Book Review: Colonial Spirits

Look, our forefathers were not the most temperate bunch, and writer Steve Grasse endeavors to lay bare their improprieties in this rollicking exploration into the origins — literally — of American drinking culture.

This is a book about drinking like none other I’ve seen, unless you’re the type of guy that likes to tipple on, say, Cock Ale (a mix of beer, sherry, and chicken broth). But apparently it was big in the pre-U.S. colonies, not just because it was so delicious, but because it was an aphrodisiac, too.

Nearly every page of Colonial Spirits has some fun fact or eye-raiser that will keep you engaged and intrigued, whether it’s Ben Franklin’s own list of euphemisms for drunkenness (over 100 of them — of which I’m adopting “top heavy”) or a recipe for making dandelion wine. What is Ass’s Milk? Well, read the book to find out. Sure, not all the stories and diversions are as interesting as the vignette on curative beverages for common Colonial illnesses, but hey, neither are all the stories from American history.

Will you be whipping up any of the myriad concoctions in Colonial Spirits to serve your guests? Well, probably not for New Year’s Eve, but perhaps for the Fourth of July you’ll want to break out one of Martha Washington’s punch recipes, no? OK, President’s Day?

B+ / $14 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Drinks: A User’s Guide

With Drinks: A User’s Guide, writer Adam McDowell offers a primer on just about everything with alcohol in it. Highly skimmable but fairly surface-level from start to finish, the book is a melange of simple advice about drinking (don’t drink the wine at a wedding, go for spirits instead), angry instructions (don’t drink vodka), and (spanning most of the book) primers on every category of booze there is.

The expected areas are covered — explaining the different types of whiskey, a look at how gin is made, how various beer styles differ — as are some unexpected ones, including a primer on sake styles and a section on absinthe. The book is also littered with cocktail recipes, some classic, some newer, but all worthwhile additions to any repertoire.

That said, hardcore cocktail enthusiasts aren’t likely to find much new material to draw from in the book — and some of the sections (like the one on Scotch) barely skim the surface. That’s probably to be expected in a book that tries to wedge every category of booze into under 250 pages — in fact, we regularly see that kind of space devoted to a single type of spirit — but McDowell is to be commended for covering so much ground in such stylish — and opinionated — fashion. It is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint.

B / $13 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Lift Your Spirits: A Celebratory History of Cocktail Culture in New Orleans

Chris McMillian is one of the proprietors of New Orleans’ Museum of the American Cocktail, and with this book, he and writer Elizabeth M. Williams take a walking tour through the city and through time, to showcase where New Orleans’ essential libations came from.

The book pulls no punches because it doesn’t throw any. It’s a straightforward, textbook-like history of NoLa cocktailing that places all its classic libations and establishments at the head of the class. The history of the Ramos gin fizz, the Sazerac, and the Hurricane are all laid out with the excitement of an encyclopedia entry. (Though there’s no love for — or mention of — the Grasshopper.)

What’s worse is that the sad current state of cocktails like the Hurricane is never even hinted at, and an excited New Orleans first-timer could be completely forgiven if he went to Pat O’Brien’s with the expectation that he would be drinking something akin to one of the two recipes for the Hurricane provided in the book. (He would actually be drinking little more than a sort of alcoholic Kool-Aid.)

The Hurricane aside, Lift Your Spirits lacks any real excitement — excitement which you’ll find on every corner in this storied city. I can’t fault Williams and McMillian on the facts — they’ve unearthed them all — it’s the writing that just lands with a thud, perhaps because the subject they are covering is simply too near and dear.

I’ve long heard stories that for New Orleans natives, pride runs exceptionally deep, to the point where a negative word is never uttered about local establishments no matter what — particularly the major landmarks. I had dismissed that as conjecture and rumor, but Life Your Spirits doesn’t really do anything to dispel that theory. I guess it’s right there in the title, after all: This is meant to be a celebratory history of NoLa cocktails, not a particularly insightful one.

B- / $20 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey

Fred Minnick may be best known for wearing an ascot, but he also happens to know whiskey, particularly bourbon. With Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, Minnick takes us on a lively and wholly unpedantic history of bourbondom, particularly as it relates to its homeland of Kentucky.

You will learn a lot about bourbon by reading Minnick’s book. You will come to understand the ins and outs of pre-Prohibition whiskey terminology as well as post-Prohibition retrenchment. Minnick spends a huge amount of time on Prohibition itself, explaining the arcane world of “medicinal spirits” and various Temperance Leagues.

