My reading habits have always been fairly eclectic, and I meander regularly between fiction and non-fiction.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been immersed in crime fiction more than anything else, but I’m finding a fair amount of non-fiction creeping in.
Hence my close encounter with Jason Wilson’s book, Boozehound, which is part travelogue, part cocktail manual, and part a cultural history of liquors.
I loved reading this book.
It may seem a bit strange that I was heavily engrossed in Wilson’s book, given I’m a teetotaler and the book presents narratives immersed in spirits lore and the liquor industry.
Wilson, a spirits reviewer for the Washington Post, writes engagingly and with a deft witty touch.
I’ve never tasted any of the spirits that he’s talking about, so his ability to evoke a creative ‘memory’ around them is quite a feat. The smug panache of the foodie language (as commonly applied to wine and coffee) in addressing the tastes and effects of various liquors is a vicarious delight.
I think I’m attracted to the book because it’s an enthusiast’s adventures; it’s super-nerdy. I found out things I hadn’t dared to dream, like there being two volumes of a scholarly publication titled Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail (still available!). It was a fabulous education in spirits culture, cocktail snobbery, and the liquor market’s industry tensions. I found out what aquavit was (and it isn’t a poncey type of mineral water, as I’d assumed), as well as the distinct quality and price differences found in tequila production (including the cardinal sin of ‘mixto’).
The marked differences between what’s feasible on the US market for spirits and the original liquors from around the world are fascinating, as is the hunt for ‘authenticity’ and whimsical back-stories for boutique drinks (e.g. stories around expensive liquors that require mythical monks who pick a certain flower at midnight on two days a year…).
Wilson frames many of his chapters with anecdotes of his Philistine past as a college student, where his shallow encounters with alcohol are much more the average person’s experiences.
Here’s an excerpt from Boozehound, which sucked me in with its evocation of the hipster trend in obscure speak-easy venues and the veneration and downfall of legalised absinthe:
The first New York Times Sunday Styles section of 2009 declared absinthe “uncool,” with Styles reporter Eric Konigsberg calling it “falsely subversive” and likening absinthe to such fleeting cultural fads as cigar bars, soul patches, women’s lower-back tattoos, brushed-nickel kitchen fixtures, and “blogging about one’s bikini grooming.” He wrote, “Once the naughty aura of the forbidden fruit is removed, all that remains is a grasp at unearned sophistication.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food section was more blunt, calling absinthe “out” in its 2009 New Year’s predictions. Harsher still: “We liked it much better when it was illegal. Somehow the notion of being illicit overrides the flavor of NyQuil dripping down your throat.”
Even though I don’t drink, and have never mixed a cocktail in my life, I even read the cocktail recipes that featured at the end of each chapter. Wilson’s specific instructions about brands of liquor, fresh fruit flavours, and various self-made syrups were mesmerising in detail and confidence.
I almost convinced myself that a Tom Collins, done Wilson’s way, would ensnare me and I’d become a drinker. Almost.
You can read more about Jason Wilson and his work at his official website.