The first time I heard the Ramones, I was barely into my teens, and was immediately captivated by their simple, straightforward sound and mutant lyrics. It was punk, and something anyone could do if they knew three guitar chords, a basic beat and cultivated enough attitude. The group’s first four albums would lead me down a tunnel into the wild and wonderful world of punk rock that would become a staple of my teenage years. It was immediate, accessible and led to spending hours in my bedroom learning chords and playing along to dubbed cassettes of endless songs on a half busted Sony Walkman.
My point is that everyone has to start somewhere, and Heather Greene’s Whiskey Distilled is the perfect first book for newcomers to acquire. Quite simply: In the last two years of reading and reviewing books about spirits, I do believe this is might be the most accessible and informative introductory guide I’ve come across.
Versatile enough to welcome everyone with easy to follow language and great anecdotes, Greene leaves no stone unturned in covering the basics. But she also takes the reader through advanced concepts such as chemistry and flavor profiles, distinctions between the various whiskies of the world, necessary hardware for cocktail construction, suggested food pairings, and so much more. She takes time to explain, rather than assume or boast about drinking the rarest whiskies in the world, and her writing style brings a warmth and inclusion often missing from books similar in scope.
This is an outstanding, essential guide for anyone getting his or her feet wet on the big whiskey wave, and is worthy of space on anyone’s bookshelf. Plus on top of all of this? Greene gets kudos from actor/woodsmith/sage Nick Offerman on the jacket sleeve. And if it’s good enough for Ron Swanson, it’s good enough for you.
A+ / $19 / [BUY IT HERE]
To say that sake is a poorly understood beverage in the U.S. is an understatement. Never mind understanding the various grades and styles of sake, how to drink it (hot or cold?), and what kind of food to drink it with, there’s the not-so-little matter that most imported sakes don’t have anything written in English on the label.
John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential can’t teach you Japanese, but it can give you everything you really need to know about sake in one slim tome. Just 175 spare pages in length, the book breaks sake down by topic; each chapter is a myth about sake that Gantner is prepared to debunk. Is cheap sake supposed to be drank warm and good sake cold? (Not necessarily.) Is non-junmai sake garbage? (Not necessarily.) Should you only drink sake out of one of those little ceramic cups? (Not necessarily.)
Gauntner’s world of sake is a complex and decidedly confusing place, and even in the end the writer confesses that there are no clear answers to anything in this industry. At the same time, the book works well as a primer for both novices and intermediate sake drinkers who want to know more about this unique rice product. While the book’s design — slim and tall like a pocket travel guide — makes little sense for a topic like this (and, in fact, makes it unfortunately difficult to comfortably read), Gauntner nonetheless does us all a much-needed service by digesting all of this material into one place — and inexpensively, too.
B+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]
Meals inspired by literary works and their authors are popular among home chefs. Now author Tessa Smith McGovern is bringing the notion to cocktails.
Cocktails for Book Lovers is a slim volume of 50 original and classic recipes, each paired with an author and a book they’ve written. Some of these are natural matches — Hemingway and a mojito, Fitzgerald and a gin rickey — while some are a little more structurally modern, like Jane Austen’s concoction of gin, Madeira, and orange juice.
I have to say, a number of the recipes in the book simply do not inspire a lot of passion or interest. Poor Dani Shapiro is saddled with a drink that pairs butterscotch schnapps with Sour Apple Pucker. Matthew Quick, author of Silver Linings Playbook, gets a beer margarita for his troubles. While the history lessons provided on each author provide fun, bathroom-friendly snippets of curiosity, there’s not much of a connection between these biographical tidbits and their respective cocktail recipe. It all adds up to a genial enough diversion, but nothing either a book fiend or a cocktail nut will likely slaver over.
C+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]
The problem here is twofold: there’s perception and then there’s reality. When in the kitchen, I often fancy myself as an avant-garde foodie supreme. I daydream about and attempt to make gastropub delights and fancy myself in the same limelight as my particular chef of idolatry, Homaro Cantu. The results are certainly avant-garde, but just not in a good way. Often my well-intended attempts at something cutting edge would be worthy of inclusion on a Buzzfeed “Nailed it” meme, with friends powering through dishes with puckered faces and compliments in the form of ambiguous grunts and phrases like, “I like how the burnt ends really add a smoky texture to this” (it was a key lime pie).
