Douglas E. Welch

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Douglas E. Welch,

Book Review: The Complete Book of Spirits

Valley Scene Magazine

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 index.

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 places involved.
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 the pages.