Book Reviewsday: Imbibe!

Every year, Tina’s family makes a pilgrimage north of the city, to attend a big pre-Christmas charity book sale. The deals are such that they would take one’s breath away, I was told, and consequently the attendance is similarly staggering. To even contemplate going to this sale, it requires rising before the crack of dawn and standing in a frozen parking lot for your turn in the warehouse.

You can imagine my enthusiasm. There are several things I hate about life, which you have probably inferred by now:

  • Getting up before dawn.
  • Getting up at all, on weekends.
  • Being responsible for delivering groups of people to unfamiliar places.
  • Cold.
  • Being cold.
  • Standing out in the cold among crowds of hundreds of people.
  • Standing inside among crowds of hundreds of people.
  • People.

So while the tantalizing allure of $4 hardcover books was, I admit, compelling, you can understand that it was by no means a cinch.  I like cheap books as much as the next person, but wow:  I have never been viciously elbowed by so many middle-aged women in a forum where I am allowed no form of retaliaition, let me tell you.

But!  All’s well that ends well, because in among the Christmas presents and bizarre cookbooks that we found, I was able to dig out a little gem of my own.  I’m now on my second tour through the book, and I love it so much that I can’t help sharing my hearty recommendation with you all.


It’s important to realize that I came through my education focused on history, literature and my own growing proclivity for booze.  I love histories that can help me see culture through an interesting lens (I devoured a book about scurvy while lying on the dock of Tina’s family cottage, for instance) and if it isn’t evident by now, I’m absolutely fixated on liquor.

Hey!  Not just drinking it, thank you so very much.  I’m just as compelled by what seems to be an endlessly political, classist and altogether tawdry history attached to drinks and drinking, one that echoes and occasionally dictates the course of events for whole societies.

Not that a little rum in pineapple juice doesn’t make writing a book review easier, mind you.  Ahhh, I do love arbitrary statutory holidays.


Anyway, imagine my absolute glee when I came across the slim volume you see above, piled as it was among some disregarded wine encyclopedias and a book about gluten-free baking.  A wood-cut cover!  A twenty-five word or greater title!  A combination of social history, individual biography and one hundred sixteen drink recipes!  For four bucks! This was clearly a blessing, and even if the book was terrible, surely I could get a cocktail or two out of it.

Happily, I didn’t need to worry about compromise.  David Wondrich’s Imbibe!:  From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, A Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar is a treasure, and feels like it was written just for me.  At three hundred and thirty-six pages, it’s a happy hodge-podge of history and mixology, feeding both my intellectual and base appetites.

Wondrich’s original purpose was a tribute, a reprint of Jerry Thomas’ original volume on the art of the bartender — a craft that had, up until that point, been protected within the heads of its practitioners and passed on only by word of mouth or keen observation.  But as Wondrich notes:

…the more I worked on it, and the more I learned about Thomas and the origins of his book, the more five initials kept popping up in my head. W.W.J.T.D:  What Would Jerry Thomas Do? Would he be content to trudge  along like some electronic-age Bartleby, narrowly copying another’s work and keeping his thoughts on the matter mostly to himself?  Or would he have gone for it, using the occasion as an excuse to tell everything he knew?  The answer was obvious.  I could be true to Jerry Thomas’ book, or I could be true to Jerry Tomas.  I chose the latter.

Good thing, too.

The book opens with an overview of Jerry Thomas’ life, and in relating it, Wondrich offers up the broader world that Thomas worked in — America as it boiled up and tore apart during the Civil War, the dizzying gold and silver rushes that drew people by the droves out West, and the sporting culture that built a lifestyle out of winning fortunes overnight and blowing them just as quickly.

Wondrich’s portrait of Thomas is one of an adventurous and enterprising soul, both driven and rewarded by his gregarious nature.  Skilled and entertaining enough to write himself into culture, and forward-thinking enough to enshrine his legacy in print, through Wondrich’s narrative Thomas comes to embody the cocktail culture that became one of America’s great exports.

And that’s before we even get to the drinks!

Once the historical stage is set, Imbibe! proceeds on a pseudo-chronological tour of the history of cocktails.  The mixology begins with punches, which Wondrich posits were only included in Thomas’ original work because of pressure from the editor, but which also set the stage for everything that’s to come.  As the American drinker shifted away from a lifestyle that could allow them to stand around and drain a punch bowl over the course of an afternoon, so too did their beverages — faster, quicker and lighter drinks needed to present themselves to the new, modern and Industrialized American.

So the book moves through to punch in glass, which in turn give rise to Sours and Slings, Fizzes, Juleps and finally the proper cocktail.  On the way, Wondrich not only gives his notes on each individual recipe, providing advice on ingredients and execution for the best possible result, but also little capsule histories on the drinks themselves — the backgrounds of the regiments, regents, buildings or streets they’re named after; the roots of the unique ingredients they might include; or sometimes, just a funny story that the drink gives the excuse to tell.

In that very way, Imbibe! succeeds most handily.  Like his subject, Wondrich is engaging and gregarious, and carries you along by the sheer force of his enthusiasm. You’ll find lots of  books with cocktails in them, and probably just as many with drinks that date back to the period Wondrich is covering — but his tone is so conversational, the little tidbits and stories he shares are so fun and interesting, that you’ll be halfway through it before you realize you’re getting such a kick out of a recipe book.

That is, until the recipes kick you.  With 100 of Jerry Thomas’ classics included, as well as more than a dozen modern tributes to the original mixes, you are very unlikely to ever run out of options for a summer patio party, a winter evening, or even whiling away a Statutory Holiday afternoon.  I personally haven’t made it even halfway through the chapter on Sours yet, and there recipes in the Cocktails section are twice as bountiful.

History, biography, recipe and variety — and plus, I finally found out how you properly use the straining spoon in a bar kit.  If that isn’t worth picking up and adding to your collection, I can’t think of what is.

  • Tara

    Where exactly is this insane booksale? And, um, when does it occur?

    • Mike

      Ha, it’s the Pearson book sale up in Newmarket, and it happens sometime in November. The proceeds all go to charity, and they blow out a bunch of inventory that they can’t / won’t move prior to Christmas. A whole lot of it isn’t stuff I would normally buy, but man your standards really drop when the most expensive items are less than five bucks.

      • Tara

        Ah yes, standards when it comes to books! I’ve heard of them, but I can only grasp the vague notion of their existance.

        Have you been to the Book Expo? Your “standards” get even lower when the books are free.