Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
Cocktails have been making a comeback for some time. According to The Washington Post’s spirits columnist Jason Wilson, we are in a veritable cocktail renaissance, surpassed only by the pre-prohibition golden years before the craft of combining liquors, handed from one generation of bartenders to the next, had not been ruptured by an idiotic law. In Boozehound, which is a trove of information on mixed drinks, Wilson quotes liberally from such connoisseurs of hooch as H.L. Mencken and A. J. Liebling. In fact, the book opens with a Mencken quote: “As long as you represent me as praising alcohol, I shall not complain.” And he swiftly glides on to Liebling, of whose skepticism for vodka he heartily approves: “The standard of perfection for vodka (no color, no taste, no smell)…accounts perfectly for the drink’s rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy—tomato juice, orange juice and chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he was doing.” Ouch. Those words must sting those swirling along in the worldwide, decades-long vodka craze. That would not be Wilson, a champion of the recent backlash against vodka, an industry “with over $15 billion in annual sales,” as it opens the way for spirits otherwise neglected. He has much to say about gin, and recounts his pilgrimage to Amsterdam in search of peerless genever, the original gin of 16th century Dutch provenance, which “tastes like seediness and nostalgia itself”; he anatomizes the booze trends of recent decades; and he provides analyses and histories of spirits from tequila to grappa to aquavit to eau de vie to pisco. He quotes distillers from all over the world—“But for me the money is not the motive,” says one, “I want to be the best distiller in the world”—and describes the subtle tastes of stratospherically expensive cognacs, especially their rancio. “Rancio is the term for a peculiar flavor that the finest cognac takes on as it ages…Nutty? Mushroomy? Cheesy? …’lactic’… there might also be hints of toffee or almond.” But these are not merely recondite offerings on the arcana of imbibing; the book has its uses—Wilson appends numerous recipes for mixed drinks to each chapter’s end. He also recommends bars and the imitation speakeasies now in vogue in major cities. But perhaps his accounts of the weird and wonderful discoveries on his alcohol-driven journeys are the book’s high point: “Peruvian pisco…is just as strange and surprising as ski towns in deserts, drunk dune buggy drivers, drinking from the same glass as thirty other people and the calculus of witch sightings.” When one hunts the far corners of the globe for rare spirits, one unearths remarkable treasures. The miracle, as with any chronicler of such beverages, is that Wilson keeps a clear enough head to remember and recount it all.