Content Warning: Booze! And we kinda talk about drugs a bit?
Also, I don’t know anything about booze!
We talk about cultures in fantasy countries all the time. It’s one of those things about worldbuilding, and the lens you use to look at culture can be often divided into a bunch of interesting groupings. For example, the ways that different countries transport material around can reflect the kinds of things they’ve built to make or do. Sometimes we talk about cities, about architecture, about supply lines, about language, about geography and rivers, about sports or organisations.
Often, we talk about food.
Often, when players ask about food, inevitably, someone talks about booze, and then inevitably, every setting features discovering that this little fantasy town has a type of booze, and that booze absolutely is the strongest booze that the players have encountered. It’s also often described as foul and it’s a comedy thing or a toughness thing about demonstrating a character’s capacity to drink this foul booze, or the foolhardiness of some friendly character taking a swig and getting smashed.
I have learned that in almost every single setting, this drink exists, and in almost none of them does it make sense. I think at one point, I used ‘Gutshaker’ to describe it. More than a few settings have borrowed ‘scumble,’ which is essentially just moonshine. There’s Ryncol, from Mass Effect, the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Klingon Bloodwine in Star Trek. Science fiction delights in this too because you have alien biologies to work with but there’s a problem that tends to come up when people talk about these in the context of ‘just stronger than anything you’ve encountered before.’
See, alcohol is a chemical. That chemical interacts with human (and humanlike) bodies and has byproducts on the body systems and the brain. And there is actually such a thing as ‘the strongest possible alcohol.’ We have it. It exists. When we talk about ‘proof’ there used to be a really weird measurement that related to soaking gunpowder and burning it, but these days we just use the simple measurement of ‘Percent Alcohol By Volume.’ Rather than having a measure of alcohol potency that goes from like, 40 (below that being impossible to really be sure) to 180ish, we now just say ‘of this given quantity of liquid, how much of it is alcohol?
And if that number is 100, then that means literally what you are holding in your glass is 100% alcohol. That’s it. That’s as strong as it can get. And you may say ‘well, this stuff is like that,’ and okay, then the thing is, that’s not as spooky a thing as you may imagine. Everclear, for example, is about 95% alcohol. Pure ethynol is 100% alcohol, but there are niche alcohols you can buy here that are in that 100% range and the gap isn’t that meaningful. Oh, I know, chemist friend, you are going to tell me that absolutely, absolutely, it does matter, but it’s not the gap between ‘human alcohols’ and ‘fictional fantasy alcohols’ that storytellers tend to lay out.
Simply put, if your main thought is ‘it’s alcohol, but moreso’ then that exists, people already buy and drink it and it might even be the national drink of a country of millions of people. I’ve heard tell that Finns drink ethanol, but you know, I heard that from Finns, so maybe they were pulling my leg.
This is not to say that you can’t really mess someone up with something they pour into a glass because their body isn’t ready for it. It’s not even to say you can’t make something people buy and are used to in a bar situation that results in completely messing up a stranger trying it. The thing is, there are simply limits on what humanlike bodies can get out of alcohol.
But, and this is the thing, alcohol is a psychoactive drug. Like, we don’t treat it like it’s a drug, but that’s what it does. So when you start looking at fantasy cultures and their booze, and you want to introduce something that completely flattens a stranger or newcomer, here are a list of ideas I’ve put together that don’t require you to do anything magical per se.
- The alcohol has other psychoactive components, think like weed or LSD, and the alcohol lowers your ability to differentiate those effects
- The alcohol has some other extraordinary flavour component, like being profoundly bitter or sour. Think like the flavourant we add to soaps to stop people from drinking them.
- The alcohol has a potent aftertaste, much in the same way that a lot of chilli flavours burn in the throat rather than the mouth, this alcohol may go down reasonably easily but leave someone with an awful aftertaste only abated by other drinking.
- The alcohol may not be alcoholic in the mouth or seem it, but once it hits the stomach and starts being digested, the alcohol hits, meaning it’s easy to drink more than you can handle.
- The alcohol has some component that reacts in the drink, so it aerosolises, which means just being around the alcohol can get you drunk.
- The alcohol is fortified in some way with a painkiller or otherwise analgesic, meaning your reaction to your own experience of getting drunk is dulled.
Look, I said it: I don’t know anything about booze. And that’s a problem for world building, because not knowing anything about booze is actually like, not knowing a thing about a major, structural component. It’s worth researching (and I have some notes from my world), because it seems that humans were making alcohol since before there were humans. Like there’s a nonzero chance that alcohol predates things like stews.
Plus, you can just look up cultures in similar geographic spaces and go ‘how do these people get drunk.’ Because everywhere has people doing that.