Book Review: The Complete
Book of Spirits
December 15, 2004
The Complete Book of Spirits
Anthony Dias Blue
HarperCollins Publishers 2004
By Douglas E. Welch
"The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production
and Enjoyment," is like a cocktail recipe for a classic cocktail,
like the Martini or the Margarita:
Take one book
2 ounces of history
1 ounce of science
a dash of interesting stories
and a splash of tasting advice
Shake or stir, with ice or without.
Pour into 324 pages
These are the true ingredients of, "The Complete Book of Spirits."
Interestingly, though, the focus is not the famous cocktails we know and
love. Instead, they are the stories of the main ingredient itself, in
all its unvarnished and underappreciated glory. For the author, spirits
are something beyond the mere alcoholic punch for our cocktails. They
are historical artifacts and an art form in their own right. Almost all
spirits were discovered by accident, refined to the utmost degree, eventually
becoming part of almost every society on the planet. "The Complete
Book of Spirits," starts at the beginning and gives us an understanding
of each spirit's, past, present and, possibly, future.
"Spirits," is divided into 10 chapters, each dedicated to a
specific spirit including Vodka, Aquavit, Gin, Rum, Tequila, Scotch and
Irish Whiskey, North American Whiskey, Brandy and Liqueurs and Bitters.
The final chapter is dedicated to "The Well-Stocked Bar" which
touches on the glassware, equipment, and mixer requirement for a decent
home bar. Especially appreciated are the extensive bibliography and usable
Each chapter follows a similar pattern; a definition of each spirit and
its essential makeup, a history of its discovery and how it affected the
history of people and countries where it was born, mixed drinks made using
the spirit, a detailed analysis of how the spirit is created, in the past
and today, the major brands producing the spirit, a quick lesson in how
to taste the spirit alone and, finally, a tasting guide of brands rated
by quality and price.
In some cases, the history of the spirit is deeply entwined with the history
of a country. In Russia, the production of vodka was alternately hailed
and hated, produced by individuals or controlled by the government. The
history of French Cognac is the history of France itself and the author
examines what would Scotland be without its whisky.
The discussion of the science of the spirits would have been greatly improved
by some diagrams or photographs. I found myself visiting the Internet
regularly to see the difference between a pot still, a Spirit still or
a column still. Blue's descriptions of the process are concise, but I
found myself looking for more information.
The chapters vary a bit in their presentation of these basic facts according
to the specifics of each spirit. For example, the chapters on Aquavits
and Gin include sections on the grains and botanicals used to flavor the,
essentially flavorless, spirit. Tequila delves into the definition of
what can truly be called "tequila" and the plant that must be
used in its production, the Agave tequiliana Weber var. azul, also known
as the Blue Weber agave. Other chapters deal with the geographical variations
on a spirit, such as the differences between Russian, Polish and Scandinavian
vodkas or Irish, Scotch and North American Whiskeys.
The story of spirits is also the story of personality and place. There
really was a man named José Cuervo who was instrumental in creating
the tequila industry. The Smirnoff family fled Russia when the revolution
came and created new vodka distilleries in France. Glen Livet is a real
place in the highlands of Scotland, near the River Livet and Scotch is
produced there to this day. These stories allow you to appreciate the
spirits even more as you gain a deeper understanding of the people and
Throughout the book, the author reinforces the main idea that spirits
are something to be enjoyed, sensibly, like good wine. They are not to
be knocked back in shots, but sipped and appreciated for their fine and
individual characters. This is especially true of the fine Single-Malt
Scotch whiskeys that have risen in notoriety over the last several years.
Each spirit brings a part of its world home to the drinker.
If your interest in spirits goes beyond the average mixed cocktail, "The
Complete Book of Spirits," will be a great addition to your library.
Being a triple threat geek myself - history, science and food and drink
- this book meets all the criteria for a great read. I often found myself,
sitting in my favorite easy chair, a spirit at hand, sipping as I turned