So when the University of Kentucky Press (full disclosure: I also work for UK. Go Cats.) sent me an advance copy of recipes one can cook with bourbon, I was beside myself in utter delight. The rest of my household, not so much. For everyone would know that the end result would be an assault on their taste buds with a litany of bourbon-infused recipes gone horribly wrong — mutations in a mad scientist’s laboratory who has no right even calling himself a cook.
Thankfully Lynn Marie Hulsman’s book steered me in the right direction courtesy of her straightforward, relatively easy to follow recipes. The bourbon poundcake was devoured by test subjects, as were the bourbon infused marshmallows at a separate potluck. One of my favorite parts of the book was experimenting with different bourbons to get different flavor profiles in the finished product. I’m looking forward to revisiting a few of these to see the difference between Maker’s Mark, Weller, or Bulleit and each brand’s contribution to the end results. (Note: probably best not to use that Four Roses Limited Edition for this adventure.) Novices, experts, and destructive cooks alike can approach this book with confidence knowing that in the end, bourbon makes everything taste better.
A- / $15 / [BUY IT NOW]
The recent trend of nonfiction surrounding historical events in the alcohol world is widely encouraging: It’s a field where much potential and promise for new scholarship is welcome and necessary. With a new pack of young writers establishing themselves for the long haul as historians and keepers of the flame, it is with great hope this groundswell doesn’t cease in the immediate future.
In his debut offering, journalist Bryce Bauer tells the tale of Templeton, Iowa, a community that refuted the early 20th century social structures commonly established throughout small Midwestern towns to band together and achieve success as bootleggers during Prohibition. The story centers around a wily cast of characters such as Otis P. Morganthaler, F.H. Huesmann, and Joseph Irlbeck, names which sound like they would own investment firms or a line of cookies in 2014, but here they each play a role in the town’s survival during one of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times. The whole tale seems to border on the comically absurd, and would make for one heck of a Coen brothers-crafted screenplay.
Bauer’s work is well documented and thoroughly detailed, leaving no doubt that these events really and truly happened (there are some skeptics who deny bootlegging even occurred in Iowa). But one of the best parts of Gentlemen Bootleggers is the level of engagement with which Bauer tells the story. His writing feels effortless; more like a really enjoyable conversation over several drams on a late winter’s afternoon, rather than a starchy, overly annotated tome gathering dust on a library stack. Like Fred Minnick’s Whisky Women in 2013, Gentlemen Bootleggers is a solid debut and hopefully not the last we’ve seen of Bauer on the subject of spirits.
A / $20 / [BUY IT NOW]
Lately we’ve been churning out book reviews at a rather brisk pace, so we thought it would make sense to compile a list pretty much everything we’ve read over the last two years. Titles are linked to our reviews, and purchase links to Amazon are also supplied when available (note: prices may vary between formats and editions).
Shake, Stir, Pour by Katie Loeb A/$16 [Buy]
Craft Cocktails At Home by Kevin Liu A/$9 [Buy]
Cocktails: The Bartender’s Bible by Simon Difford A-/$34 [Buy]
Ice Cream Happy Hour by Valerie Lum A-/$11 [Buy]
Liquid Vacation by P Moss A-/$28 [Buy]
The New Old Bar by Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh A-/$14 [Buy]
Extreme Brewing by Sam Calagione A-/$16 [Buy]
The Best Craft Cocktails by Jeremy LeBlanc and Christine Dionese A-/$15 [Buy]
Market Fresh Mixology by Bridget Albert and Mary Barranco B+/$14 [Buy]
The Home Distiller’s Workbook by Jeff King B+/$9 [Buy]
Poptails: 60 Boozy Treats Served on a Stick by Erin Nichols B+/$12 [Buy]
Savory Cocktails by Greg Henry B+/$12 [Buy]
The Old Fashioned: An Essential Guide by Albert Schmid B+/$10 [Buy]
Alt Whiskeys by Darek Bell B+/$30 [Buy]
The Best Shots You’ve Never Tried by Andrew Bohrer B+/$6 [Buy]
The Big Book of Martinis For Moms by Rose Maura Lorre and Mavis Lamb B/$10 [Buy]
Dr. Cocktail by Alex Ott B-/$13 [Buy]
The Architecture of the Cocktail by Amy Zavatto C/$12 [Buy]
The Signature Series by EGO unrated/$22 [Buy?]
