Book club: Imbibe’s all-time top drinks books

Imbibe

Imbibe

10 April 2020

With all this time to reflect on our hands, we got to thinking about what our most enjoyable, influential or most memorable drink titles are. And here they are – a library, hand selected by a rare first-edition collection of Imbibe contributors (all of whom find themselves periodically in and out of print themselves)

Nate Brown, bar operator, consultant and Imbibe columnist

'Everyday Drinking', Kingsley Amis

Indulging was seemingly the chief occupation of Kingsley Amis, and such was the sharpness of his wit that you feel intoxicated just reading about his drinking.

Buckets of booze are downed on every page, each with an appropriate serve at an appropriate time of day. For Amis, life is what happens when you drink.

Best of all, he writes with a purpose. These aren’t merely the tales of a thirsty traveller. No, Amis is on a mission to educate blunt palates and minds alike.

Like many of us, the pleasure he finds in booze is heightened exponentially by knowing the ins and outs of the contents of his glass. He decodes sherry, fortifieds, wine regions, gin, whiskey, cocktails, et al, and delights in doing so – the book even includes a quiz to make sure you were paying attention. Hedonism at its intellectual finest. 


 

Lucy Britner, drinks writer

'The PDT Cocktail Book', Jim Meehan

From the very first illustration (by the fantastic Chris Gall), you get a sense of the magic of New York speakeasy PDT. The image shows the phone booth in neighbouring hotdog shop, Crif Dogs, which provides the clandestine entrance to PDT.

The book starts with insight into the setup at the bar, along with recipes for house-made mixers and a glossary of techniques – such as muddling and straining. The bulk of the 370(ish)-page tome, though, is taken up with beautifully set out and easy to follow cocktail recipes, all in alphabetical order.

The collection features a mix of recipes by PDT co-founder Jim Meehan, his industry contemporaries and a host of classics. For example, Meehan’s mezcal-led Beer and a Smoke from 2009 sits opposite Frank Meier’s Bee’s Knees – from 1937. The book also features a section on food recipes from Crif Dogs – tater tots with cheese and jalapenos, anyone?


 

Kate Malczewski, drinks writer

'Pour Me', AA Gill

It would be all too easy to shoehorn food critic and writer AA Gill’s memoir into the category of cautionary tale, so he dispels any notions of moralising from the start. Though Pour Me is about his alcoholism and recovery, ‘you will find no encouragement for those who still stagger’, he writes. And that’s a good thing.

His lack of pontification on the subject allows the reader to appreciate without pity or judgment his clever, beautiful, heart-breaking descriptions of the people and places that shaped his drinking years. While this book won’t educate you on grape varieties or tell you the history of your favourite classic cocktails, it captures the energy of London’s pub culture in the 1970s and highlights how deeply personal food and drink, those cornerstones of our industry, can be.

Gill’s writing has been described as brilliant, decadent and controversial, and his memoir is no exception – just don’t call it sobering.


 

Chris Losh, drinks writer and former editor of Imbibe

'Harvests of Joy', Robert Mondavi

There are books that I dip in and out of all the time – Hugh and Jancis’ World Atlas of Wine, for instance, and any number of specialist books on regions, countries and drink styles. And recently I loved Gerard Basset’s life story. But my favourite book, weirdly, is one that I expected to hate.

Years ago I had to write a profile on Robert Mondavi, and the PRs sent me a copy of his autobiography, cringingly titled Harvests of Joy. To my surprise, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a fascinating snapshot of an absolute wine world titan, from childhood through family business to acrimonious family split to setting up the first winery in Napa after Prohibition.

Mondavi himself wasn’t much given to introspection, but you still get a real flavour of the man himself. The restlessness, the drive, the perfectionism, the utter self-belief. Nothing – friends, family, competitors, sceptics – was allowed to get in his way. He pushed himself and those around him to make the world take his wine seriously, dragging the Californian wine industry up with him.

I wouldn’t say you necessarily like him, but my God you respect what he did – and as a snapshot of the rise of the American wine world, it’s fascinating.


 

Millie Milliken, deputy editor, Imbibe

'Highballs for Breakfast: The very best of PG Wodehouse on the joys of a good stiff drink', compiled and edited by Richard T Kelly

Anyone au fait with the wonderful works of PG Wodehouse will know that he writes brilliantly about the art of drinking. Those who aren’t will find Richard T Kelly’s curated collection of the late Englishman's musings a revelatory experience. Both will come away from it with a few extra laugh lines.

In Highballs for Breakfast, we get excerpts of his finest observations through some of his most famous characters. In the chapter ‘Stiffish, with Soda’ we are given a glimpse into one of Wodehouse’s best-known creations, Bertie Wooster, to whom Jeeves (arguably the best-known), his butler, brings a whisky and soda to nightly. Wooster has exacting measures for his highballs: 'I say Jeeves… Mix me a stiffish brandy and soda. Stiffish, Jeeves. Not too much soda, but splash the brandy about a bit.’

The most entertaining chapter of this book though is ‘Mornings After’. Wodehouse was particularly deft at describing the perils of hangovers and this chapter offers the best of his passages. It begins with one from his 1919 book Piccadilly Jim, who on describing his condition to his butler Bayliss, exclaims: ‘I have to make a series of difficult and exhaustive tests to ascertain whether I am still alive.’

In these trying and strange times, Highballs for Breakfast is guaranteed to lift the spirits of any drinks lover – be those drinks alcoholic or not. Consume responsibly.


 

Jacopo Mazzeo, news editor, Imbibe

'Wine', Hugh Johnson 

Hugh Johnson’s 1966 seminal work Wine (I’m reading a 1969 reprint) was originally meant to be a delightful and informative read when first published, over 50 years ago. Considering the degree to which wine’s universe has evolved over the course of the last few decades, it gives a remarkable account of the world’s wine regions.

The considerable amount of words dedicated to Yugoslavia and Hungary – ‘the two best wine countries’ of the Communist block – and even the entire paragraph on New York State, are all noteworthy contributions to our current appreciation of these regions.

Unlike Yugoslavia however, some things haven’t changed much, such as the wine trade’s never-ending battle against rising excise duty. ‘A tradition of hypocritical puritanism makes it possible for the government to raise enormous revenue from wine on pseudo-moral grounds,’ says Johnson. 'Wine comes into the country heavily laden with the sin and sensuality of the South. The people, the laws imply, may just be allowed to drink wine… but they must expiate their naughtiness with gold.’

Which makes me wonder whether, as an Italian-born living in England, I should be paying twice the excise duty, or none at all?


 

Robyn Black, editor, Imbibe

'The Craft of the Cocktail', Dale DeGroff

I have a signed copy of this book but, since at the time of having it inscribed I had up to that point only made about four cocktails in my entire life, the inscription, ‘to Robyn, Happy Cocktailing, love Dale’ seemed a little optimistic. I found in its pages, however, a decent grounding in the basics of cocktail making, a guide to glassware I still refer to, and some recommendations for cocktails to pair with soup, which I’ve never used but always remember in case someone ever chooses to throw me a curveball when they want a steer on matching food and drink.

But the pleasure of this book isn’t the A to Z of recipes, it’s in Dale’s anecdotes (including the playwright Marc Connelly ordering a dry Martini: ‘It is only necessary to… quietly enunciate the word vermouth while looking at the glass’), trivia, and drink-related quotes from the likes of Noel Coward: ‘We knew the excitement was about to begin/When Laura got blind on Dubonnet and gin/and scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin’ (lyrics to Coward's I Went to a Marvellous Party).

Thanks for the cocktailing, Dale.


 

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