Since we are looking at the first sign in John’s gospel this Wednesday (the wedding at Cana – John 2:1-11), I know the topic of Christians and alcohol is going to come up.
Christians who abstain from alcohol have often tried to insist that total abstention was the practice of Jesus and the disciples. Obviously the miracle at Cana poses a bit of a problem-after all, would Jesus have turned water into wine if he thought it was wrong to drink it? Add to that the fact that no one at a wedding in those days would have drunk anything except wine, so we must assume Jesus himself drank, (not to mention the elements at the Last Supper).
In the past some teetotalers came up with the “two-wine theory,” claiming that some of the biblical words translated “wine” in fact referred to non-fermented grape juice. It is an interesting idea, but not a true one. In ancient times, with no refrigeration, grape juice had a way of turning into wine rather quickly, and when the Bible says “wine,” it really does refer to alcoholic wine.
The Bible does have some harsh words to say about drunkenness, notably in Proverbs, but then again Proverbs also advises, “Give strong drink to him that is ready to perish, and wine to those that are of heavy hearts” (Proverbs 31:6-7). In the age before pain relievers and anesthetics, alcoholic beverages really did have medicinal value. Wine was also the only real disinfectant available for cleansing wounds, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
It is worth noting, however, that people in ancient times, not only Jews but the Greeks and Romans as well-generally drank their wine diluted with water, so ordinary table wine was about half the strength of wines today. Even the pleasure-loving Romans mocked heavy drinkers who insisted on having their wine undiluted.
Today there is also a distillation process that is different from natural fermentation. I discovered that in fermentation, you’re allowing the natural processes of living things (like yeasts) to produce alcohol. There’s a limit on how high a concentration you can produce this way. Alcohol is a metabolic poison, so increasing concentration tends to kill off the micro-organisms producing it. I read that you can’t get much more that 15 proof (7.5%) from natural fermentation.
In distillation, you’re using heat to increase the concentration of alcohol by driving out the water. I am not aware of any alcohol limit on that method, except patience. Even if there is a limit, it must be higher than the limit on fermentation. So, distillation can produce a more potent wine.