Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Extraordinary Popular Libations and the Madness of Crowds


“Men it has been well said,  think in herds; it will be seen they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly and one by one.” ~ Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852)

In the early 19th century Charles MacKay examined how groups of people could quite spontaneously develop a communal form of self-delusion, or even madness.  If one were to sit at a bar over a period of hours and observe, from the early fluctuation of post work cocktail sippers to the rowdier crowds of late night, one might see a transformation as  fantastic as that of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.  The later the hour grows, the more the madness sneaks into the crowd, like a contagion passed – usually in liquid form – from one person to another.  It will start out innocently enough, and the first to succumb rarely expects to as they are in the safe confines of their group of friends.  But that is how the madness works, by eluding us into believing there is strength in numbers.  The truth is we would have been safer drinking on our own.

The inner workings of a bar make a fascinating subject on its own, for it is not only the people involved who write the story of a given evening, but the spirits chosen and the method of their consumption. If a man steps up to a bar and orders a glass of whiskey, he will usually do so only for himself, or at most, one or two of his companions.  However, if the same man steps up to the same bar and orders a tequila shot, additional shots will be order for every member of his party and potentially all those standing close by.  The effect of the tequila is cumulative not only in quantity, but also in company.  In this case it is not so much the spirit as the manner of its delivery that leads to the madness.  On its own, tequila must be handled with care, but as anyone who has sipped tequila from a snifter versus taking it from a shot glass will attest, the latter produces a more produced effect than the former.  Furthermore, shots taken without company are frowned upon by most of society, while shots taken in quantity and company are a cause for celebration, and usually more shots.  In fact, there seems to be an inverse bell curve produced by the relationship between the level of madness and the size of the spirit delivery vessel.  If one were to plot the level of madness on a vertical axis and the size of the drinking vessel on the horizontal axis, the resulting graph clearly shows that a shot glass (smallest vessel) produces a large amount of madness. As we move to the middle of the horizontal axis (rocks glass) the level of madness decreases before resuming its uphill trend as vessel size increases (highballs and growlers).  I consider this scientific, mathematical proof of part of my theory.

Inverse Bell Curve

In addition to the manner of delivery – independent of the proof of the spirit – certain cocktails also produce a varied effect of individuals as opposed to larger groups.  Crowds just don’t get crazy on a gin fizz. Martini’s do not produce the same effect on man and woman as do margaritas.   I have occasionally seen a group of women get buck wild over a large number of Cosmo’s, but not for a few years.  It seems that craze is now passe’, and s0 “Sex In The City”.  This would appear then to be a psychologically induced phenomena, whereby the probability of madness making an appearance is in proportion to the reputation of the cocktails consumed.   Margaritas and White Russians, nearly always, equal madness when consumed among others.  Bloody Mary’s on the other hand, historically seen as a restorative, are rarely blamed for any resulting madness, although they are perfectly capable of forestalling the complete return of one’s senses until the last possible moment.  In this case then, the ebb and flow of a cocktail’s popularity and reputation for producing madness results in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.  If one expects to go mad, one will.  But one need not expect to go mad in crowd, however the odds are greatly increased.

On one point I will digress from MacKay, for when it comes to drinking I think men are more likely to roam solo, while women almost invariably travel in herds.  A woman walking into a bar unaccompanied is a rare sight, and such a woman will rarely remain alone for long. for whether she desires company or not, company will appear none the same.  Drinks will be offered or ordered, and sometimes even enjoyed.  Much more common is a group of women entering a bar accompanied by cries of “Whoo whoo!” announcing their arrival, or if companions are already present, much squealing, hugging and pattering about.  This description applies primarily to woman of a specific age group who, being young, travel in larger herds to reinforce the illusion of protection from predators.  A more mature group of woman are at equal risk of developing madness, but usually the herd is smaller.  I mean in no way to suggest that men do not also travel in herds – and those of a younger age certainly do so regularly – I merely comment that men do not suffer the social stigma of drinking alone.  The rarest of situations is when two individuals – both non comes comitatus – meet and enjoy drinks on their own, thus avoiding the onset of madness induced by larger gatherings and hopefully any untoward financial transactions in the process.  This would then seem to be the proof needed that the larger the herd, the greater the madness.

We have thus seen how madness is largely a function of crowds and that individual spirits and libations are only indirectly responsible.  Furthermore while drinking vessel size plays a role, the presence of certain vessels such as shot glasses is also a function of the presence of a corresponding crowd.  So while an artist can, and often does, go made in isolation, the casual drinker (as opposed to one with a medical dependency) will nearly always do so in the reinforcing and reassuring confines of their own herd, or another herd which has adopted them for the evening.  I offer two final proofs of my theory – the mint julep and the margarita.  Having been born and raised in Kentucky I can assure you that nowhere in the state – or even the country – will you find someone in isolation enjoying a mint julep on Derby Day. It’s consumption is exclusively relegated to communal gatherings, and the larger the crowd, the greater the ensuing madness.  This explains much of what goes on in the Kentucky Derby infield.  And while the Margarita on Cinco de Mayo can be enjoyed while solo, it seems to inevitable contribute to the outbreak of a crowd or at least a that person’s attempt to venture forth and find one.  In both cases, madness often follows.  How then, does one avoid the loss of one’s senses?  By drinking alone or in very small groups from medium size drinking vessels.  Otherwise, the madness might take you.

DISCLAIMER: This analysis was produced while working alone in my office and sipping a fine Kentucky bourbon, while the idea itself was born out of an evening of tequila shots in a bar with a group of friends.  One need not be outside of reality in order to recognize its existence.  ~ NTH


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