Book Review: The Drunken Botanist

DRUNKEN BOTANISTIt only came out last year, but Amy Stewart’s incredibly obsessive-compulsive tome, The Drunken Botanist, has already become a staple of the spirits obsessed.

The idea is deceptively simple. Whatever you drink — Scotch, rum, tequila, vodka — has its origins in the earth — barley, sugar cane, agave, potato (or whatnot). Where do these plants, fruits, and vegetables come from? What makes them different than what we put on the table? And (of course) can you grow your own?

Stewart is deep in the rabbit hole on this stuff, taking you through the botanical origins of, say, the tamarind, describing how it grows and where, and how it’s used in beverages. Tips for growing your own plants — typically herbs and spices — are proffered, and Stewart of course peppers the text with plenty of cocktail and flavored syrup recipes.

Easily digested and broken up into natural chunks, The Drunken Botanist is both easy to jump in and out of while also making a fantastic reference. What’s lemon verbena, anyway? Mauby? Myrrh?

I won’t spoil the answers.

A- / $16 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Craft Cocktails at Home

craft cocktails at homeAs food has evolved beyond grilled steaks and baked potatoes, so have cocktails. It’s now common to see bar menus stuffed with cocktails that involve homemade tinctures, smoke, infusions, foams, pearls of goo, and god knows what else. Molecular mixology is a real thing, and it’s come to the masses.

Kevin Liu’s book, Craft Cocktails at Home, is not about molecular mixology. The illustration on the cover and tagline — Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-Pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science — may trick you into thinking otherwise, but don’t be fooled. This is a book about using modern techniques, intelligence, and good old brute force into making your cocktails the very best they can be. Trust me, you’ll want to read it whether you’re a home tinkerer or the main stickman at a four-star joint in Manhattan.

For the bulk of the book, Liu covers the basics. The very, very basics. Mainly, he looks at the stuff you never, ever, not once thought about and explains why it makes a difference in your drink.

For example, did you know: In blind tests, people overwhelmingly prefer the taste of four-hour-old hand-juiced lime juice to just-hand-squeezed lime juice? (Even four-hour-old machine-juiced limes were preferred over the fresh stuff.) Liu guesses at why in the book. — but the point is this: The guy is testing how old your juice is and what tastes better.

As well, Liu looks at simple syrup recipes to find the best mix of sugar to water, examines how different types of glasses chill in the freezer, and how much a “dash” really is (it matters!). He even shows you how to make homemade mineral water. Charts and graphs abound.

The end of the book is devoted to 65 cocktail recipes, “hacked,” including some spins on the classics (Why drink a Manhattan watery and warm-ish? I won’t ruin the fun…) and some that border on the molecular. I wish there were more of them — and for the second edition, I’d like to request color photos, too.

Buy it!

A / $9 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The Home Distiller’s Workbook

home distillers workbookFirst things first: This stuff is totally illegal. You can’t distill moonshine, whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, or anything else at home. It is quite dangerous in many ways. If the still doesn’t explode, you could always poison yourself with methanol. Or you could get killed in prison. (Unlicensed still raids are a real thing.)

Still determined? Jeff King is your friendly pal who can guide you through the process of setting up a still and making just about anything. Through 85 pages of Arial-font writing he’ll guide you through the basics and walk you through the difference between your thumper box and your slobber box. I’ve never made my own spirits, but I get the sense from the book that I could handle the basics after a couple of close reads (and given the right equipment). But even equipment may not be essential. King takes things to simpler and simpler levels, even including designs for a still built out of a teapot.

King’s book is far from refined or sophisticated, and it looks like it was printed in bulk at the local copy shop, not unlike The Anarchist’s Cookbook. But considering the quasi-illegal nature of the subject matter, the scrappy look sort of fits. You’ll find worse ways to spend your nine bucks if you want to get in on the game. God help you.

B+ / $9 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The Curious World of Wine

curious_world_of_wineWine is indeed a curious world. Just drinking everyday bottles of the stuff is enough to vault you into a world of confusing terminology, exotic places, and strange people for the rest of your life.