While heavily laden with sidebars, the book is relatively fluff-free, so don’t expect pages of cocktail recipes or other page-fillers that detract from the mission of Minnick: To tell you where bourbon came from, and where it’s going next. That answer is left for an ominous few pages in the end, where Minnick notes, in so many words, that what goes up must so very often come down again.

Well written and never boring (which can be a problem with more pedantic whiskey-related material), this is a fun treatise on the history of America’s original spirit.

A- / $14 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: The Canon Cocktail Book

Canon is a fun and well-stocked bar in Seattle — in fact, it lays claim to having the largest collection of spirits in the western hemisphere, and checking out the shelves that line the walls of the place, it’s hard to dispute that. Now, proprietor Jamie Boudreau, with James Fraioli, attempt to codify all the fine work they’re doing therein.

The cocktails in the thick Canon Cocktail Book are avant garde and often complicated. You will need to buy bloomed gelatin to make honey foam, infuse Scotch with chamomile tea, and even obtain an ounce of black truffles to dump into Cognac for one incredibly luxe cocktail. Many cocktails call for six or more ingredients. The Zombie recipe asks for a total of 30 when it is all said and done. One of those ingredients is calf’s brains — no, really!

It’s safe to say you won’t find another cocktail book quite like Canon on the market, but you won’t find a bar quite like Canon anywhere else, either. Yeah, Boudreau has some favorites that he uses a bit too often — Averna, absinthe, and Scotch among them — but even if your tastes don’t run in that direction, there’s plenty to engage with in this book, even if it’s just aspirational. Carbonated and barrel-aged cocktails both get their own sections, if you want to get really out there with your home mixology.

One of the more fun parts of the book isn’t about cocktails at all — it’s about 50 pages at the front of the book that outline what it’s like to own and run a bar. Anyone who’s even considering starting up their own watering hole — and who among us hasn’t? — needs to read this section backwards and forwards. The catch: Canon is a runaway success that’s littered with awards and praise. Your high-concept dive bar may not be so lucky.

A- / $17 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Esquire’s Drink Like a Man

If Esquire had come up with something better than its carrot-juice-doctored bottled Manhattan for its first ready-to-drink cocktail, I might be more willing to go along with the subtitle that this is “the only cocktail guide anyone really needs.” But Esquire has always been long on hyperbole, so it’s hard to fault it here.

Drink Like a Man, edited by Ross McCammon and David Wondrich (a guy who knows what he’s talking about), is more of an anthology of vignettes on drinking reprinted from Esquire than it is a manual on how to make drinks, though it does finally get to its first recipe of the 90-some in the book when you reach page 36. That’s the beginning of the book’s 14 essential cocktails that “every man should know how to make.” Most are hard to debate, though I can’t fathom why anyone would have to have a recipe for eggnog at the ready, nor can I recall the last time I’ve been called upon to craft a gimlet for anyone. Perhaps at Esquire they’re still enjoying these with their sherry punch, which is another one of the questionable essential drinks that demonstrate your manliness.

From there the book segues into an alphabetical list of more classics, followed by a collection of “odd, inventive, or surprisingly good” concoctions. While these won’t be on the tip of any drinker’s tongue, they are all readily mixable at home. Few have more than four or five ingredients, all off the shelf stuff that any liquor store will carry. No need to make your own smoked pomegranate orgeat. If you can mix up some simple syrup, you’ll be fine.

It’s more than a little annoying that both English and metric units are specified for every single ingredient, so you’ll have to wade through a lot of visual clutter in the form of [60ml] of this and [15ml] of that. Would it have killed you to put out two versions of the book? The one thing every man really needs is the ability to use find and replace in his word processor.

B / $13 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: The Beer Geek Handbook

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Patrick Dawson’s Beer Geek Handbook is a kooky, breezy look at the often nutty world of beer – with the self-described “beer geek” squarely in mind. Extensively illustrated by Greg Kletsel, it covers the basics of beer, while tiptoeing into the rarified air of the Great American Beer Festival, beer trading, whether collaborative brews are any good, and what a DONG is. Reading this book won’t help you score a glass of Pliny the Younger, but it will help you better understand the obsession (perhaps critical if you’re a BS, a Beer geek Significant other, in the parlance of the book).

The book’s sections are quick, easy to digest, and best consumed piecemeal – and arguably while one is occupied on the toilet. While certain sections are more useful than others (the short sections on key breweries to visit is definitely worth a look), the whole affair is plenty of fun. A nice stocking stuffer.

B / $11/  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

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