My first book review, ‘Boozehound’ was cocktail travelogue. The last one, ‘Imbibe’ was cocktail history and archaeology. ‘How’s Your Drink’ – a reworking of author Eric Felten’s former cocktail columns for the Wall Street Journal – is a marvellous piece of cocktail cultural and literary studies.

That isn’t to say that How’s Your Drink: Cocktail Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, is dense and academic. Far from it. It’s a breezy yet educated read which, much like ‘Boozehound’, mixes great writing about the subject with related cocktail recipes (about 50 in all).

Felten has a lot of the history of the drinks, but it’s certainly a cultural history, heavy on the interesting anecdotes, and peppered with scores of references from literature and film – a touch that I adore – from James Bond to John Updike to The Thin Man to Philip Marlowe. For example, quick pop quiz, what is the first drink James Bond orders in his first novel – a Vodka Martini (shaken not stirred), right? No, it’s an Americano (Campari, Sweet Vermouth and Soda), and he also drinks Gin and Tonic, Enzian, Ouzo, Raki, Old-Fashioneds, Bourbon and Branch, his own signature drink the Vesper, and even a Miller Beer.

Eric Felten

There’s great stuff in this slim 200-page volume; stuff that when researching drinks for this blog I was unable to find anywhere online. I love his comments on the ridiculous gender stereotyping of drinks (I mean “Ladies’ drinks” – what is this? Victorian England?) and his rhapsodic writing about his favourite bar, Blair’s Blue Room, really makes me want to go there. Where is it? You’ll have to read to find out.

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Imbibe! (Book Review)

May 6, 2012

While my last reviewed book, ‘Boozehound’, was a breezy travelogue through the land of spirits and mixed drinks, ‘Imbibe!‘ by David Wondrich, is a history and an archeology that land.

‘Imbibe!’ tries to do so many things that I admit to being slightly confused about Wondrich’s purpose at first.

Here’s what the book is:

1. A brief history of celebratory bartender Jerry Thomas, who wrote the first published bartender’s guide, or book of cocktail recipes, and his times.

2. A reprinting and interpretation of the recipes in Thomas’ book and others that came soon after.

3. A passionate history of the cocktail and its forerunners up to and through prohibition.

Jerry Thomas was an incredibly successful bartender at a time when (Wondrich suggests) bartenders were giants amongst men in hard-drinking America. In 1862 he published what was the first ever collection of drinks recipes (cocktails were a new drink at the time, so it’s not strictly speaking a cocktail book), ‘How to Mix Drinks: or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion’, which you can download for free here.

Wondrich paints a colourful picture of the ‘sporting fraternity’ – fans of horse racing, boxing matches and the like – and their natural milieu – the bar. The tone is scholarly but far from dry. This book is the fruit of serious research, but it’s an extremely fun subject, full of great stories and anecdotes. Wondrich also tries to get to the bottom of where certain drinks and names (such as ‘cocktail’ and ‘martini’) came from.

The next section of the book, and the largest, consists of a history of the development of the mixed drink from punches to cocktails. This includes history, stories and the recipes themselves, all taken from either Thomas’ book or those of other authors who came soon after him.

But what really makes this book indispensible to a serious cocktail hobbyist is the way Wondrich provides a ‘key’ to decoding these recipes and making them into decent drinks.

After a brief survey about how bartenders would have made the drinks back in the day, he explains how we can make them now, and how we can do so in a way that makes the drink fairly authentically in the style that it would have been made in the 19th century. He explains what is meant by unclear references to various spirits and what brands or substitutes we can use now. He translates odd measures like the pony and the wineglass. He explains how to buy or make other ingredients such as bitters or syrups. He covers mixing equipment, glassware, sugar and ice.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a recipe for a Clover Club Cocktail as it appeared in an old bar book:

Juice 1/2 lemon

1/2 spoon sugar

1/2 pony raspberry

1/4 pony white of egg

1 jigger gin

Shake well. Strain.

‘Imbibe’ explains that the 1/2 spoon of sugar should be 1/8 oz (modern teaspoons are 1/6 oz; they used to be 1/4), that the 1/2 pony raspberry is 2 TSP raspberry syrup (and teaches you how to make it), that the 1/4 pony of egg white should be 1/4 oz, and that the jigger of gin is 2 oz of what is late enough to be Plymouth or London Dry (and that earlier recipes should be made with Old Tom when gin is called for, and even earlier ones with Genever).

