: Standage is clearly implying that the Europeans did so because they thought that intoxicated negotiators would be easier to argue with than sober ones. The Europeans' trading habits suggest that the Europeans saw alcoholic spirits as a weapon, something designed to help them maintain their economic and military control over the world. In all, the quote is a powerful reminder that beverages can control people's behavior, often in direct, measurable ways, and that Westerners often used alcohol to manipulate the people they wanted to exploit. 

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Chapter 6 Quotes

Jefferson did his best to cultivate wines in America and advocated a reduction in the excise duty charge on imported wine as “the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.” But his cause was hopeless. Wine was far more expensive, contained less alcohol, and lacked the American connotations of whiskey, an unpretentious drink associated with independence and self-sufficiency.

Related Characters: Thomas Jefferson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Wine, Spirits
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we're told that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, tried and failed to popularize wine, his favorite beverage, in the newly established United States.

It's important to recognize that Jefferson failed for two basic reasons: wine wasn't practical, and it clashed with the idea of American culture. In the former case, wine was too expensive to import from Europe (the only area of the world where wine could be grown at the time—the California vineyards were centuries away). In the latter case, wine was seen by the American people as a symbol of "old-world" arrogance and snobbishness; in other words, everything that the Americans had started a revolution to escape. The Americans' two basic reasons for rejecting wine (practicality and cultural associations) reflect the two sides of beverages as Standage writes about them: first, the physical processes used to make beverages; second, the stereotypes that arise around beverages as a result of the way they're made, sold, or consumed.

Whatever [the origins of the custom of drinking while trading with Indians], this custom was widely exploited by Europeans, who took care to supply large quantities of alcohol when trading with Indians for goods or land.

Related Symbols: Spirits
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage reminds readers of the dark side of European history. For hundreds of years, European explorers colonized other parts of the world, often using brutal military power to control and even enslave their enemies. Arguably the most important word in this quotation is "exploited." Standage means that the Europeans offered alcohol to ensure that the Native Americans would be almost incapacitated during negotiations, so that they would be able to get great deals for land and supplies.

The quotation is an excellent example of how a beverage can be used for more than just the drinker's pleasure—or rather, how a drinker's pleasure can have serious historical results. The Native Americans' fondness for alcohol, something they'd never tasted before, led them to surrender some of their own land, weakening their position against the European explorers.

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Spirits Symbol Timeline in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The timeline below shows where the symbol Spirits appears in A History of the World in Six Glasses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Vital Fluids
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...we can understand important things about human culture. He singles out six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Each one was “the defining drink during a pivotal historical period.” (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...world. Another drink that became popular as a result of these trading practices was distilled alcohol—“spirits”—such as brandy, whiskey, and rum. Spirits were an important drink during the Enlightenment, and gave... (full context)
Chapter 5: High Spirits, High Seas
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...cure dozens of other afflictions. Aqua vitae was known as “burnt wine,” or, in English, “brandy.” (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...the New World. All of these nations used alcohol to trade with Africa: wine and brandy were accepted forms of currency for slave traders in Africa. As Standage puts it, “brandy... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
On the island of Barbados, colonists experimented with new ways of making spirits, using the new supply of sugar. One new drink, rum, became popular in the 17th... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Drink That Built America
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...products were highly expensive to ship across the ocean. This changed in the 1750s, when rum reached North America from the West Indies. By the end of the 18th century, rum... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
The rum business in North America became so influential that Britain began to tax it heavily. In... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...raising the tax on sugar. Smugglers were punished more harshly, further raising the price of rum. The Sugar Act was the first of a series of highly unpopular acts in the... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...Washington (knowing full well that Americans were rebelling in part because they’d been deprived of rum) made sure to provide all of his soldiers with adequate rations of rum, along with... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Following the Revolutionary War, whiskey replaced rum as the dominant drink in America, in part because the sugar supply flowing... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
The stigma of whiskey following the Whiskey Rebellion led to the invention of new whiskey derivatives, such as bourbon,... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...experienced before their contact with Europeans. Because Americans knew about Native Americans’ love for beer, whiskey, and other forms of alcohol, they used alcohol to “sweeten the deal” when trading with... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...drink that incorporated the fermented juice of the agave plant. For many hundreds of years, spirits were a fixture of colonial life: spirits inspired colonies to rise up against Britain, and... (full context)