Book Recommendation: Imbibe! by David Wondrich (A Perigee Book)
I’ll try a few things while The Drunken River gets it sea legs. Today’s post is one such experiment in the form of a book review—or more accurately, a book recommendation. Although most of the books that I select will not directly focus on the Connecticut River, I hope they will be of interest to everyone who lives on, visits, or generally cares about the history of alcohol in the River Valley.
I won’t post book reviews often. It’s not for lack of material. The publishing industry has erupted wildly on the subject of alcoholic beverages. But to be perfectly honest, I find most of it to be lacking in depth, beholden to tantalizing images and empty content. Much of the stuff out there simply rehashes cocktail recipes or serves as a lengthy advertisement for specific alcohol brands or a single type of liquor.
In contrast, I’ll highlight books that merit attention for compelling writing, thoroughness, and educative content. These are the essential books to perch on the nightstand, the bookshelf, and the home bar. These are the books that epicureans—and booklovers—will appreciate. These are the books from which I have learned considerably and that I wish to share with readers of this blog.
First up is David Wondrich’s Imbibe!, originally published in 2007 and revised in 2015. It’s a striking and engaging book that I routinely gift to friends and recommend to people who want to become knowledgeable about alcohol and its history. (Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is my comparable food book.)
There’s a reason Imbibe! won the James Beard Award. It’s a damn fine work. Wondrich was a professor of literature before moving on to write for Esquire and the Daily Beast. He doesn’t need my praise to toss upon the heap he already enjoys, but he’s a stellar writer and storyteller. Here’s an example of Wondrich’s indelible style advocating a proper alchemical mixture for Toddy:
As for the sugar, you’ve got options here, too. For one thing, you can do without, as Mark Twain liked to (it was a Western thing). I don’t recommend that; not so much because I like a sweeter drink, but because the sugar adds thickness, and a thin Toddy is a sad Toddy. Some modern mixologists suggest sweetening Whisky Toddy with honey; personally, I think it clashes with the malt. Certainly the Professor [Jerry Thomas] and his colleagues never call for anything but sugar. Generally, this would have been the standard quick-dissolving powdered white sugar, but the presence of boiling water means that other kinds will work as well. I favor Demerara or raw sugar in my Toddies: Their sugarcane notes bring a pleasing complexity to the drink (you can also get Demerara in cubes or, even better, irregular little lumps that just scream out “authentic”). (175-176)
Here’s his scintillating humor at work introducing the origin of the cocktail:
Anyone who has spent time pondering the origins of the Cocktail—be it for the months or years it takes to write a book or the minutes or seconds it takes to internalize a Dry Martini—will agree that it’s a quintessentially American contraption. How could it be anything but? It’s quick, direct, and vigorous. It’s flashy and a little but vulgar. It induces an unreflective overconfidence. It’s democratic, forcing the finest liquors to rub elbows with ingredients of far more humble stamp. It’s profligate with natural resources (think of all the electricity to make ice that gets used for ten seconds and discarded). In short, it rocks. (209)
And every page is replete with such clever and learned prose!
Imbibe! offers a well-researched collection of pre-Prohibition recipes, mostly from the nineteenth century. Wondrich weaves them into a very satisfying narrative that you will find unable to put down. The main “character” of his book is Jerry Thomas (1830-1885), the bartender extraordinaire who published the first drink recipe guide, How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion (1862), and accordingly earned the eternal reputation as the godfather of mixology in the United States.
Wondrich deftly recreates Thomas’ life and world and the circumstances in which cocktail culture emerged. Thomas, incidentally, has a connection to Connecticut. He was born near the Canadian border in New York and made his fame in NYC, but his family moved to New Haven when he was young and according to legend, he learned to bartend there.
For history nerds—a term I use in complementary solidarity—Wondrich’s second chapter guarantees endless delight. It explores and details drinking in the nineteenth century, as in the kinds of vessels, bar gear, and ingredients. Its identification of the alcoholic drinks of that period is invaluable and, although not oriented towards the CT River Valley specifically, addresses issues that are very relevant and applicable, such as the nature of gin in the 1800s.
The remaining chapters are likewise invaluable for their contributions to historical appreciation and to your taste buds (your liver, alas, may find some fault, but glorious fault at that). Wondrich explores the development of cocktail culture from the earliest punches to their children such as the Collins, to egg drinks, to Slings and Toddies, to the proper cocktail with the appearance of bitters. Developments following the advent of vermouth are given fine examination, followed by those drinks that announced themselves just before Prohibition, such as the sublime Daiquiri. The short tenth and final chapter recreates the syrups and bitters from Thomas’ day.
If there is one problem with Imbibe!, it is that it will not stand quietly crowded among other books. It will demand a place wherever you mix drinks and call to you like a siren. Answer this call. You will not be disappointed.
Until next times, cheers!
Stephen Olbrys Gencarella