Category Archives: Books

Book Review: The Kentucky Mint Julep

Julep 210x300 Book Review: The Kentucky Mint JulepThe Commonwealth of Kentucky is home to many a splendored thing: actors Clooney, Depp, and Shatner, bluegrass music, horses, Lionel Hampton, Loretta Lynn, and of course bourbon. While these are all claims of which to be Kentucky proud, one of the finer small indulgences signaling spring’s imminent arrival to the Bluegrass is the season’s first sip of Mint Julep.

Indeed, even the poets have sung of its luxury. Clarence Ousley pontificated on the wedding of mint and bourbon in his poem “When The Mint Is In The Liquor,” so eloquently writing that “When the mint is in the liquor and/its fragrance on the glass/it breathes a recollection that/can never, never pass.”

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Book Review: Shake, Stir, Pour

shake stir pour book 248x300 Book Review: Shake, Stir, PourHow enticing do all those artisan cocktails you see these days look, with their organic cinammon-rhubarb puree and house-made schnozzberry syrup? I frequently enjoy these libations, then regret that I’ll never be able to make them the same way at home.

Well, with Katie M. Loeb’s Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails, now you can. All those syrups, mixers, infusions, and bitters are just a recipe away — and while many are far more exotic to make than the dinner you’ll prepare afterwards, the directions are clear, concise, and easy to follow.

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Book Review: Alt Whiskeys

alt whiskeys book Book Review: Alt WhiskeysAlt Whiskeys is a book that will be absolutely fascinating to many, but will be practical and actionable for only about 200 people.

Why? Because for the vast majority of you, cooking the recipes in the book will be illegal. Very illegal, as author Darek Bell (of Corsair Distillery) notes. Five years in jail and a $10,000 fine illegal, that’s how illegal.

Bell’s book — a big 8″x10″ manual with full color photos — is a treatise on how to make whiskey. Not the usual Bourbon or rye, mind you, but as the subtitle states, “Alternative whiskeys and techniques for the adventurous distiller.”

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Book Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Intoxication

LQIntox Book Review: Laphams Quarterly: IntoxicationFor nearly three decades, essayist and author Lewis Lapham steered the good ship Harper’s as its editor-in-chief and figurehead. He stepped down from the masthead five years ago, and went on to establish a journal of history and ideas, Lapham’s Quarterly, tackling contemporary topics and placing them in a historical context. He calls on voices across time to establish an educational and entertaining narrative in an attempt to build a compelling case that there is truly nothing new under the sun. In every issue Lapham asserts and presents evidence that many of the issues and events we face today have happened before in some incarnation on the dotted timeline of our past.

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Book Review: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History

Iconic Spirits book Book Review: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating HistorySpirits nerds love a good yarn about how such and such booze came into being, and with Iconic Spirits, Mark Spivak has put plenty of the best into one easy-reading tome. Curious how moonshining and NASCAR are inextricably intertwined (hint: it’s got nothing to do with the people watching it), or how St. Germain found its market? Spivak, a wine writer and NPR commentator by trade, has a breezy story to tell you.

Some of the 12 chapters in the book are well-worn history – the origins of Jagermeister and Grey Goose; the rise of absinthe – while others are more pointed and thought-provoking. My favorite: How Cognac was completely on the ropes until it was rescued by the club crowd… and where an uneasy peace between luxury goods and thug life has been forged.

I didn’t think much of Spivak’s chapter on Scotch – which he admits that he doesn’t like, anyway – but I was equally flummoxed by the reasons why people would drink ultra-bitter Campari, too, and enjoyed Spivak’s discussion on how we’re born to avoid bitterness from birth. Cocktail recipes at the end of each chapter are fine, but not overly necessary.

Good times all around, and this book would definitely make a good gift for a spirits enthusiast this season. If only it had been more thoroughly fact checked. Even on a cursory read I found goofs — they don’t drink Scotch on Mad Men (they drink Canadian Club), and hip-hop was not “originally known as gangsta rap” – but perhaps this is more a sign of Spivak’s ignorance of pop culture (forgivable) than his lack of knowledge about spirits (considerably less so).

