William Faulkner is supposed to have said that civilization begins with distillation, but Adam Rogers isn’t having it. “I’d push even farther,” he writes in his new book Proof, “beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, sake…all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.” Rogers argues that understanding humanity’s relationship with alcohol is about understanding, well, everything, really: chemistry, biology, cultural norms, even the origins of civilization. Readers of Wired magazine, where he is articles editor, will recognize the tone: approachable, witty, and a bit obsessive.
Proof expands upon Rogers’ 2011 article “The Angel’s Share” about the mysterious black stain that appeared homes and other surfaces up to a mile away from Canadian Club’s whisky warehouses. The culprit, a fungus from the newly named genus Baudoinia, does what some of us only wish we could do; it thrives on the angel’s share escaping wooden whisky barrels. The unmasking of Baudoinia is just one of dozens of tales Rogers tells as he covers botanical, chemical, biological, technological, and historical facets of our spirits’ move from field to bottle.
It’s a lot of information to cram into one book and at times it can feel as if we’re lurching from topic to topic. If you enjoy James Burke’s old The Day the Universe Changed series, however, or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos reboot — as I do — you may find that conversational approach makes complex narratives that span millennia a bit easier to swallow.
Among his stories, Rogers tells of distillers and technicians trying to break the supply logjam of aging spirits by speeding the process. Smaller or honeycombed barrels, loud music, and a combination of forced oxygen and ultrasonic waves to remove unwanted congeners come into play. Though results are less than compelling, Rogers doles out plaudits for the technology. He traces one of distillation’s origin myths to ancient Alexandria and demonstrates just how plausible it was that the city’s engineers created early stills.
“Aroma wheels” now exist for Scotch, cognac, tequila, gin, and other drinks, but agreeing on the vocabulary of olfaction is an undertaking so difficult that a workable lexicon of how things smell only emerged in the last thirty years. California distilling consultant Nancy Fraley has developed one for small distillery craft whiskeys. “It’s one of the hardest things,” she tells Rogers, “I’ve ever done.”
It’s been a century and a half since publication of America’s first bartenders’ manual. Filled with recipes for cocktails, highballs, shrubs, nogs, punches, and countless other coolers and phlegm cutters, the thousands of drinks books that followed in its wake are ubiquitous on the shelves of today’s cocktail cognoscenti. Morgenthaler’s masterful The Bar Book, released this week, is the universal instruction manual for them all.
Despite more than 60 illustrative recipes, The Bar Book is a not a recipe collection. Rather, it is a grammar of sorts that explains — in clear, precise detail — techniques for preparing drinks. In just under 300 pages, Morgenthaler covers the intricacies of ice, how to select and prepare fruit, working with dairy and eggs, measuring, straining, shaking, and more.
If I had owned The Bar Book twenty years ago when first attempting to open a cold shaker, I’d have been spared one wicked blood blister; there’s a diagram showing how to pull off the maneuver. Yes, it works. So does the one for the dry shake. Between considerations about temperature, dilution, extracting flavors, filtering, manipulating texture, using sugar, and other common bar procedures, he calls out, by make and model, the equipment he prefers and explains why. It’s refreshing advice that stands in contrast with recipe books whose editors bend over backwards to avoid naming brands.
My own culinary library contains thousands of food and drinks books spanning centuries. When deciding what volumes to add, a constant consideration is whether, if I could only have a single book on the topic, the one in my hand covers everything I need to know. Cheers to Mr. Morgenthaler for allowing me say: Yes. Yes, it does.
Jeffery Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg (2014) The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. Chronicle Books, $30/£18
Adam Rogers (2014) Proof: The Science of Booze. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26/£15