My mighty cocktailian friend Christine Sismondo reviews a book by Washington Post columnist Jason Wilson. Take it away C!
By Christine Sismondo
Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits; By Jason Wilson; Ten Speed Press; $25.99; 232 pages
We all know that wine writers could be a whole lot more fun if a few more of them swallowed.
If anything, though, it all seems as if it might be going in the other direction. Wine is certainly lost to us forever and an alarming number of spirits authorities have begun spitting and using unpleasant sounding things like tobacco, barnyard smells and airplane fuel to describe liquors. Some days, it seems almost inevitable that spirits writing will eventually go over to the dark side, too.
Fortunately for those of us in the other camp, we have Jason Wilson on the job. Since 2007, Wilson has been tirelessly taking some of the pretence out of spirits in his role as the Washington Post spirits columnist. This fall, he released the culmination of three years of diligent research in his new book, Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits.
It’s easy to tell that Wilson is one of the good guys, when he opens up with a story about a tasting with Paul Pacult, an authoritative taster who may know more about spirits than the rest of us combined, but who does mass tastings, spits, rates and catalogues every new release. Wilson feels intimidated when he first meets Pacult but then quickly realizes he doesn’t want to write that way about booze.
Wilson asks instead: “If I tell people that a cognac is ‘mature yet owns the promise of youthfulness,’ will they now understand what I mean? Do I understand what it means?”
Which is not to suggest that Wilson doesn’t know his booze. His love of hard liquor, in fact, began long before the Washington Post gig, when he embarrassed himself in front of a seasoned colleague and mentor by ordering a summer drink after the first snow had flown. Determined to never again make such a faux pas, he’s been making up for lost time ever since.
The result is that Wilson has probably out-seasoned his mentor and, now, not only knows which drinks you can order after Labour Day but also knows a boatload about the production of some of the world’s best spirits and how to mix ‘em. This book is sprinkled with excellent cocktail recipes along with musings on the various debates over the procedures by which they are made. Mid-century cocktails, for example, take a lot of heat compared with the modern revival of pre-prohibition drinks.
What’s especially nice about Wilson’s commentary about contemporary trends, however, is that he writes with a certain level of light-hearted cynicism and an understanding of the larger context. Faux-speakeasies, for example, are properly skewered for their cheesy theme restaurant-esque qualities: old-timey uniforms, extravagant facial hair and Edison lights are the signifiers of these period pieces. Still, Wilson concedes that many of these places house the best cocktails and, while the trend is played out, it may be the price we pay for good booze.
Wilson has the courage to critique the silliness and pretense of the spirits world – from spitting to the speak-cheesy and more – yet has the perfect soft touch in pulling back and acknowledging that, without it, we might not be witnessing the death of the Jack and Coke and the Appletini. Without the speak-cheesy bartenders and owners, and the people like Jason Wilson who have chronicled the movement, we might never have graduated to the Bourbon Old Fashioned.
Christine Sismondo is the author of the forthcoming book: America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (Oxford University Press, June 2011).
Tomorrow, Christine has a chat with Wilson about the evolution of the martini, when to spit and the the not-so-seriousness of the spirits biz.