You wouldn't trust a skinny chef, and I'm drunk as hell

Bar Books Pt. 2

Possibly my most thumbed through tome in my collection, today I will be covering and reviewing “Imbibe!” by David Wondrich.

The blurb says “A lively, historically informed, and definitive guide to classic American mixology” and that’s exactly what it is.

Read more about this book after the break.

A quick point of information, for the first half of March I will be only posting once a week instead of twice as I am going away, and it’s my birthday so won’t be at home or near a bar so won’t be able to get as much done. Look forward to my “A World of Spirits” returning in the next couple of weeks though!

Before I begin the review, a quick note on Mr. Wondrich himself. Whilst he started off his career as an English professor, he has quickly become one of the largest authorities on cocktail history, with background in writing articles for esquire, and the author of many books.

It just so happens that Imbibe was the first book of his I bought, and so it remains my favourite. It is roughly a history of the American cocktail, but more specifically it covers Professor Jerry Thomas, the author of the first published book containing information about cocktails. If you missed it before, his book was actually the one I covered in Bar Books Pt. 1

It is roughly split into history i.e. a biography of the man himself, followed by the methods of the day of yore complete with recommendations by the author as to how best carry these methods out yourself.

Then there are the drink recipes and how best to make them using modern ingredients and converting ye olde measuring systems to one of easy use, the book is peppered with little notes from Mr. Wondrich, after each recipe follows a “notes on execution” section that talks about how best to carry out the recipe.

In my mind, the best part of this book is that it is not wanting for historical references. The book is littered with quotes, sources, old historical pictures of various other points of interest that any one who is looking to increase their knowledge of mixed drinks will love.

Firstly the biography is built from the ground up from scraps of information found hinting at his history of being a boxer, a sailor and a gold prospector, before becoming the most well paid bartender of his day.

As he covers the way bartenders used various tools, you are treated to views of old school advertisements for various tools and knickknacks including julep strainers, lemon squeezers and ice picks.

Moving on to the drinks, back in the day of Jerry Thomas (and this is a point I tell people often) not all mixed drinks were grouped under the umbrella term “cocktail.” A cocktail was a certain category of mixed drinks, of which there were many. For those of you who don’t know a cocktail consists of a spirit, sugar. bitters and water (the water is usually in the form of ice.) You may recognise the formula, it looks like the old fashioned we know and love.

This is because (probably) when cocktails began to be referred to any drink in any form, people began ordering them in the “old fashioned” manner. And the name stuck. This is the argument I use to negate any preconceptions people may have about muddling fruit in their old fashioneds. But that is an argument for another time, for a post about OFs. Which is coming. You can count on that.

So when I am telling people that there were many categories of mixed drinks, the next inevitable question is “What were the other categories?” and then I pretty much just list the titles of Mr. Wondrich’s various chapters “Well first there was punch, and then came collins, fizzes, daisies, sours, coolers and cobblers, and later there were toddies, slings, juleps and such”

In order to learn to what these drinks are, you will either have to wait until I make a post about each of them in turn. Which will happen. But how long will that take? None may know, I’ve been posting regularly for about 5 months now and I’ve only covered a couple of classics really. I get distracted by baking too often! The other option is of course to buy Imbibe. And that is the purpose of this post is it not? To expand your knowledge and become a better mixer of drinks, and therefore a better person?

Finally he talks about modern bartenders and their applications of the Professors work, including contributions from Audrey Saunders, Tony Abou Ganim and Robert Hess to name but a few. My only criticism of the book is that this section feels slightly tacked on last minute, and some (by no means all) of the offerings do not seem up to par with the rest of the meticulously researched work.

Another question you may be asking yourself is “But good sir, I followed your recommendation and bought Jerry Thomas’ Bible, what possible reason could I have for buying Imbibe” and well the answer is… because it’s not Jerry Thomas’ book. It’s not even an improved Jerry Thomas’ book. It’s David Wondrich’s personal experiences with mixing his drinks, his historical findings and his information that make this book so worthwhile, and the reason it’s my most thumbed through book is simply because it answers most questions I have about pre 19th century drinking and that for me is exciting.

Look here good fellow reading my small blog, the main reason I got into this whole malarkey in the first place is because I can make a recipe written down in 1862, and it will taste pretty close today, to how it tasted then, isn’t that awesome? It’s like you’re your own bonafied time traveller AND you get to drink some booze in the process! What could go wrong? Well, probably a lot but thats not the point.

Cheers to that right?

I get sidetracked too easily, what I am basically trying to say that if you have even the slightest interests in history, or drinking, or both, then Imbibe should be already in your library as it covers all the bases.

Reading this back I sound like a complete fanboy, but I guess that’s OK, next time on this series I will be covering a book that is (shock horror) not designed for bartenders, but for chefs! But I still use it all the time. Stay tuned to find out what it is.

Cheers for reading, See you next week.

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2 responses

  1. I agree that it’s a great book. I’d like to add that it’s great for sorting out the muddle of what are the difference between fizzes, collinses, slings, daisies, toddies etc. It’s also invaluable in allowing you to actually decode and apply recipes from books like Jerry Thomas’ yourself. He basically gives you the key to understanding all the measures, ingredients and methods. Finally it’s a great read! Lots of anecdotes and historical details, as you said.

    11 March, 2012 at 2:08 AM

  2. Pingback: A World of Spirits: Bols Genever « Drinks: Cocktails, Spirits and more

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