B+ / $12 / [BUY IT NOW]

Book Review: The PDT Cocktail Book

pdt cocktail book 196x300 Book Review: The PDT Cocktail BookPDT is a Manhattan speakeasy (behind a hot dog joint in the East Village) and is known for pushing high-quality cocktails. This thick cocktail recipe book covers all the bases of setting up a solid bar — right down to how to make your own grenadine — but the centerpiece is the cocktail list, which covers over 300 drinks from classics to more modern and original concoctions.

What makes this list unique — organized alphabetically, straight up — is that PDT includes brands for just about every liquor its recipes call for. This isn’t marketing. This is science, the results of testing each recipe with every available gin, vodka, whiskey, or rum, and picking the one that makes the best drink. PDT’s Sazerac is made with Rittenhouse, its Aviation is made with Beefeater, its Martini with Plymouth and Dolin. If you want all the mystery taken out of how to make a good drink, this book has you covered.

Published in hardcover and full color, The PDT Cocktail Book also includes the history of various spirits, bar food recipes (hot dogs too, of course), and other ephemera, but based on the strength of its recipe list alone, it’s a big winner. (Hint: Use the index if you’re searching for a drink based on its main ingredient.)

A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Never Cook Sober Cookbook

never cook sober cookbook Book Review: Never Cook Sober CookbookI’m the first one to agree with the concept of using alcohol — beer, wine, spirits — in your cooking, but a standalone cookbook devoted to boozing up otherwise average recipes is just a mistake from the start.

This slim volume goes for kitsch, with dishes like “Sassy Salmon in Champagne Sauce,” “Vini Vidi Vici Vodka Caesar Salad,” and — ahem — “Mix Drinks Like a Pro Whiskey Steak and Cheese Sandwich.” The bar in your cookbook isn’t exactly high when it includes a PB&J sandwich with flavored vodka mixed into it and, seriously, jello shots. The latter are included in the “breakfast” section. The book’s recipe for a pulled pork sandwich calls for prepackaged pulled pork and barbecue sauce. (And bourbon.)

Interspersed with banal facts about alcohol and tired quotes on the same topic, the book isn’t just unfunny, it’s also a little wrongheaded when it comes to how alcohol gets used in most recipes. The book includes icons to indicate the “alcohol content” of each dish. From one jug (one shot or less) to six (five shots or more), the ratings bizarrely don’t take into account whether the recipe is cooked or not — thus removing most of the alcohol from the dish. Come on, people.

D / $11 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Brewed Awakening

brewed awakening book 201x300 Book Review: Brewed AwakeningJoshua M. Bernstein is a fountain of beer-centric knowledge, and if you found yourself sitting next to him at the bar you’d probably get your ears filled with talk of saisons, cask ales, and Berliner weisses.

Brewed Awakening, subtitled Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World’s Craft Brewing Revolution, is well-written in an engaging style, but it’s clear from the get-go that Bernstein’s strength is in talking about beers and not beer. What do I mean? Bernstein’s book waxes poetic about dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individual bottlings of beer, including commentary from their brewers. What it doesn’t succeed in is organizing this in a coherent and easily searchable way.

In large part this is a design problem. The entire book is printed on what looks to be butcher paper — which is fine — but headings and subheadings are not well signposted. Each of the sections in the book is backed by a sidebar — sometimes quite expensive — with “beers to try” that match what Bernstein is talking about. Helpful material, but you have to flip around a lot to match the beers to the section they’re in — which isn’t necessarily well-named — and the font this is presented in is meant to look like all-caps handwriting. This can go on for several pages, and it it’s very hard to read.

Flipping around in Brewed Awakening may help beer nuts find a few new brews to try, but those looking for an in-depth encyclopedia of how various beers are made should check out Drinkology Beer instead.

