With the biggest night of alcohol consumption, New Year’s Eve, now behind us, some of us may be vowing to abstain from our favourite drinks and just read about alcohol for a while before going on the next bender. In which case, these books may help.
Christine Sismondo, a Canadian writer with a bartending past, gives us an intellectual look at mixed drinks in Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History (McArthur & Company, 2005). Sismondo outlines her preferred recipes for twelve well-known cocktails, veering off onto entertaining tangents while doing so. Many tales feature Ernest Hemingway, who was around for the invention of several cocktails. She admits it was difficult to write a single chapter without referencing the iconic American writer. He was in Paris when the Bloody Mary arrived on the bar scene, and in Havana giving rise to the daiquiri. He has been credited with first using the Red Eye (tomato juice, beer, and a raw egg) to cure hangovers.
No cocktail is her favourite — she seems to love them all equally. But martinis do hold a special place in the lineage of alcohol beverages, as they are “the universal symbol of all other cocktails. It is the cocktail to which all other cocktails aspire.” A martini was the first drink made in the White House by Roosevelt after repealing Prohibition in 1933. Sismondo is a purist about martinis and advocates shaking (not stirring), very hard for a very long time — “It may hurt you, but you can’t hurt it.”
The writing team of Jordan Kaye and Marshall Altier also speak highly of the martini: “Never out of fashion, never out of place, the martini earns every bit of its legendary status as the ultimate cocktail.” These two authors have combined their efforts in How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice (Harpers, 2010). They describe how alcohol influences our behaviour, good and bad, like loosening up social events and drowning our sorrows after a breakup. According to these booze enthusiasts, there is always the right drink for the right time. They write: “The constellation of drinks is boundless and, like the greeting card aisle at the pharmacy, provides options for every situation imaginable. Some are sickly sweet, others just plain off, and a rare few are just right.”
Like a dysfunctional self-help book, they claim to perfectly match exotically-named drinks to any occasion: a Whiskey Sour when you realize your ex-girlfriend is engaged to someone else; a Rusty Nail when attending a high school reunion; a Hot Toddy for days calling in sick to work. They may take it too far in the self-help department by suggesting that on your deathbed, “you spend your last few earthbound moments stirring up a good drink, settling into your favourite chair, and enjoying one last indulgence” with a Rob Roy, simply because “it is as worthy a drink as any to sign off with.” These authors also make reference to Hemingway’s contributions to the field of drinking, including a cocktail called Death in the Afternoon — leave it to Papa to create a drink using only an overabundance of absinthe and a splash of champagne. In the end, the authors admit that “the right drink for right now isn’t necessarily this cocktail or that cocktail. The right drink is always, always, always whatever you bloody-well feel like drinking.”
If you prefer a little globe-trotting adventure with your booze, there is no better companion than Zane Lamprey, known as the Indiana Jones of alcohol consumption. His book, Three Sheets: Drinking Made Easy (Villard Books, 2010), is not only packed with trivia about global drinks from Champagne in France to sake in Japan, but also cocktail recipes, drinking games, and hangover remedies. In a fifteen-country pub crawl, his plea to readers is to learn from his book and go out and enjoy the libations that we’ve read up on.
Three Sheets is a concise, uncomplicated, and informative book that reveals all kinds of trivia about alcohol, such as why Guinness is creamier than other beers and why it tastes better in Ireland than anywhere else in the world (the ambiance of all those charming pubs probably has something to do with it). He shares with us his research from the smooth flavours of aged Appleton rum in Jamaica to a concoction made with cobra’s blood and 116-proof Taiwanese booze in Taipei. Zamprey’s lone North American stop is Las Vegas, not for a genuine signature drink, but for all of them, since they’re complimentary in this city of gustatory plenty. But even Vegas can’t compete with the volume of different alcohols around the world: the Quaich Bar in Scotland serves 659 different Scotch whiskies, and Belgium produces more than 1,000 different beers.
And then there is a book called Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (Gotham Books, 2008) by Iain Gately, an encyclopedia-sized tome of 500 pages that digs deep into history to show cultural drinking habits throughout time. Indeed, Gately would have us believe there isn’t a time period that hasn’t been influenced by or had an influence on alcohol. His references cover all stages of history: the ancient Greek customs of offering wine to deities; the slave trade in the Caribbean islands contributing to the manufacture of rum; the rise of California wineries that was spurred on by the influx of new money from the Gold Rush in the 1850s; the use of bathtubs for making home brew during Prohibition.
The Italian influence goes back to ancient Rome, when “wine formed part of the rations of Roman legionaries, and a secure and increasing supply was necessary to support the efforts of ever larger and more active armies.” Thus the rise of the Italian vineyards. Alcohol rations were also common in World War I and often issued before and after combat. During the gin craze in 18th Century England, the legal system got involved by taxing liquor sales and licensing taverns, to help reel in the wayward drunkenness of its citizens.
The most well-known beer from China, Tsing Tao, began being brewed during Chairman Mao’s reign. After the failure of his Communist revolution, Tsing Tao was exported to the United States to help China’s economy.
Gately leads us right up to the 1990s, when it was revealed on an episode of 60 Minutes that the French have healthier hearts than Americans because they drink more red wine. It was a shocking boon to the industry and the revelation that moderate drinking leads to better coronary health caused American sales of red wine to increase by nearly 50% within a month of the show.
Teetotallers should refrain from picking up these books to the same extent they abstain from alcohol. For anyone who does imbibe on occasion, there is plenty to learn, historically and practically, about your favourite drink. As Lamprey writes: “The more we understand about how a specific alcohol is made, the more we can appreciate it. Let’s face it, vodka isn’t ‘delicious.’ But learning about the distillation process, the ingredients, and the history, makes it more palatable — even to the point where it’s enjoyable.” And if you do find yourself putting those New Year’s hangovers in the past, it is even more enjoyable to flip through the pages of these books with a drink in the fist.
Darin Cook works and plays in Chatham-Kent and regularly contributes to eatdrink.