We have become a nation of not only conspicuous consumers, but vicarious ones. Watching The Food Network won’t make you a chef, probably not even a better cook; but millions of people oohh and aahh over garlic and hot sauce (and massacre the pronunciation of “bon appétit”). Similarly, the pop culture-fueled craze for craft cocktails, “artisan mixers,” tinctures, digestifs, etc., has produced a parallel to the celebrity chef-inspired home cook: the happy home bartender. Everyone’s an expert, and these books promise to make you an expert, too.
Jancis Robinson is one of the preeminent wine critics in the world, a Master of Wine since 1984, author of (among dozens of erudite wine books) the definitive The Oxford Companion to Wine and advisor to Queen Elizabeth’s cellars. In The 24-Hour Wine Expert, Robinson ventures into the stocking-stuffer-sized wine primer field—and knocks her competitors on their heels. Her forthright book is clever without being cute and concentrates on the terms (like “nose”), regions and storage and handling tips that will enhance the experience of the amateur or semi-pro wine drinker. She is happy to dismiss the “critic behind the curtain” effect: “You should feel quite at liberty to free-associate” about aromas and flavors rather than swallowing the boilerplate descriptions of “tired old professionals.” If not a 24-hour course, it’s a perfect weekend party.
Dan Jones’ Gin: Shake, Muddle, Stir is also a small but likable handful of information, which doesn’t break much new ground but has a cheery readability. Jones kicks off with positively Dickensian hyperbole—“Not so long ago, gin was the crack of the capital, the unlimited fun-juice guzzled by cackling, wooden-toothed wastrels, pox-ridden poets and general London lowlifes”—and concludes, rather neatly, with an approximation of the hot gin punch in David Copperfield. The book is divided between gin’s history and recipes, some of which are intriguingly robust (a green tea and bay-infused gin martini), and the guide to making your own syrups and gins might lure you into the home-mixing world. Daniel Servansky’s graphics of layered cocktail glasses displaying the recipe proportions are particularly useful.
SCIENCE OF SIPPING
Although it takes a little while to hit its stride, Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions by cocktail instructor Brian D. Hoefling is less pompous than the title might suggest. Hoefling is Bill Nye the Science Guy for the barfly, explaining the chemical and bacterial interactions that result in everything from fermentation to hangovers. He debunks myths, like the hair of the dog, and explains facts, like why alcohol makes you dizzy. And thanks to handy cross-references, you can skim or swim through the information. The graphics, by Leandro Castelao, are simple but striking.
FOR LABEL LOVERS ONLY
There are gift options for the label geeks as well. Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs by Brad Thomas Parsons is a hefty, high-gloss love poem to the bitters, aperitifs and digestifs of the world. Parsons includes interviews with makers and bar owners, as well as tasting notes and nearly 80 cocktail recipes, before ending with some bittersweet dessert ideas.
The New Single Malt Whiskey is a little bit harder to define. Heavy, heavily illustrated and packed with de rigueur interviews with distillers (a great excuse for a field trip), it includes essays by 40 writers, some of which are more intriguing than others. Though there is no definition of a single malt until quite a ways in, and some of the cocktail recipes do not call for any Scotch at all, what is “new” here is the global fascination with single malts. One surprising bit of trivia: The French drink the most single malt Scotch per capita. That just might put some winemakers’ “noses” out of joint.