B+ / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: M.F.K. Fisher, Musings on Wine and Other Libations

mfk fisher musings on wine1 208x300 Book Review: M.F.K. Fisher, Musings on Wine and Other LibationsFor those not in the know, M.F.K. Fisher is sort of like what Julia Child might have been had she decided to eat out for every meal. A prolific writer who produced dozens of books and countless magazine articles about food from the 1930s to the 1980s, Fisher loved to eat and drink, but more importantly she seems to have loved to talk about eating and drinking.

With this collection, editor Anne Zimmerman collects 30 of Fisher’s pieces on the subject of drink, primarily wine but also a fair amount about gin, too. Zimmerman’s second collection of Fisher’s writings — her first was, of course, about food — here the compiler seems to have had to delve a bit deeper into Fisher’s archives. The connection to drinking (anything) in many of them seems to be tenuous at best, with Fisher often jonesing angrily for a glass of sherry or hunting for a drop of gin.

Fisher does have a few pieces here almost exclusively about wine, but they generally turn more toward winemaking, the habits and circumstance of various wine regions, and even wine tasting events. Some of the stories are delightful — including one about the prejudice she experienced as a female judge of a regional wine competition — though many are clearly simpler works originally written for hire for non-gourmand magazine audiences. Nothing wrong with that, but I expect the audience for this book is looking for upscale commentary on the subject of drink than most of the trifles available here.

Recognizing that most of these snippets (many just a few double-spaced pages long) are not exactly relevant beyond the standpoint of curiosities today (vermouth… a dollar a gallon!), I imagine most will find a bit more pleasure from Zimmerman’s other book about Fisher.

B- / $12 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: The American Cocktail

Imbibe The American Cocktail book 227x300 Book Review: The American CocktailWhen I cracked open this tome, subtitled 50 Recipes that Celebrate the Craft of Mixing Drinks from Coast to Coast, I was expecting another treatise on classic cocktails through the ages, maybe separated by regions of popularity: Margaritas and daiquiris in the south, Manhattans and martinis up north.

What I missed was that the book was compiled by the editors of Imbibe magazine, and that in reality it was a well-curated collection of mostly new cocktail recipes, largely drawn from the mixology-driven bars that continue to pop up around the country.

Many of these cocktails sound as delicious (or at least intriguing) as they do aspirational. While you can pretty readily navigate around the frequent call for locally-produced vodka or rum (presuming it isn’t, say, fresh apple- or evergreen-infused), you will likely have to spend a fair amount of time making various berry purees, flavored sugar syrups, French press coffee, and candied bacon if you want to do justice to these drinks. And while you might not have too much trouble locating some of the stranger supermarket requests (like Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup), others may be difficult (fresh loquats) to impossible (Dublin Dr. Pepper, the factory for which is now being shuttered).

Of course, books like this also work well even if you can’t follow them to the letter but rather want a little inspiration to create something new. Star fruit in lieu of loquats? Why not? And the garnish is figured out for you.

A- / $12 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Vintage Cocktails

vintage cocktails 150x150 Book Review: Vintage CocktailsAmanada Hallay’s Vintage Cocktails: Retro Recipes for the Home Mixologist takes advantage of the classic cocktail resurgent, presenting a solid 70 or so cocktails, all of which you’ve likely had once or at least read about in a cocktail recipe book and dismissed as sounding like swill.

There’s plenty of classic stuff in this book – big names like the Bellini, Daiquiri, and Negroni – along with a few unusual choices – the Snowball, the Diplomat – all introduced with Hallay’s sassy, blog-like chitchat telling you about the history of the cocktail and, more often than not, quoting a movie in the process.

There’s a lot of chatter in this book – those 70-some recipes span well over 200 pages – and each is illustrated (also in retro fashion) by David Wolfe. This all of course means that the book is not exactly the kind of thing that you’ll find on the shelf of your local bar — the subtitle makes that clear — but, thanks to the pastel color palette, is more likely to end up as a bachelorette party gift for the girls. That’s not a criticism, and if you want a cute compilation of cocktail highlights this is a fine tome. If you really want an in-depth look at true retro drinks – crustas, flips, and the like – you’ll need to dig deeper into something like the Savoy Cocktail Book.