Purdue University’s Richard Vine does the wine fanatic no favors with his book, The Curious World of Wine, which only serves to add to the mystery. A collection of loosely sorted and generally quite short “fun facts,” Vine devotes 210 pages, 10 chapters, and over 100 segments of only a few paragraphs each to one oddball tidbit or another about the world of wine.

Historical vignettes and etymology make up the lion’s share of the book. Some of this you’ll likely have heard before (toasting was born to exchange liquids between two glasses to ensure no one was being poisoned), some you likely haven’t (Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild conceived of Opus One while the Baron was lounging in bed). Most of the tidbits are at least interesting, even if they’re short on being actively educational.

Vine’s writing is typical of academics — straightforward and largely humorless aside from the overuse of wordplay — but breezy enough to make it easy to get into. If trivia’s your name and wine’s your game, give this book a look.

B / $15 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The New Old Bar

the-new-old-barChicago-based restaurateurs Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh go by the moniker of “The Hearty Boys,” an homage to the restaurant they run, Hearty. In this, their second book, Smith and McDonagh focus on the bar, offering 200 cocktail recipes (including all the ones they serve at Hearty), plus a chapter or two that cover the basics of how to run the bar.

The recipes run the gamut from classics that have recently made a comeback (Pegu Club, Boulevardier, Corpse Reviver #2), as well as newfangled recipes of the Hearties’ devise. Grilled fruits are a common and interesting theme, as are flavored syrups (recipes are included for these separately). One even uses roast beef (as a garnish). By and large the selection is interesting, skimmable (recipes are not sorted but are mere alphabetized by name), and fairly easy to replicate.

The final portion of the book features a welcome collection of bar snack recipes, with 25 items offered, each sounding more delicious than the next. Poutine and Kix Mix… breakfast of champions!

A- / $14 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Dr. Cocktail

dr cocktailCan drinking be medicinal? Since the dawn of time alcholic beverages have been billed as good for the body. That’s how legions of drinkers got their hands on booze during Prohibition, even — through a doctor’s prescription.

Alex Ott, “the sorcerer of shaken and stirred,” takes things a step further with his book Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind and Body. (“Dr. Cocktail,” by the way, is Ted Haigh, so don’t get confused…) In this slim, hardbound book, his goal is to create cocktail recipes that use herbal, traditional, natural, and homeopathic ingredients. These in turn are meant to reduce stress, encourage romance, build your appetite, or curb hangovers. Whether Ott’s mixture of gin, cranberry juice, and cucumbers really has anti-aging properties, well, that’s a matter for the scientists to look into, I suppose.

I was surprised how simple and straightforward most of the recipes in this book were. No acai, no yumberry, or any of the other foodstuffs that are generally considered really really good for you. There’s nothing really more unusual than turmeric and aloe juice here, which is great if you actually want to make this stuff, but bad if you’re looking for something truly novel that you won’t find elsewhere. Many of the recipes here look good, but more than a few are modest spins on time-worn classics. (I remain flummoxed how a Bloody Mary with a ton of Grenadine, Scotch, and bacon bits will detox you.)

But the most annoying thing about Ott’s book is the rampant product placement. While many a bartending book will call for certain name brand spirits, Ott’s does so in virtually every recipe. Hope you stock up on Svedka Vodka, Ecco Domini wines, and New Amsterdam Gin! One has to wonder: Does Ott really drink that much Svedka? Or is he just giving his employers (he’s an ambassador for all three) a contractual shout-out… on your dime?

B- / $13 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Drinking Japan

Drinking JapanI’ve never been to Japan, but it’s at the top of my list. When I get there, I plan to drink it. The whole thing.

Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan will surely help. Part guide book, part encyclopedia of Japanese alcohol, the tome guides you throw the best places to get a sip of sake, shochu, Okinawan awamori, Japanese beer or whisky, or western beverages throughout the country and explains what you’re drinking along the way. Tokyo of course has the lion’s share of the coverage, but you’ll find over 100 recommendations for great drinking establishments throughout Japan.

