Books for Giving

Here we’ve compiled our book reviews from the past year. Find one for everyone on your holiday list.

Whiskey is having a moment right now. Or, at least that’s how it appears in the pile of new books focused on the topic stacking up on the desks of the W&S editors. Noah Rothbaum, a veteran of the spirits word and author of The Business of Spirits, presents a fascinating overview of our nation’s whiskey history through the changing (and enduring) aesthetics of bottle labels. Organized by decade, The Art of American Whiskey surrounds each label with background information that places it in the context of the political climate of the moment, and charts the development of advertising and branding in the process.

In contrast to Rothbaum’s book, Lew Bryson’s compendium takes on the whiskey world in down-and-dirty detail, from production to tasting. With maps, infographics and flavor profiles for iconic bottlings, alongside Bryson’s smart, straightforward text, Tasting Whiskey is both accessible to novices and compelling for the expert.

Proof: The Science of Booze is one of the most engaging books published on potables this past year. Adam Rogers, articles editor at Wired magazine, works from the premise that an ability to create and enjoy alcohol is what makes us human. He takes on the science of alcohol, starting with yeast and ending on the inevitable hangover, presenting a vast amount of disparate information in a way that’s accessible and entertaining for a general reader—and allows aficionados the ability to dive deeper. His enthusiasm comes through clearly as he peppers the scientific research with personal anecdotes, history and philosophy. It’s a fast-paced read, sure to leave you with a greater appreciation for distilled and fermented beverages.

The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol stands out among coffee table books for prose that’s as entertaining as the photographs. By Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham, who perform a live show of the same name throughout the UK, the book provides dinner party sound bites in colorful timelines of history, and pop culture-cum-history essays. During this age of Buzzfeed ascendancy, top ten lists feel overdone, but the lists included here are cheeky and smart, while the silliness of the delivery belies the seriousness of the information included.

Just as the Food Lover’s Companion filled the void for a compact, easy reference to everything culinary, The Essential Bar Book does the same for the drinks world. Organized alphabetically, the book covers everything from wine terms to bar talk and spirits definitions. Cocktail recipes are interspersed throughout, indicated clearly by a navy blue background. It’s bound to become an essential, dog-eared resource in any drinker’s library.

Lovers and students of Barolo, watch for the July arrival of Barolo MGA, an authoritative 408-page “vineyard encyclopedia” by Alessandro Masnaghetti, publisher of the Italian wine journal Enogea. The book’s level of detail is extraordinary, with over 200 shaded, graphical representations of the vineyards, statistics on surface acreage and altitude for each cru, information on exposure and soil types, and maps of plots owned by each producer. This bilingual edition includes text in both English and Italian. Signed copies ($80) are available for pre-order at rarewineco.com. —Stephanie Johnson

To put a face on a bottle of wine—to meet the vigneron, walk his vineyard and taste his wines out of the barrel—is one of the most meaningful experiences a wine lover can have. In Vignerons d’Anjou, Gueules de Vignerons, Jean-Yves Bardin, an art photographer, brilliantly manages to take us to the heart of the Loire Valley, specifically into the universe of a group of winemakers who are writing a new page for Anjou wines and terroirs. The 43 gueules (faces) he profiles are celebrated for their dedication and commitment to low-intervention farming, may it be organic, biodynamic or natural, with 50 hectares or only a couple of acres. He includes iconic figures such as Olivier Cousin, Mark Angeli, Nicolas Joly and Charly and Nady Foucault, as well as some who are lesser-known but just as significant (Jacques and Agnes Carroget, Sebastien Dervieux, Didier Chaffardon) and the new generation—people like Benoît Courault, Sylvain Dittiere and Mai and Kenji Hodgson, to name a few. Bardin’s raw photographs perfectly translate the deeply honest style of these vignerons, while Patrick Rigourd’s concise text gives a vivid taste of their wines and introduces their backgrounds. Even though the book is only available in French for now, these portraits are as intense and powerful as words. To be consumed without moderation. —Pascaline Lepeltier