B / $11 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Barrels & Drams

barrels and drams book 214x300 Book Review: Barrels & DramsI’m not sure why anthologies are so popular in the wine and spirits space. Maybe it’s because people get too soused up while writing and can only finish a few pages before dozing off at the computer. Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y in Jiggers and Shots, edited by William M. Dowd, isn’t very remarkable any way you cut it, with a handful of really good essays alongside some really curious oddities and a lot of chaff in its 220 or so pages.

The book finds its strengths in the subject promised by the title. History is the forte here, and the first half-plus of the book comprises a straightforward, if decidedly limited, look at the past. Of the best stuff: Daniel Okrent’s look at the (surprisingly dismal) “Mathematics of Prohibition,” plus a trilogy of pieces about whiskeymaking in far-flung places like India and South Africa.

After this point, things get pretty strange. A rant from Jim Murray against – and I’m not joking – plastic cups used at spirits tastings seems woefully out of place (and a bit too Crazy Old Man for my liking, though he isn’t entirely off base), and Moritz Kallmeyer’s essay on vatting your own whiskey at home, while curiously instructive, just doesn’t feel important enough to hang onto in hardcover book form.

There’s plenty of talent on these pages, but I’m not sure many of these writers – including Tom Wolfe and David Wondrich – have given Dowd their best work for this collection.

B- / $14 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Champagne Cocktails

Champagne Cocktails 233x300 Book Review: Champagne CocktailsI’m on record as saying that sparkling wine is perhaps the most underused cocktail ingredient around (the other: Damiana Liqueur), so I was really pleased to get A.J. Rathbun’s book, Champagne Cocktails: 50 Cork-Popping Concoctions and Scintillating Sparklers.

It’s a slim, hardbound tome, with just 50 recipes included, spanning both classic and original cocktails, and not always centered around “Champagne” – the whole gamut of sparkling wines get their due in this collection (even sparkling Aussie Shiraz!).

And though just 50 drinks are covered – many with color photos, all with an introductory writeup of some kind – I’m hard pressed to come up with a sparkling wine-based cocktail that isn’t included here, except for the ones I’ve invented myself. More inspiration than reference, it’s a fine guide for the shelf or a good gift for the bubbly lover in your life.

A- / $11 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine

thin skins 300x300 Book Review: Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian WineI didn’t know the French hated Australian Wine. Not specifically, I mean. I thought they hated all wine that wasn’t French. And I thought that everyone hated Australian wine.

Aussie wine writer Campbell Mattinson does a good job at reminding us it wasn’t always this way. Australian wine came from a place of no repute whatsoever, supermarket wine made by eccentrics (many of whom are profiled and quoted in this book, and most of whom use a whole lot of profanity) and consumed mostly by locals – and they guys who made it – in vast quantities.

But in the late 1990s, Robert Parker came sniffing around. He tasted an inky Shiraz, just 50 cases of it had been made, and gave it a 99 point rating. Overnight – literally, overnight – the Aussie wine market changed, and that wine, plus other limited release wines, saw their prices double – or climb tenfold – with their next vintages.

As speculators and wine nerds flocked to these new cult wines, along came the new guard – and that’s where the trouble began. Wines like Jacob’s Creek and Yellow Tail flooded the market – millions of gallons of the stuff – destined to be sold at bargain basement prices. Aussie wine became supermarket plonk once again.

Well, to answer Mattinson’s question: Who wouldn’t hate Australian wine? The vast majority is just jug wine now, and while the cults are still being produced – Mattinson has a whole chapter on whether Grange is really all it’s cracked up to be – the sheen is starting to wear off.

All of this is pretty much outlined in the first 50 pages of Mattinson’s book, an easy read but a bit of an insular one, as he explores his own personal fascination with his own country’s wine – and expresses his own dissatisfaction with the way the industry has grown.

