The John Barleycorn Challenge

The John Barleycorn Challenge is a playful look at Jack London’s writing about alcoholism in his novel John Barleycorn. The project examines what would happen if one were to treat the text of John Barleycorn as a drinking game, taking a dose of alcohol every time the words “John Barleycorn” appear. Spoiler alert: this usually does not end well.


Now while I love Jack London—and while I certainly don’t wish to make light of his alcoholism or alcoholism more broadly—I do enjoy looking at text from different perspectives, be it translating Moby-Dick to into color or plotting the number of exclamation points in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. And reading John Barleycorn, after a few chapters I began to notice just how often the words “John Barleycorn” appear. “Hmm,” thought I, “wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic if I were to take a shot of whisky every time our good grainy friend here drops in for a visit?”

It turns out that “John Barleycorn” appears some 212 times in the novel’s 65,000 or so words, with a fairly even distribution throughout—although there are certainly a few sprees and dry spells. Using the The John Barleycorn Challenge website, you can explore how just such a scenario would play out. The site allows you to configure:

Blood alcohol content calculations are based on this paper from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The current model has a few key limitations:

Still, even though the model is greatly simplified, it’s probably best not to try the whiskey version of the John Barleycorn challenge at home, or really anywhere for that matter unless you are morbidly obese and have the constitution of Jack London, or are content plodding along at a leisurely 10 words per minute. Normal readers should stick with sips of wine or swigs of beer.