It was a pleasant surprise, in reading Wines of South America, to find out that both author Evan Goldstein and I share a weakness for pig’s trotters at Colo Colo, near Curicó in Chile. This is the sort of place only locals would know—and an example of the level of research Goldstein undertook for this book. Goldstein, a Master Sommelier and wine educator based in San Francisco, has travelled to South America regularly in the past decade, going far beyond the well-known regions of Argentina and Chile to visit every wine-producing country on the continent. He covers them all here—even those with an almost imperceptible presence on the world market, like Paraguay and Bolivia. When it comes to Argentina and Chile, the sections include detailed information on regions just beginning to be known in the world, like Gualtallary in Mendoza and Itata in the southern Chile. Writing with enthusiasm and detail, his coverage of places like the mountainous and foggy vineyards of Boyacá in Colombia, or the chardonnay growing on the limestone hills of Guayas, o the coast of Ecuador, might provoke a visit. Of course, it goes without saying that the food section is superb, with great recommendations for new restaurants in places like Mendoza, Sao Paulo, Lima and Santiago. —Patricio Tapia

You might wonder how much there is to say about a single drink. When it comes to the Negroni—a gin, vermouth and Campari drink that’s a favorite among food-and-beverage industry types—there’s plenty, as Gary Regan demonstrates in his latest book. A former bartender and prolific author, Regan has uncovered a wealth of lore surrounding the Negroni, and has assembled a collection of historical recipes that explore the identity of the drink through its many permutations. He also employs the palates and creativity of friends in the bartending community for a chapter on new interpretations of the classic. Variations like Dave Wondrich’s Corn Goddess—muddled with fresh corn and tomatoes—or Jim Meehan’s East India Negroni, made with Lustau East India Sherry, rum and Campari, may stretch the category, yet retain the essential bittersweet balance that defines a Negroni.

Julie Reiner, who runs Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club in NYC, has penned an essential guide to throwing parties. Organized by season and holiday, The Craft Cocktail Party is filled with drink ideas, from make-ahead punches to à la minute cocktails and mocktails, as well as music and décor suggestions to complete the scene. Some drinks are classics, like the rye-based Scofflaw, while others are variations on her bar favorites, like the Flatiron Martini, a summery blend of Cointreau, Stoli Ohranj and Lillet Blanc. With tips on everything from serving amari to proper swizzling technique, it’s everything you need and more to pull off a successful fête.

Since 2012, British gardener Lottie Muir has hosted an apothecary bar on the roof of the Brunel Museum in London during the summer. Using plants she cultivates or forages, her concoctions have made this green space above the Thames Tunnel a popular destination. She’s now collected her recipes in Wild Cocktails from the Midnight Apothecary. It may take some footwork to find medlars for the Quince and Medlar Liqueur, or gorse flowers for her take on the Tom Collins. But there are plenty of recipes based on more widely available ingredients, like the Grilled Nectarine Smash or the Scented Geranium Sour. With lots of practical advice on drying and storing herbs, making infusions and macerations, and the etiquette of foraging, Muir’s book is just as handy for the cook as the bartender.

Vermouth is making a comeback in the United States. Winemakers such as Steve Matthiasson in California and Christopher Tracy at Channing Daughters in New York State are producing their own versions, and bars are highlighting it on their menus. Now there’s Vermouth, a book by Adam Ford, founder of Atsby Vermouth. Accessible to both cocktail nerds and casual imbibers, Ford’s book takes an in-depth look at the beverage’s tumultuous history, and includes profiles on American vermouth pioneers like Uncouth and Imbue, with a smattering of cocktail recipes thrown in. It’s essential reading for anyone who has ever loved a Manhattan.

David Wondrich recently reissued his seminal work on cocktail history, Imbibe: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, first published in November 2007 and winner of a James Beard Award. With new cocktail stories and recipes, updated information on the legendary Jerry Thomas, and a revamp of the chapter on cocktails, Wondrich keeps up with the changing whims of barmen and an interest in rediscovered spirits. Even if you dog-eared his original, this new edition is just as deserving of a spot on your bookshelf or back bar.

The Art of American Whiskey: A Visual History of the Nation’s Most Storied Spirit, Through 100 Iconic Labels by Noah Rothbau

This is a W&S web exclusive review.