A discussion about this on another forum got me thinking. Hypothetically, if the physiological effects of alcohol were not present, would people still enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages? Surely yes, now that we've been conditioned to like it. But I wonder if we found a sample of people raised in a non-alcohol-philic society (assuming there is one), and presented them with a variety of alcoholic beverages, they would enjoy any of them. Whatever they decide, is it despite the taste of alcohol, or because of it?
My guess is they wouldn't enjoy it. Alcohol is poison to us (and most other organisms as far as I know), right? So it would be only natural for us to find the taste offensive.
But on the other hand, fermented beverages also last because of that very same reason. And many people unknowingly took advantage of that fact to preserve beverages - wine, beer, etc. So maybe over the millennia of surviving on alcohol, we (or certain populations) have grown a penchant for it?
For me it depends on the type of alcohol. I love beer... I love the taste of most beers and have since I was a kid taking sips of what my parents were drinking. If beer were non-alcoholic I'd still probably drink it maybe not as often though.
I think that there are and always were few if any societies that didn't have some form of alcoholic beverage. I can't think of one off the top of my head. I don't think humans have conditioned themselves to like alcoholic beverages ... we are opportunists which is why the human diet has such great variety. If it's edible someone somewhere will eat it.
Alcohol is only poisonous in large quantities. Many other things we ingest are either toxic on some level of consumption or the taste mimics other things that are toxic. Nutmeg in sufficient quantities (ingesting a whole nut) can lead to death or abort a fetus yet we still eat that albeit in small quantities. Our ability to taste "bitter" is widely believed to evolved to help us detect toxins. Yet we regularly ingest things that have a bitter taste such as onions, coffee, unsweetened cocoa and dandelions to name a few. Obviously somewhere along the line humans learned that not everything that tastes bitter is really toxic or bad for us in fact many bitter tasting plants are especially healthy for us... and alcohol in small quantities has been found to also be beneficial.
Primates and especially the great apes are as a whole fruit eaters (frugivores), which may be due to the inability to produce vitamin C edongenously. The fruit that is preferred is what we refer to as ripe to over ripe. the distinction between ripe and over ripe is arbitrary but refers to the level of decay the fruit is in and the level of ethanol that is contained in the fruit. Given that several fruits could be consumed on one feeding, the blood alcohol levels would of risen to a level that these animals could of have a pleasurable sensation of drunkenness.
Ethanol is also a very volatile substance with a distinct smell to primates ( http://icb.oxfordjournals.org/content/44/4/315.full ). The smell could be easily sensed and leading primates to a food source. Thereby it is an evolutionary consequence that humans have an attraction to alcohol.
I do love the taste of a nice full bodied shiraz, that said, it was an acquired taste.
I grew up in a very Fundamentalist home - no smoking, no dancing, no swearing, and definitely no alcohol. (My mom who is 88 has never drank any alcohol.) I tried to drink when I was in my early 20's but I never could stand the taste of beer, wine, or liquor. So now I just don't drink.
On the other hand, I didn't like the taste of coffee when I was growing up. I didn't start to drink it until our third baby was born. I needed something to keep me going after being up all night with bottle feeding and diaper changing. Now I really enjoy the smell and taste of a good cup of coffee.
Let me put this as plainly as possible. I don't like beer, wine, or distilled spirits because my society conditioned me to. I literally ENJOY these things. And, yes, they do taste good to me.
Also, while you did mention that alcohol is a poison (along with lima beans, kidney beans, nutmeg, almonds, stone fruits [peaches, cherries, plums, etc.], tomatoes, and potatoes)*, you didn't mention that it's addictive, another reason we like it.
You need to be a little more specific about the ability of alcohol to preserve. It has to be in a certain concentration. Beer and wine will spoil in no time exposed to contaminents in atmospheric air or a few fruit flies (aka wine flies or vinegar flies).
* source for list of poisonous foods.
It's often the case that the dose makes the poison.
Personally, I can't stand the taste of it. Every so often, I'll get some kind of bug up my ass and say, "What the hell, I think I'll pour myself some wine!" and, sure as I write this, I'll take a sip and viscerally shudder as I swallow it...
Can't explain it fully, but it most definitely feels caustic to my throat and I have to fight a gag reflex. I *USED* to say and hold to, "On a super hot day, there's nothing like a cold beer." but now, I say, "How'd you like to see me projectile vomit all over your sweaty t-shirt?"
Unsweetened tea or water for me from now on, please.
Well most alcohol, I don't. But I do really love the taste of vodka. It still needs to be mixed with something. But the combination of that with a coke is very refreshing and amazing to me. MMMmm hehe