A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage


Having loved Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, I was sure this was a good time to read this book written in 2005. And yes, it was as wonderfully interesting and informative about these beverages as his earlier book was about the telegraph.

The six glasses have beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola in them. Rather than recount here a history of the world as it relates to these drinks, I will say that the author makes a plausible and entertaining case for the connection between each of these drinks and historical turns. I want to remember the fun bits.

He connects beer making to humans changing from hunter/gatherers to farmers. Beer was discovered when grains, originally gathered, then later grown, fermented and made a nutritious and enlivening drink. Ancient images show people drinking beer using straws to avoid the solids.

And then there was wine. Along with creating “the cradle of western thought,” the Greeks were early wine drinkers and had ritualized drinking parties that involved pleasant, adversarial intellectual discussions. They prided themselves on their “civilized” ways, in contrast to barbarians who drank beer or drank wine in an unapproved way. Much as I appreciate wine, I would say the connection between wine and becoming the cradle of western thought is a tough case to make.

Drinking distilled beer or wine proved to be a more efficient way to become intoxicated and caught on especially in northern Europe where grapes didn’t flourish. These drinks emerged as Europeans were opening sea routes and the horror of trade in sugar, rum, and enslaved people came to be. The word rum comes from rumbullion, a slang term in England meaning a brawl or violent commotion.

Rum replaced the weak beer given to sailors on ships and was watered down. The addition of sugar and lime created the drink known as grog. This drink played an unanticipated role in establishing British supremacy at sea in the eighteenth century by reducing scurvy dramatically. The French sailors drank wine, replaced by whiskey on long voyages, further reducing the Vitamin C they received. This occurred just as the British sailors were becoming more healthy due to the lime.

Then came coffee, long a favored drink in the Middle East; one objection to it in Europe was its connection to Islam. In 1605 Pope Clement was asked the Catholic Church’s position on drinking it. He approved and in 50 years coffee houses appeared. Michael Pollan’s recent piece, Caffeine; How Caffeine Created the Modern World, covered some of the territory in this piece.

The chapter “Tea and the British Empire” recounts the expansion of the power of Britain from the mid-eighteenth century and the role of tea. The British insisted the Chinese have plenty of opium over the objections of the government so that they could have lots of tea. Aargh. The British East India Company. More aargh.

In introducing the role of Coca-Cola, the author tells about the Incas chewing coca leaves for small amounts of cocaine, enabling them to make long treks across the Andes with little food or sleep. In 1855 cocaine was isolated and was used by western doctors to, among other things, cure addiction to heroin. A cocaine-rich drink call Vin Mariani, French wine in which coca leaves were steeped for six months, became popular in the US and Europe and was endorsed by popes, US presidents, and Queen Victoria. A man named Pemberton created a drink that used that formula and added cola extract, made from nuts of the cola plant. The drink lost the wine element and added soda water and financial machinations left it in the hands of Asa Candler in Atlanta.

One last anecdote:  General Zhukov, a Soviet general powerful enough to survive Stalin, took a liking to Coca-Cola during postwar planning sessions. He asked for colorless coke so it would look like vodka; the company obliged and shipped him bottles of it with a Soviet star on it.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker & Co., 2005, 311 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.



  • Am amused by the Zhukof anecdote about colorless cola impersonating vodka. Years ago when I was in a period of alcohol abstinence, I would decorously sip a highball glass of Sprite at cocktail parties; fellow party-goers figured it was gin and tonic.

    • Funny story! The addition of a lime wedge would further the look and improve the Sprite, I imagine. So, Dot, your work persona is coming through!


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