Lockdown has presented us all with a lot more spare time than anyone is likely used to – but sometimes it’s hard to decide how to use it. Do you catch up on all the movies you’ve missed? What about those Netflix series you haven’t got to yet? And there is likely a pile of unread books in the corner of the room staring at you accusingly. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be spending most of the time shouting ‘That’s me dead boys!’ down a head set on Call of Duty, swearing blind you’ll get to the more intellectual stuff tomorrow.
When it comes to drinks-related reading, a lot of folk are also probably scouring their recipe books for new drinks they can make at home. After all, if you’ve managed to hold off having a drink until 5pm, you’re as well making it a good one. There has been a succession of books in recent years from some of the world’s most influential and successful bar owners, which feature recipes that helped those respective bars achieve their international recognition as well as outlining thought processes, procedures, and systems that help make a good bar (or bartender) into a great one. However, there are some books out there that take a more holistic approach – to the history, context, and meaning behind what it means to put on that apron and stand behind that three feet of wood. And most importantly, what it means to those who have done it before, and to those customers that come into see you (or will, once this is all over). The most common question I am asked after training sessions is ‘what books on drinks would you recommend?’, so here are the three that I found gave me the most insight into the nature of a bar, at all levels – and hopefully three you may not have read.
Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis (2008)
Though this compendium was released in 2008, it is made up of three books published by Amis between 1971 and 1984 (On Drink, Everyday Drinking (from which the title is borrowed) and How’s Your Glass?). Not only was Amis one of Britain’s most loved novelists (in 2008, The Times ranked him 13th on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945), he was also encyclopedic when it came to booze. This collection of his works on the subject reveals a man well versed in not only the technicalities of making drinks, but also how to best enjoy drinking in our daily lives and various social settings. Amis talks about batching drinks for parties, and excellently describes the best practices for making them, alongside detailed recipes – though never forgetting there is a human element to all of it. On a martini garnish Amis quips: ‘If you can face it, try squeezing the rind over the glass first to liberate the pungent oil within. There is a knack to this which I have never mastered’.
Throughout this collection, Amis expands more and more on the way in which alcohol can be consumed at any time, in any place. This includes food pairings for everything from Fish and Chips to ‘Vichysoisse, melon, before lunch’ (although it must be said that he feels ‘food is the curse of the drinking classes’), as well as chapters entitled Abroad, The Hangover and How Not To Get Drunk. Whilst Amis is describing a throwback to the drinking habits of ‘Old England’, and it may not be advisable to match the levels of indulgence alluded to therein, it is never the less a fascinating look into how drinking culture, and mixed drinks, have developed over the last century – and tells us that a lot of concepts we maybe consider contemporary are far from it.
A Short History of Drunkenness – Mark Forsyth (2017)
Mark Forsyth was an author I first came to admire when I read his books The Etymologicon and The Horologicon, two very entertaining books on Etymology – which, though not relevant here, I thoroughly recommend if you’re into language, both for their humour and interest. However, though not a drinks author as such, Forsyth has put together a fascinating look at how humans have imbibed (and, indeed, over-indulged) in alcohol from essentially the dawn of civilisation – and even before. From the ancients of Egypt, Greece and Rome, right through the rise of the Medieval British Tavern and even to prohibition (about which there are some facts that may surprise you), Forsyth tracks the evolution and social impact of alcohol on our species.
With a look at the ways in which we are physiologically and socially made up to seek out and enjoy alcohol, this book gives us a fascinating insight as to why people have always congregated to drink. Although there is mention of the different drinks that were being consumed by various civilisations over the millennia, rather than a history of liquid this is a history of people – from the evolutionary basis for aperitivo, to the benefits to the spirit of meeting for a pint. As well as giving us an understanding of why people want to walk through our bar’s front doors, this book also reflects on a very fundamental level what a lot of us in the modern on-trade have been espousing for years – that it’s about the quality of the drink, the setting it’s in and the company it’s drunk with. More so than simply effect.
A Proper Drink – The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilised Drinking world – Robert Simonson (2016)
This is a more modern look at things than the works previously mentioned. In his book, Simonson looks at how we got to where we are now; most venues now make mixed drinks of some sort, and there is an almost-inherent across-the-industry standard for doing so. Though there are exceptions, the standard of mixed drinks across the globe is at a place that would have been unthinkable in most of our lifetimes. Charting the modern cocktail renaissance from the 1980s to the present, Simonson give us an insight into the people, and the venues, who paved the way for the generation of bartenders to which I belong (and likely the ones either side, and all those to come) to be able to stand and make drinks in the places we have.
There are recipes attached to the chapters, and most of these are ‘modern classics’ that fit into the context of the figures, venues and time periods being described. However, again, this is less a history of liquid and more of people – although unlike Forsyth describing a whole species, Simonson tells us of those very specifically responsible for the quality of drinking we all enjoy now. From the late Dick Bradsell’s creation of modern classics to Audrey Saunders and Simon Ford reinvigorating the gin category, and the latter’s invention of the Brand Ambassador – a title that is now synonymous with the industry. This is the ideal book if you would like a thoroughly comprehensive look at why you pick up a jigger, stir a Manhattan, have access to rye whisky, put vermouth in the fridge, and countless other basic practices we take for granted – and those who made sure we do. This is a seminal work on how the industry got to be where it is today.
There you have it: three books that, for me anyway, give great context into the nature of making, serving, consuming and enjoying drinks. Whilst you will not come out of reading them knowing how best to execute a seventeen point hard shake, or the optimum way to clarify a bar spoon, they will hopefully give you renewed inspiration to don that apron and get behind that three feet of wood. So, enjoy reading, stay safe, and here’s to when we can all get back to what we know and love.