When it comes to this year’s wine and spirits books, everything old is new again, retasted and retold. After all, there are few subjects with more history behind them than booze. These five books touch on nostalgic and historic high points with some odd and entertaining side trips into potions, pot stills and poetry.
Blotto Botany: A Lesson in Healing Cordials and Plant Magic by herbalist and blogger Spencre L.R. McGowan is a sweet-natured throwback—a hippie-dipso catalog of restorative concoctions and medicinal cordials. These 40 recipes are sorted by season and include handy plant facts and trivia. Homebrewing with botanicals requires real dedication and may necessitate some specialty shopping, but luckily, McGowan’s colorful, collage-filled book with handwritten notes is a refreshing tonic itself. Recipes include a lilac-infused wine with the optional addition of rose quartz, an elderberry brew and various syrups, tonics and infused waters. Here’s a holiday tidbit for our toasters: Amethyst got its name, which essentially means “sober” in ancient Greek, because its winelike color was thought to counter alcohol. Good luck with that, merrymakers!
A Sidecar Named Desire: Great Writers and the Booze That Stirred Them by artists Greg Clarke and Monte Beauchamp is a sort of Bartlett’s of imbibing anecdotes and illustrations, mixing tales of the great and powerful word wizards—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Charles Baudelaire and more—with recaps of the evolution of the great spirits and a dash of recipes. Hemingway claimed to have popularized two cocktails—the Bloody Mary (probably not) and the Papa Doble (perhaps)—but then, he was always something of a braggart. Many of these inebriated authors created surrogate characters whose habits they knew all too well, and for whatever reason, guzzling gumshoes and sipping spies were a popular conduit—think Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and, of course, James Bond. This is an entertaining little book for those whose love of literature is paired with a love of elicit elixirs.
In Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint, longtime beer critic John Holl evocatively writes, “I once had a beer made with caramel malts and almond extract that reminded me of the cookies served by our local Chinese restaurant after dinner. It had been years since I’d eaten that dessert, and the taste of the beer took me down an unexpected memory lane of family gatherings.” Holl goes on to fearlessly debunk beer snobbism, pointing out that the pumpkin-spice craze (love it or loathe it) followed the long custom of autumnal pumpkin beers, not the other way around. Despite the traditional admonition “beer before wine, mighty fine, beer after whiskey, mighty risky,” Holl embraces “cross-drinking,” by which he means dabbling in beer, wine and even cocktails in order to enjoy their various virtues. But be warned, Holl is a pro—not everyone should try this drinking style at home. Inspired by the BBC’s “Sherlock” and Holmes’ description of a “mind palace,” Holl suggests a “mind pub” to help you identify and remember the characteristics of beers you like.
SIP UP TO THE BAR
Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland by Clay Risen is perhaps the most serious-minded book in the gift bag. The follow-up to his bestselling American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, Risen’s beautifully illustrated book pays homage to the flavors, aromas and aging of 330 bottlings from more than 100 fine Scottish single malt whisky distilleries. (For those a little confused by spellings, “whisky” without the “e” is how Scottish, Japanese and Canadian spirits are spelled; Irish and American whiskies, including bourbon and rye whiskey, use the extra vowel. Perhaps we need the oxygen.) Risen is an editor at the New York Times, and his book’s introductory material on the brewing, fermentation, blending and barreling of Scotch whisky is clear and blessedly short on jargon. His equally brief and unpretentious explanation of Scotch whisky’s history—especially the market balloons and busts, reform movements and wartime strictures—is sharp and instructive, and his descriptions of labels, flavors and more are insightful and concise.
The delightful Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing is an anthology of short pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, about discovering, delving into and debauching on wine. Bestselling novelist and wine columnist Jay McInerney (who includes an article of his own in the book, a Tom Wolfe-ish nip at “Billionaire Winos” that begs for a film adaptation featuring Leonardo DiCaprio) has assembled more than two dozen stories that are worth reading for pleasure, presumably with a glass in hand. Some of these pieces and persons are delicious to rediscover: the original wine critic, George Saintsbury, author of the 1920 Notes on a Cellar-Book, who dissed tasting notes as “wine slang”; a chapter from Rex Pickett’s novel Sideways, which was adapted into a film that gave pinot noir a boost and merlot the boot; “Taste,” a classic Roald Dahl story written for The New Yorker; and so on. A bit of synchronicity: Both “Taste” and McInerney are mentioned in A Sidecar Named Desire.