On the day that I turned 21, some friends took me out to celebrate. Even though it is customary to have something alcoholic on the day that you can imbibe legally, on that day I really just felt like a milkshake. So that’s what I had.
That early experience sums up my relationship to alcoholic drinks for the early part of my adult life. I liked them all right, but most of the time I could take them or leave them. I was too cheap to get the expensive stuff, and getting drunk has never been attractive to me, so I didn’t drink the cheap stuff either. But in the last few years I’ve started to take an interest in the varieties of alcoholic drinks, compare them to one another, and think about my preferences. I’ve also started to take an interest in mixed drinks, though my frugal self would really rather try to make them at home than order them when I’m out at a restaurant.
That personal history is what drew me to The Essential Bar Book by Jennifer Fiedler. Its subtitle calls it “an A-to-Z guide to spirits, cocktails, and wine, with 115 recipes for the world’s great drinks.” It’s a nicely bound hardcover book, with definitions of everything from absinthe to zymurgy. The 115 cocktail recipes also feature a historical introduction. For example, here is the introduction for the Manhattan:
One of the enduring heavyweights in the cocktail world, the Manhattan is something of a twist on the Old Fashioned, most likely spurred by the arrival of sweet vermouth in the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The too-good-to-be-true story surrounding this drink’s origins—that it was invented at the Manhattan Club for an event with Winston Churchill’s mother as hostess—is just that: a tall tale. Although cocktail historians are still debating the subject, current theories favor either the Manhattan Club (though for an occasion not involving a British political figure) or a waiter named Black who worked in lower Manhattan in the 1870s as the source for the original recipe. There are other cocktails named for each of New York’s boroughs, but none are as popular as the Manhattan.
You can find definitions, recipes, and even the history of various drinks and terms online, so what is the benefit of this book? I would say it is the same benefit that you get from a brick-and-mortar bookstore over Amazon: the joy of serendipitous discovery. If you know everything you’re looking for, then this book will have less appeal for you. But especially if the world of drinks is a new one to you, it is fun to browse through this book and find new recipes and terms you didn’t think to look for.
Here is a look at the first 20 pages of the book.
Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.