About half of the book has nothing to do with France but rather outlines in detail many of Australia’s better-known, higher-end producers. More characters are interviewed, lending a kind of wild west air to the way wine is produced here. It’s on the whole an interesting history lesson, but not one that you were probably altogether unfamiliar with.

A- / $18 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: The Wine Region of Rioja

the wine region of rioja Book Review: The Wine Region of RiojaA coffee table book writ small, Ana Fabiano’s first piece of writing is both beautiful and a bit scattered. A full color, photo-filled, large format experience, it’s the kind of book you’d buy at the airport after spending a week in Spain’s Rioja region, to remind yourself and your houseguests what you ate, where you toured, and what you drank.

Fabiano’s book is more about the region and somewhat less about the wine, mind you. While grapes and specific wineries are discussed quite a bit, the majority of the book covers this area’s unique history and geography, profiling many of the people (past and present) who are local celebrities in Rioja.

I’m not sure that the book gets the mix right. Pieces on specific vintages and even a suggested tapas crawl feel out of place for a photo-driven experience. The wines will be off the market soon enough, and the restaurants included will eventually close. In a format like this, I’d expect something a bit more timeless.

Fabiano’s writing isn’t the most refined, but she has a lot of heart and passion for the area. Definitely worth a look if you’ve been to Rioja and want a colorful reminder of what the region is like.

B- / $23 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Drinkology Beer

drinkology beer 300x300 Book Review: Drinkology BeerAs lackluster as I found the first Drinkology book to be, I didn’t have high expectations for this treatise on all things beer. Much to my surprise, it’s a thorough, engaging, and well-written book about the beer world, especially if (like me) beer is not you normal beverage of choice.

There’s really no facet of the beermaking and beerdrinking process that goes untouched in Drinkology Beer: A Book About the Brew, and yet author James Waller presents this material in a way that’s easy to skim and digest piecemeal.

The origins of beer are dutifully recounted, but the book’s largest and most useful section is a glossary of every beer style known to man. Whiskey fans get off easy in comparison: We only have to understand five or six basic whiskey styles to have a good handle on the basics. Beer nuts face literally dozens of brewing styles and end up with beers that range from nearly clear to black as night. It’s an overwhelming task keeping it all straight, but Waller keeps you on the right path with descriptions ranging from how rauchbier is made to why light beer is “light” to the finer points of how malt liquor came into its current reputation.

While sections on drinking games and beer in the movies seem out of place and frivolous, Waller even gets into the homebrew world with a tale (courtesy of pal Tony Moore) of a rather disastrous attempt at making his own IPA. Like the rest of the book, it’s fun and entertaining… and yet you learn a thing or two.

A / $18 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Drinkology

drinkology book 300x300 Book Review: DrinkologyJames Waller’s Drinkology: The Art and Science of the Cocktail, aims for the library, with its soft-touch rubber-like coating covering the hardboard backing of this squat but thick tome. As the subtitle implies, there’s plenty of art and science to be found here – complete with stipple illustrations to show you how to rim a glass or use a Boston shaker.

400 recipes follow the basic tutorial stuff, segregated by primary spirit. It’s pretty easy to find what you want in this book… as long as you’re looking for a classic or mega-popular modern cocktail. If you need to know how to make a martini, a mojito, or a Long Island iced tea, Drinkology has you covered. It is considerably less populated with originals and lesser-known creations, and there is a definite surfeit of delicious-sounding avant garde stuff to be found.

Drinkology is fine for the basics – and as a book it looks really nice – but I expect most readers will already have the vast majority of these recipes in the books already on the shelves.

