Holiday Guide: Beer, Wine, and Cocktail Books

The entertainer's shelf helps boost your festive spirits

Holiday Guide: Beer, Wine, and Cocktail Books

Take away the gift giving, the cheesy music, the elaborate window displays, and a few fleeting days off from work, and what do the holidays leave us with? Well, drinks for one thing, preferably in the company of friends and family, though a couple of entertaining strangers will work in a pinch. The trick is to have the right ingredients to render any gathering sufficiently festive. And therein lies the challenge. Fortunately for party-throwers (and -goers, for that matter), a number of new books on wine, cocktails, and beer can help to provide an edge over the competition. Or at least take the edge off planning.

As the chief wine critic for The New York Times, Eric Asimov certainly knows his aglianico from his assyrtiko. But he also recognizes that wine is a complicated subject and, as he concedes early on in his memoir and manifesto How to Love Wine (William Morrow, $24.99), ambiguous by nature. On the one hand, this is reassuring to those of us who haven't spent the past eight years with our noses in glasses of red, white, and rosé. Yet standing in front of rows upon rows of bottles from Europe, Australia, and South America when the moment of truth arrives, there are others who would rather not be reminded of the fact that "much about wine, especially how we talk about it, is subjective. What smells like figs and marzipan to you might be pineapple and lemon to me."

This, however, is part of Asimov's overall point. The world of wine confounds consumers even as it seeks to demystify flavor, aroma, and terroir. And at the end of his conversational new book, he leaves readers with a relatively simple and intuitive piece of advice: Enjoy what you're drinking. For Asimov, the best way to love wine is to pour a glass with dinner, to try a bottle for the sheer pleasure of tasting a different style, and to be honest about the level of your own interest. Forget notes, scores, and spitting between tastings. Calling today "a golden age of wine drinking," Asimov asks us to remember to do one thing with this beverage as we navigate the countless reviews, ratings, and recommendations: Savor it.

Of course, there are also books for oenophiles with a greater thirst for wine knowledge and a budget to match. Jancis Robinson, the author and editor of numerous books, including The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine, has just added another mammoth tome to the field, a 1,242-page, slipcased guide to nearly 1,400 vine varieties entitled Wine Grapes (Ecco, $175). The extent of the information contained within is nothing less than staggering; in many ways, Robinson, working with linguist and full-time assistant Julia Harding as well as grape geneticist José Vouillamoz, has produced a volume that may well contribute to the greater wine anxiety that Asimov seeks to diminish with his own book. (I can't be the only person who hasn't stumbled across the word "ampelography" before.)

For the student of wine who's already versed in its language, history, and geography, though, Wine Grapes is a tremendous achievement. Few if any other well-researched sources will have nearly as much guidance on the six most common varieties in China or on Papazkarasi, the Turkish grape that's grown in Thrace and mixed with mustard seeds, sour cherry leaves, and benzoic acid (a preservative) to produce a strong local drink called hardaliye. Gorgeous color artwork from a turn-of-the-century reference work on viticulture adds to the visual appeal, though a page layout that hides a fair amount of detail in the gutter prevents the 14 pedigree diagrams from achieving their full instructive potential.

But enough about wine. Occupying the other end of the publishing spectrum, at a succinct 135 pages, is Cocktails: A Global History (Reaktion, $18). Joseph Carlin, a nutritionist and authority on American food and drink, begins with a quick treatment of the origins of distillation, explaining that the process was most likely perfected by an Arab alchemist, astronomer, philosopher, and physician by the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan around 800 B.C. Among the many things we learn in this slim illustrated volume is that centuries after French medical practitioners first extolled the healing powers of brandy (known as aqua vitae), Fannie Farmer was recommending alcohol for people who "had a weak pulse, a persistent high temperature, nervous exhaustion, tremor or low delirium, and in cases of shock or accident." (Today, brandy and its closest kin are most often used as over-the-counter cures for shyness and social paralysis.)

Carlin goes on to examine the etymology of the word "cocktail"—it's far from conclusive—and then introduces readers to punch, the 17th-century forefather of the liquid American invention so frequently ordered at bars today. Typically made with distilled spirits (rum, usually), water or tea, sugar, lemon, and nutmeg, punch quickly rose to popularity in England and across the British Empire. With the tavern and later upscale hotel bars as their nursery, cocktails eventually evolved into elaborate and sometimes iconic drinks that have spread around the world, from the minty mojito to the Singapore Sling. Even if you've never had the urge to slurp a double daiquiri, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, or a Bloody Mary, the preferred tipple of John Jacob Astor, which he unsuccessfully tried to rename the Red Snapper, Cocktails is a fun, fascinating read that goes down easy.

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