Whiskey Women by Fred Minnick A/$17 [Buy]
Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage by Mike Veach A/$19 [Buy]
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart A-/$16 [Buy]
Uncorking The Past by Dr. Patrick E. McGovern A-/$16 [Buy]
Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly A-/$30 [Buy]
Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch by William Knoedelseder A-/$13 [Buy]
Drinkology Wine: A Guide To The Grape by James Waller A-/$4 (used) [Buy]
Vodka Distilled by Tony Abou-Ganim A-/$23 [Buy]
The Kentucky Mint Julep by Joe Nickell B+/$12 [Buy]
Beam Straight Up by Fred Noe B+/$16 [Buy]
The Curious World of Wine by Richard Vine B/ $15 [Buy]
The New York Times Book Of Wine edited by Howard Goldberg B/$17 [Buy]
A First Course In Wine by Dan Amatuzzi B-/$19 [Buy]
Rating Guides/List Books
Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting A/$19 [Buy]
The World’s Best Whiskies: 750 Essential Drams From Tennessee To Tokyo by Dominc Roskrow A-/$26 [Buy]
The Smart Guide To Single Malt Scotch Whisky by Elizabeth Riley Bell B+/$14 [Buy]
Destination Cocktails by James Teitelbaum B+/$14 [Buy]
The 40 Minute Irish Whiskey Guide by 27Press B/$3 [Buy]
Wine: A Tasting Guide by Marnie Old B/$20 [Buy]
Bordeaux by Oz Clark B-/$23 [Buy]
If you’re ready to turn beets and honeydews into potent potables, have I got a book for you. Now in its second edition, Bridget Albert and Mary Barranco’s Market-Fresh Mixology (first published in 2008) take a seasonal approach to cocktailcrafting. Broken down into the four seasons, the duo emphasizes freshness in everything you’ll be whipping up.
While the number of recipes is sparse (less than 40 by my count), things seem fine until winter, where produce is hardly at its best and Albert and Barranco have you making drinks with avocados and caviar (not kidding). But on the whole these concoctions are festive and fun, with plenty of inspiration to go around even if you don’t want to make the exact drink in the book. And hey, any book that serves a cocktail in a hollowed-out apple instead of a glass is OK by me.
B+ / $14 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]
This is the kind of cocktail book that’s fun for everyone. Novices can flip through and look at the pictures (nearly every drink is shown in full color), and pros can get inspiration from the largely unique concoctions on offer.
In The Best Craft Cocktails, Jeremy LeBlanc and Christine Dionese offer 75 recipes. That’s not a lot, but the ones included are thoughtful and almost unilaterally interesting. Some are spins on the classics like the Corpse Reviver (with Cocchi Americano) or the Mojito (adds elderflower liqueur — nice idea). Others are wholly new concoctions, like the Matcha Hot & Sour, made with Thai coconut milk, chili honey syrup, cardamom, matcha tea powder, and rum. Even if you never make the thing, at least it’s fun to think about.
Now get out there and make some rhubarb syrup!
A- / $15 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]
The Architecture of the Cocktail is a neat idea and an even neater-looking book. Using architectural blueprint-style diagrams, author Amy Zavatto and illustrator Melissa Wood take you through 75 drinks, largely classics with a few modern cocktails thrown in. But rather than include a pretty picture, each cocktail is “designed” in black and white, showing the glass, ice, and the amount of each spirit graphically. The drawing on the cover of the book (right) gives you a better sense of what this looks like.
Nifty look, but completely impractical, it turns out. Trying to use this book to actually mix a drink is an exercise in frustration, as you try to figure out whether diamond crosshatches are supposed to be rum or the the diamond crosshatches with horizontal line overlays are. (This gets super fun with the Long Island Iced Tea recipe, the inclusion of which is grounds for a whole other discussion.)
Where does that leave us, then? Pretty book, short on utility. That might fit perfectly on your bookshelf, but it’s crowded out on mine.
C / $12 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]
Novices will swoon over this handsome, lovingly photographed, generally quite beautiful guide to the basics of the wine world. As the name suggests, this is a first course in wine, and the book dutifully walks through some of the first questions a new wine consumer might have. What different grapes look like, where they’re grown, how wine is made, what to drink with different kinds of wine… that kind of thing. This is the kind of book that trots out the full-page chart of what you call oversize wine bottles (27 liters is a Goliath!), even though anyone reading this book will never encounter wine in that capacity.
There are many, many photos of vineyards in all their glory here… though not much explanation about why the wine lover should care about them (aside from their natural beauty). There are a few pages on offer about viticulture basics, but this is never tied into the art in the book. Similarly, despite copious photos of wine labels (many larger than life), only a few pages give the reader information on how to read them.
Still, for a “first” course in wine, this is a book that at least gets the basics down in a rudimentary fashion. It doesn’t hurt that it looks nice on the shelf, too.
B- / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]