Brandy, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, gin, Champagne — a distinguished list that Kerstin Ehmer and Beate Hinderman have deemed worthy of higher education in their book, The School of Sophisticated Drinking: An Intoxicating History of Seven Spirits (Greystone, 2015, $22.95). From this team of bartenders-turned-authors we learn about the cultural, political, economic, and social settings from which these famous spirits were born.
Canadian drinking legend Kevin Brauch endorses the book in a Foreword, admitting he did not like school much, but is capable of earning good grades at an institution involving alcohol. Brauch spent time at Victoria Bar in Germany where Ehmer and Hinderman started a lecture series in 2003. The content of those lectures evolved into this book as the authors realized that “every shift in power, every war, every technical innovation left an impression on the appearance and taste of alcohol brands up to their present state.”
This is the kind of book that makes you appear knowledgeable when bumping elbows at a bar or mingling at a cocktail party. Each spirit is linked to historical stories of the region where it originated; even the authors’ bar resides in a part of Berlin that was literally in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. The first semester introduces us to West Berlin’s mayor during the Cold War, Willy Brandt (nicknamed Brandy Willy for his love of the drink distilled from white wine), who made brandy the best-selling spirit in Germany.
Also with political connections, vodka gained international attention with Boris Yeltsin’s prowess for matching global leadership with flagrant drinking. In the 1980s vodka garnered a better reputation with the hip Absolut brand from Sweden that played against its Communist reputation, keeping drinks like James Bond’s martini fashionable. The thirteen years of American Prohibition had a hand in the fate of all alcohol, but vodka was easily available in the mid-1930s as bootleggers kept the spirits flowing with a successful influx to the USA.
Many American whiskeys originated before Prohibition. German immigrant Jakob Bohm started a whisky business in 1795 which six generations later adopted the name of one of his heirs, Jim Beam. Lynchburg, Tennessee was home to Jack Daniels’ distillery, but after Prohibition the county where Lynchburg is located was never reinstated to allow alcohol consumption — you can buy it from the distillery, but not drink it there.
Moving from America to the tropics, rum has a long-standing association with pirates (including Captain Morgan who was a real 17th century buccaneer) but its history extends beyond barrels of it being integral to swashbuckling, and the authors remind us that Havana Club coming out of Cuba shows us how rum is “inextricably linked to the errors and terrors of worldwide political and commercial relations.”
In Mexican lore, the real-life Robin Hood hero, Pancho Villa, allied himself with bottles of tequila to fuel socialist revolutions. The demand for tequila started outrunning its supply with a rise in popularity during the 1968 Summer Olympics hosted by Mexico; this resulted in mass production inferior to the blue agave tradition. Recent interest in premium brands has returned tequila to a status on par with cognac and scotch.
With the rough-and-tumble reputations of whiskey in the West, rum on high-seas adventures, and tequila in Mexican insurrections, the lesson on gin reminds us of its more elegant status, especially given its role in the Martini, which the authors write, “is certainly one of the most distinguished ways to intoxication.” Gin did have its dark side during the Gin Craze of London in the early 1700s when it was drunk by the masses, causing numerous household and societal problems.
Even though not typically considered a spirit, the authors include Champagne as a drink with an elegant and illustrious history. First produced in France, it had gained a global reputation by 1730 and “from London to Vienna and Berlin to Madrid, the little bubbles fizzed at all the finest addresses of the capitals.” Most famous from the peaceful monastery of the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, Champagne also had violent connections with both World Wars as many grape-growing areas were decimated by war-torn destruction.
During the original lectures participants had the pleasure of enjoying five cocktails made by the scholarly bartenders; the book can only replicate this by providing the recipes to prepare the appropriate drinks yourself to go along with the reading material. Either way, these bartenders have successfully brought their own brand of education to patrons in their bar and to readers around the world, collectively raising a glass with kings and commoners, monks and soldiers, dictators and farmers, Hollywood icons and doctors that have all had a hand in bar culture and alcohol consumption throughout history.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer based out of Chatham, who keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.