Book Review: Inside the Bottle

Arthur Shaprio is a legendary wine and spirits industry maven who has seen every trick in the booze industry marketing playbook. He is also the author of Booze Business, an exhaustive blog dissecting both the history and the current trends in the industry, and Inside the Bottle is his book.

I should, perhaps, clarify: Inside the Bottle is a book of Booze Business blog posts, which in turn are musings from a man who worked for years at Seagram and after it closed worked as a consultant for an endless procession of household name big booze brands. None of these entities seem to have had a nondisclosure agreement with Shapiro, and he lays bare all the demons at major brands like Crown Royal, Captain Morgan, Absolut, Skyy, and on and on. Shapiro’s stories are always illuminating and lots of fun; if you have any illusions about getting into the booze industry in any way, reading Shapiro’s book is an absolute must.

The book reads, not surprisingly, a lot like a blog. Stories have been roughly segmented into chapters, but the flow is choppy to the point of being almost random. It can be hard to tell sometimes where one tale ends and another begins, but the generous inclusion of simple cartoon drawings frequently used as dividers may be of help in that regard. Still, Shapiro knows how to spin a yarn, and he has no problem throwing every sacred cow he encounters under one bus or another.

The problem is: I’m unclear how much material in this book doesn’t appear on Booze Business, but a spot check indicates that it’s not a lot. You therefore have a choice when it comes to how you consume Shapiro’s tales. If you like the weight of the book in your hand or prefer to read on dead trees, grab the book. If you want to save $14, well, just point your browser to the link above. Either way, I’m sure Shapiro would have something to say about your decision.

B+ / $14 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: The Big Man of Jim Beam

With all the hubbub over half-recanted price hikes of Booker’s Bourbon, it’s an inauspicious time to be releasing The Big Man of Jim Beam, a biography of the Beam distiller which Booker’s is named after: Booker Noe.

Noe died in 2004, so this book, written by Jim Kokoris, is quite distanced from the man himself. And maybe that’s fine. The Big Man of Jim Beam is a dutiful, authentic, and clearly 100% authorized exploration of the man who was, by all accounts, larger than life. (He was, after all, called “the big man.”) Such a strange choice then to encase his life story in a pocket-sized book that measures barely over 5″ by 7″.

Kokoris is a no-nonsense writer, so don’t expect a ton of fluff as we go from Noe’s childhood to his early days as a distiller to his ascendency at Beam to lean times in the ’70s and ’80s to the creation of his baby, Booker’s Bourbon. (Curious why Booker’s is sold in wine bottles? Read the book to find out!) The anecdotes about Noe’s life are plentiful yet thin, though it is fun to imagine Noe trying to smuggle foie gras back from France, wrapped up in his underwear. Kokoris even manages to wrangle some pathos out of Noe’s dying days (diabetes) and deathbed wishes.

I never met Booker Noe, but I’ve heard plenty of stories from his contemporaries and successors, and it’s fun enough to encounter them again in this tome. One wishes the prose were a bit more lively, however — and particularly that it had been more closely edited. A “pallet” is something you might put cases of bottled whiskey on for transportation. What the writer (and Noe) surely mean when discussing the experience of tasting whiskey is a “palate.”

B- / $24 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: Beer FAQ

The tagline promises this book will tell us “All that’s left to know about the world’s most celebrated adult beverage.”

Based on the number of beer books I’ve read over the years, there can’t be much. But somehow writer Jeff Cioletti fills over 370 pages with this wisdom. The tagline is a bit of a misnomer — Beer FAQ is part of a FAQ series, which is sort of an upscale “for Dummies” series, published by Backbeat Books. There are FAQ books on soccer, on Seinfeld, and on A Chorus Line. Now there is one on beer.

Cioletti’s book is a bit of a rambler, super-dense with everything there is to say about beermaking, regional styles, and the history of brewing. Craft brewers and the big guys are both given equal time, and there are even sections on beer festivals, beer glassware, and even top beer bars around the world. There’s a section on how beer distribution works. There’s even a chapter on movies in which beer features prominently.

Now I can’t imagine that “What movies can I watch where they drink beer?” is a question asked with any kind of regularity, but if it’s something you’ve been wondering about, well, Cioletti’s got a pretty decent list for you to check out. You can read all about it in between enquiries into the evolution of beer packaging and diversions into discussions of Scandinavian brewmaking.

B- / $15 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Home Brew Recipe Bible

Now that I’ve got my first homebrew under my belt, what’s next? Perhaps a spin through the Home Brew Recipe Bible: An Incredible Array of 101 Craft Beer Recipes, From Classic Styles to Experimental Wilds, will spur some ideas?

Chris Colby’s tome isn’t so much a bible as it is an encyclopedia, a straightforward cookbook for producing over 100 different beer styles, one after the other. I can’t seem to think of any type of beer that isn’t fully covered in the book, with Colby delving into such obscurities as black IPA, eisbock, and gueuze. Sours and oddball brews like sweet potato bitter and peanut butter porter are also included.

It’s not a book for the novice. While some of the recipes are starter brews, Colby quickly takes you into more advanced territory — and those looking for hand-holding, babysitting, or pictorial instructions simply won’t find them here. For seasoned homebrewers who want a growler-full of recipes all in one place, however, this is a great addition to the library.

A- / $19 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Whisky Japan

If you missed the meteoric rise of Japanese whisky over the last 15 years, I hate to tell you this, but it’s too late to catch up. The very best of Japanese whiskies are simply no longer available, replaced by lower-end shadows of their former selves. If you can find a top shelf Japanese bottling, the price will be simply astronomical. And unlike in bourbon country, where capacity is dramatically on the rise, there’s not much end in sight for Japanese whisky shortages.

So, while you drown your sorrows in rotgut, you can at least read about what you missed, courtesy of Dominic Roskrow’s Whisky Japan, wherein he charts the mysterious beginnings and meteoric rise of late of Japanese whisky before delving into the good stuff: detailed reports on every distillery in the country (well, all 13 of them), writeups on dozens of specific bottlings, and listings of essential bars to visit in Japan — and world bars that have solid stocks of Japanese juice. Roskrow’s thin tasting notes and his reliance on unhelpful flavor wheel graphics are the sole weak spot in an otherwise standout tome.

Roskrow’s book works well as a companion to Drinking Japan, which is referenced several times throughout, though the hardcover design of Whisky Japan means you won’t be toting it with you to Tokyo. The larger format though does permit Roskrow to showcase absolutely gorgeous photography — of the places he takes you and the whiskies themselves — turning the book into an aspirational piece that will work well on any fan’s coffee table.

A- / $35 /  [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

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]

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