Today’s alcoholic beverages range from canned Strawberritas to expertly crafted cocktails, but modern bartenders aren’t the first people to invent adults-only drinks. In fact, there are plenty of types of weird ancient liquors that have survived in the historical and archaeological records. These ancient alcohols don’t always sound appetizing, but they’re definitely fascinating.
Beer is one of the oldest beverages still being enjoyed today. The Egyptians were big home-brewers, though their drinks were soupier than most modern imbibers would prefer. The ancient drinks of the Greeks include kykeon, a mysterious barley-cheese beverage. But drinking in the ancient world often involved psychedelics as well. That shouldn’t be surprising; after all, liquor in the ancient world was often used in religious rituals.
Unusual wines, agave extracts, and hearty ales have been enjoyed for centuries. Consider the history contained in that bottle of beer the next time you crack one open.
Throughout ancient texts, “kykeon” might have been a generic word used to describe a potion with magical effects, but it was also often associated with “mysteries,” or covert rites for a particular god. The most famous “mysteries” were the secret rites of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis, where participants downed an unknown hallucinogenic beverage to see visions. Scholars now think it might have been kykeon containing moldy grain, which was specially treated to yield psychedelic effects.
Posca is perhaps the most unusual of ancient Roman drinks. It was just watered-down sour wine or vinegar (created from wine that had gone bad). A beverage for common people and soldiers, this thirst-quencher might not have been the tastiest, but some added herbs to try and improve its flavor. Interestingly, some high-ranking military men chose to drink posca to gain credibility with the average soldier.
Shedeh is a mysterious ancient Egyptian drink whose contents scholars still debate. Was it wine, madefrom pomegranates or grapes, or perhaps blended from both? The term “shedeh” has no translation in modern English, and the only Egyptian text that chronicled how it was made said it was filtered and heated – but the papyrus it was found on was incomplete. Whatever it was, shedeh was apparently a beverage fit for the pharaohs: King Tutankhamun’s tomb contained an amphora of the liquor.
Pulque is arguably the most storied alcoholic drink in Mexico’s history, serving as an ancestor of mescal and tequila. It’s made by fermenting, not distilling, the sap of the maguey plant (AKA agave). It contains a lot of probiotics, and has served many purposes over the years.
In mythology, the milky white beverage was said to have been invented in a lost divine paradise, although humans probably first started drinking it about 4000 years ago. The Aztecs also used it as a religious stimulant.
Soma appears in the Rigveda, a series of ancient religious texts from India. Soma was a plant that produced an intoxicating beverage with a hallucinogenic effect, as well as the god who personifiedboth of these. Soma was seen to be a healer, tied to the moon, and a fertilizing force.
In the Rigveda, soma (the drink) was made by squeezing liquid from the plant’s stalk, which was combined with milk and water. The resulting beverage might have brought worshippers some pretty interesting visions.
The Ancient Egyptians were master brewers. In fact, beer was a staple of their daily diet, providing nutrients to people who didn’t eat a ton of fruits and vegetables. Brewers fermented and bakedleftover grain – maybe barley – with yeast, then strained the mixture to create soupy beer.
Archaeologists have found records of beer that date all the way back to the Predynastic period (around 3100 BCE). Egyptian beer was continually produced for millennia.
Thanks to their conquests and trade, the ancient Romans had access to a lot of great wine. Falernian was considered one of the finest, hailing from Campania in Italy.
According to Pliny the Elder, Falernian wines were thought to be the second-best of all wines. He claimed that Falernian was best after aging for fifteen years. Very high in alcohol content, “it is the only one, too, among all the wines that takes fire on the application of flame,” said Pliny.
Tumulus MM, the giant, man-made tomb of an ancient Anatolian king dubbed Midas, had a lot of beer in it. More specifically, there was a funeral feast laid out in this monarch’s tomb, complete with wooden tables, 157 vessels for drinking, and even ancient beer.
Archaeologists analyzed the cauldrons used at this feast to see what kind of beverage the ancient Phrygians brewed. It was a yummy-sounding mixture of grape wine, honey mead, and barley beer. A modern spin on the recipe is marketed and sold as Midas’s Touch beer.
This ancient Roman spiced wine sounds quite lovely. Sweetened with honey and boiled down, conditum remained a popular alcoholic drink from Roman times into the Byzantine era and beyond. An ancient recipe even survives in a Roman gourmand’s cookbook; this one is recommended for travelers and includes pepper.
The Greek wine retsina is known for its unusual, turpentine-y flavor, which comes from the pine resin present in the alcohol. The resin was added as a preservative. Archaeologists have traced retsina back 3000-4000 years. It remained a popular light wine through the Roman period, and is still enjoyed today.