B- / $9 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Bartender’s Best Friend

Bartenders Best Friend book 188x300 Book Review: Bartender’s Best FriendMardee Haidin Regan’s tome of recipes arrives ready for action. The softbound book is clad in a presumably water-resistant plasticized shell, and a built-in bookmark ensures you won’t lose your place. 850+ recipes are included, and Regan makes the shrewd move to include both the classics and plenty of recently developed material too, with credit given to the creators and the bars where they work. How good does the Death at Dusk (sparkling wine, crème de violette, absinthe float, brandied cherry) sound? For the drinker who just wants to flip through a book to find something delicious to tipple on, Bartender’s Best Friend is an excellent choice.

I’m less thrilled with Regan’s decision to sort the book purely alphabetically. Oktoberfest Punch follows the Oatmeal Cookie, which in turn follows something that should have easily been edited out called Nyquil. Still, with a high enough proportion of hits to misses, this book is a worthwhile, and imminently flippable, read.

B+ / $13 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Great Whiskeys: 500 of the Best from Around the World

great whiskeys 248x300 Book Review: Great Whiskeys: 500 of the Best from Around the WorldThe bad news: Many of the world’s “great whiskeys” are ones you will likely never see in the real world. Pinwhinnie Royale? Dallas Dhu? Braunstein Danish Whiskey?

The good news: If Great Whiskeys is right, there are plenty of whiskeys you can get your hands on, including Early Times, Canadian Mist, and Georgia Moon.

This oddball tome is arranged dictionary-style, one whiskey per page (for the most part), alphabetically: Cutty Sark gets the same ink that Monkey Shoulder does, and they are all lovingly chronicled by editor Charles MacLean in this nearly pocket-sized paperback.

This approach makes for easy skimming, and if it were in a larger format it’d be a credible coffee table book, but as it stands, anyone short of the whiskey expert will be put off by it. Having Usher’s Green Stripe next door to Van Winkle… why, anyone who doesn’t already know his stuff is likely not to “get it.”

That said, the expert won’t learn anything new from the book. Though the pictures are pretty, the writeups don’t give you much else to work with, with most whiskeys barely earning 100 words to describe their distillery’s history, plus a sentence or two of explanation about the product itself.

B- / $12 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Matt Kramer on Wine

matt kramer on wine Book Review: Matt Kramer on WineI like Matt Kramer and find his writing on wine to be conversational, readable, and generally lots of fun. What I don’t like is books that are anthologies of earlier, already published writing.

This is ultra-common for columnists in all walks of life — Roger Ebert surely makes a fortune repackaging movie reviews every year and selling them to readers who didn’t catch his musings on the latest Spy Kids the first time — so this shouldn’t (and doesn’t) surprise me. And this is actually Kramer’s first such book, which is remarkable if for no other reason than to make you realize the sheer amount the man has had to say about wine over the years.

Kramer is a good wine writer because although he clearly has an exhaustive knowledge of the subject, he speaks for and to the everyman. He loathes froufrou language and openly says that blind tastings suck. He complains that wine merchants (not critics) are the ones that decide what wine is “good” and what isn’t, and comes this close to decrying large-scale competitive wine tastings (like those his employer organizes) as hopeless bullshit. Kramer expounds on the awesome winemaking prowess at a Gallo outpost but will also let you know what he thinks about Lagrein. (It’s a grape, in case you didn’t know.) He laughs directly at many a wine collector, calls the wine-biz movie Mondovino malicious agitprop, and calls out restaurants by name for poor service and bad policies.

In other words, Kramer repeatedly bites the hand that feeds him. And yet, it keeps feeding him.

The good news is that’s our gain, and this collection of essays — while all over the map (literally) — is a fun way to re-experience Kramer’s writing if you didn’t catch it the first time. (And he writes for so many outlets that you couldn’t have seen it all in print originally.)

The book ends with a curiosity: A multi-thousand word profile of Angelo Gaja that was rejected by The New Yorker but which was paid for — $15,000 — in full. I didn’t get through it all, but that’s OK: Kramer is actually best in small doses, as his quippy writing style works well in the short form, where he can drop a gag and run out the room before his host realizes he’s been had. In some cases, that means you and me.

B+ / $12 / [BUY IT HERE]