By Tom Standage
Walker & Co., New York 2005
The six glasses of the title are six beverages that, the author suggests, had a remarkable influence on human history, to the point that the stories of the six collectively are in effect a pretty good stand-in for a history of human civilization.
Standage's Big Six are beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee and cola, and his gimmick, if perhaps questionable as history, is delightful as narrative.The book is an easy read, full of wonderful anecdotes and just enough history to be educational about more than libations.
For example, there is the story of the 14th century King Charles the Bad, whom medieval doctors tried to cure with cloth wraps soaked in a wonderful recent discovery: distilled wine (i.e., alcohol). Unfortunately, some klutz knocked over a candle, torching the king to a really bad end that some proto-Republican critics of the time said was deserved since Charles had recently raised taxes. The stories in the beer alone could furnish a Super Bowl's worth of beer commercial ideas: beer as wages, beer worshiped as a divine product, etc.
Similarly, distilled spirit rum, may have been even more influential in spreading British dominance. Rum-laced water flavored with sugar and lime fortified British sailors (hence "limeys") while inadvertently also preventing scurvy. This may well have been the crucial edge that let the British navy defeat the scurvy-ravaged fleets of rival powers Spain and France. The rest, as they say, is history.