Every bar (most are actually restaurants too) features an interior photograph, a map, and detailed directions of how to get there. Bunting’s attention to detail is astounding, including the hours, the cover charge (in detail), and even whether there’s a menu available in English. The picks seem thoughtful, varied (from holes in the wall to hotspots like the New York Bar from Lost in Translation), and nearly all worth visiting. And the writing is both fun and educational — particularly if you don’t know your honkaku from your happoshu.

When I eventually make it to Japan, this book is coming with me.

A / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Wine: A Tasting Course

wine-tasting-01-thumb-620x445-74509USA Today readers rejoice: There’s a book that takes the pedantic prose out of wine and turns it all into colorful infographics.

Marnie Old’s Wine: A Tasting Course cues you in from the start, with a cover festooned with cartoony illustrations and questions designed to pique your interest in the category (“Which are the most important grapes?”)

You’ll find answers to all of these and more within the 247 pages of the text, and you generally won’t have to do too much reading. Enormous graphics, heavy on iconic yellow-or-red bottles or glasses of wine cue you in to where to look on every page. Old is fond of the Venn diagram, often plotting grape varietals, winemaking styles, and even foods and flavors on one spectrum or another. In Wine: A Tasting Course, there’s nothing that can’t be rendered as a graphic.

That’s not a bad thing, and while it’s intended to simplify the subject matter, often it has the opposite effect. Will the average reader of this book really track down Argentian Malbec, Spanish Priorat, and Australian Tawny Port for a comparative tasting in “exploring heavier red styles?” What would be learned in the process of this tasting, other than to follow Old’s graph that plots “weight” vs. “flavor,” and agreeing that, yes, the Port does have more “flavor” to offer?

I don’t mean to make fun. It’s easier to learn through pictures than it is through words, and a segment of readers will probably find this approach an easier one to follow than others.

B / $20 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course

windows on the worldSituated at the top of One World Trade Center, Windows on the World was a restaurant-bar-entertainment venue that was beloved by just about everyone until the tower’s tragic destruction. Its resident cellar master was the equally beloved Kevin Zraly, and for the last 25-plus years he’s been publishing his own book on wine. Actually, it’s a “course,” designed to teach newcomers on wine everything they need to know to get comfortable with wine in a relatively slim volume.

Annually updated, the book combines timeless information with current events. Here you’ll find a page on how weather impacts the grape harvest, along with a sidebar digesting recent storms around the world. This contextualizes Zraly’s lessons while giving the dedicated fodder they can conjure up at cocktail parties.

It’s a breezy book, often presented in Q&A format and with lots of headings followed by a quick paragraph or two of detail. There are plenty of pictures and maps, but Zraly keeps things simple and easy to digest. (The book’s errors — Napa doesn’t have an “Atlas Creek,” but rather an “Atlas Peak,” last time I checked — are curious, but not deal killers.)

One of my favorite things about the book are the nuggets you simply don’t get anywhere else — and would be hard-pressed to dig up online, even. A map of the U.S. with the number of wineries and AVAs in each state? It’s here. A list of the major wine conglomerates and all the brands they own? Got it. The wine grapes native to Hungary? Perhaps less useful, but it’s here too.

Zraly deserves his reputation and should be praised for condensing a complex subject into just over 300 pages (plus online extras) while covering far more than “just the basics.” You may not need to buy it every year, but one copy will get you a long way.

A- / $30 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Bitter Brew

bitter brewI really had no idea that the Busch family had gone through such a turbulent century, with the fortunes of Budweiser careening up and down. But then again, like most readers of this blog, I don’t give Budweiser a whole lot of thought, anyway.

But with Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, author William Knoedelseder grabs you right from the start (with the ultimate fall — the company’s foreign takeover in 2008), before backtracking to 1857 when Adolphus Busch took over a small, bankrupt brewery and launched the A-B empire. While some tales, like the Busch’s obsession with and purchase of the St. Louis Cardinals, may not carry much weight with readers who are more interested in the sudsier side of things, but Knoedelseder’s gifts with the pen will keep you flipping the pages nonetheless.

One tragic oversight: No mention of Spuds MacKenzie.

A- / $13 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]