Finally after reading through the recipes (and hopefully trying a few) you get a good idea about how mixed drinks evolved into cocktails and then started moving in directions that would take them well beyond the original definition of the word. Before the ‘cocktail’ there were (and occasionally still are) plenty of other drinks with their specific names. But even bartenders of the time disagreed somewhat about what exactly constituted what drink. Wondrich kind of synthesises and simplifies it a bit, but I found it very useful.

Here’s my little summary:

Punch: spirits, sugar, water, citrus (and other fruits), spices

Collins: spirits, sugar, soda, ice, lemon

Fix: spirits, sugar, water, lemon, fancy fruit garnish

Sour: spirits, sugar, water, ice, lemon

Daisy: spirits, sugar, soda, ice, lemon, orange cordial

Fizz: spirits, sugar, soda, lemon

Rickey: spirits, soda, lime

Cobbler: sherry, orange, sugar, ice

Egg nog: spirits, sugar, milk, egg

Toddy: spirits, sugar, hot water

Sling: spirits, sugar, cold water, ice

Julep: spirits, sugar, water, ice, mint, fruit garnish

Smash: spirits, sugar, water, ice, mint

Cocktail: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters

Improved and fancy cocktails: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters, liqueurs

Crustas: spirits, sugar, water, ice, bitters, liqueurs, citrus

(And then the fruit comes back even more and along comes Vermouth and soon anything goes!)

Conclusion

I don’t doubt that if a vote were held, ‘Imbibe!’ would easily win as the most informative book about cocktails and mixed drinks around. David Wondrich is a huge presence in the modern cocktail scene, and every serious cocktail hobbyist or bartender who hasn’t read this yet has it on their list. It’s a must read.

Boozehound (Book Review)

April 24, 2012

‘Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits’ is a great book by Jason Wilson, spirits columnist for the Washington Post.

You can read some of his columns here. They’re pretty good. Excellent in fact. But the book is much better. I’d go so far as to call it my favourite cocktail/spirits book.

I’m something of a failure at being a boozehound myself. I have neither the time, budget, or inclination to become a complete pisshead. But I am passionate about good cocktails, spirits and liqueurs, of late. So when I can’t actually mix a drink, I’ll read about them. And for every bottle I buy there’s ten more that I can’t afford, and another half-dozen that I can’t even find. So reading these books is kind of like booze porn for me.

Jason Wilson has no such problems. Thanks to his job he gets to travel the world tasting expensive beverages and sampling rare and expensive vintages. And he writes about it for our vicarious enjoyment.

It’s like travel writing for booze.

Wilson’s book is not just a collection of his columns, either (unlike the work of another spirits columnist that I’ve read). He has taken his material and worked it into not only topics, but what really feels like a narrative – a journey through booze.

And the good points keep coming. Best of all, he adds half a dozen or so cocktail recipes at the end of each chapter, related to the spirits and liqueurs he has been discussing.

Being about the rare and obscure, there’s a certain obsession with Italian bitters, aperitif wines and expensive eau-de-vie that I can never hope to acquire here in Taipei, but there’s also a good coverage of the basic vintage cocktails re-popularised by the classic cocktail movement, and good basic spirits that you’ll find anywhere. Discussions and recipes range from things everyone knows like Martinis and Manhattans, to the rediscovered pre-prohibition new-old classics like the Aviation and the Martinez, to new drinks like the Boris Karloff and the Agavoni. And much more in between.

Wilson is self-effacingly modest and very funny. He somehow manages to take his self-professed cocktail geekdom very seriously while at the same time laughing at taking it seriously. He takes shots at both the marketing of endless variations of flavoured vodka on the one hand, and ultra-hip exclusive cocktail joints that won’t, on principle, even sell vodka, on the other hand.

As someone just getting into this whole new cocktail scene, I found Wilson’s book not only extremely informative and entertaining, but also very inspiring, making me want to try all these different obscure drinks.

Boozehound gets the big thumbs up from me!

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