Cocktails on bar

Book review: The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails

Image credit: Cristi Lucaci/Dreamstime

A weighty new guide provides everything there is to know about the history of spirits, including the technology behind their production.

The only meaningful way to review a dictionary, particularly one as all-encompassing and weighty as this 834-page, 3.5kg behemoth, is to test it against the database of your own knowledge of its subject. In this case it’s spirits and cocktails, or, for this reviewer, mostly spirits.

I have to confess that, despite having been on the wagon for some time, I can claim a certain experience of the spirit world (nothing to do with spiritualism), gained during my Soviet youth and later – particularly when researching my own ‘Borders Up! Eastern Europe through the Bottom of a Glass’.

Let’s open my book’s first edition to part two, ‘Spirits Lands’, where the first word is ‘aqua vitae’. According to 'The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails’ (Oxford University Press, £45, ISBN 9780199311132) this is “one of the oldest European terms for distilled spirits, its first documented use coming in the 1270s in a series of similar treatises on distillation variously and loosely attributed to Taddeo Alderotti (1223-1303) and Teodorico Borgognoni (1205-1298), both physicians, practising in Bologna”.

What can I say? I had certainly been unaware of the roles of the two signori in the history of distillation. But this is what a good reference book does: now, not only do I know their names, but I am also keenly aware of the fact that they both lived into their eighties and nineties respectively – a rare occurrence at the time, which I would safely attribute to the regular consumption of the spirits they were themselves distilling. The power of esoteric knowledge!

The second spirit mentioned in ‘Spirits Lands’ is – unsurprisingly – vodka, which, according to editors David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum, is...

Wait a moment; the entry on vodka takes up five whole double pages of 'The Companion'! It is a complete illustrated treatise in its own right, with its own sub-chapters (‘Vodka’s Rise’, ‘Vodka and the Global Community’ etc) and a list of reference sources. I won’t be able to reproduce it all here, but will limit myself to just one definition of vodka as “the world’s most popular, bestselling spirit” – a statement that’s difficult to argue with. Unlike, it has to be said, the suggested origin of vodka, which, to my knowledge, has always been disputed by Russia and Poland. 'The Companion’, however, points out the Italian city-state of Genoa around 1290 as the drink’s likeliest origin. If that is indeed the case, then the spirit they have in mind must have had a different, Italian-sounding name, for ‘vodka’ means ‘little water’ both in Polish and in old Russian, but not, from what I know, in Italian. We would then be asking at bars not for ‘vodka martini’, say, but for a ‘poca aqua martini’!

An entry on vodka is, of course, a must in any dictionary, and not just that of drinks, but how about some more obscure spirits, mentioned in the same chapter of my book? Like, say, Unicum – a Hungarian dark and sticky liquor that, in my experience, tends to give you a headache even before you start drinking it. Not a word on it in 'The Companion’, which also stays mum on the Luxembourg-made Black Death (which I tried and survived), and on the Danish liqueur North Sea Oil (which I – wisely, I suspect – did not try).

I was nevertheless ready to forgive the compilers of 'The Companion’ for such minor omissions on discovering in their highly knowledgeable dictionary such warmly familiar words as nalivka – “the Russian term for aromatic liqueur made from fruits or berries” (my granny used to make it), and my favourite, Zubrowka – “a brand of flavoured rye vodka produced from 1928 Polmos Bialystok”, whose name “is derived from zubr (‘bison’) in recognition of the last several hundred European bison that roam Puszcza Bialowiecka”. A shot of Zubrowka would come in handy when pronouncing these two Polish words!

Cheers to all the remaining bison of the world!

Sorry, but leafing through this magnificent 'Companion', I nearly forgot I was temporarily teetotal...

Apart from the detailed descriptions of the technologies of different drinks’ distillation, the capacious 'Companion' carries recipes of all imaginable cocktails – from Batanga and Fuzzy Navel to Sex on the Beach and Woo Woo – so it can also be used by mixologists as a recipe book. It also contains lists of the world’s best bars, bartenders, ‘spirit personalities’, and something that will be particularly welcome to readers of E&T, an appendix outlining ‘A Simple Timeline of Distillation’.

In all seriousness, I greatly enjoyed perusing this voluminous book and will hugely enjoy owning it (though I will have to make some space on my sagging bookshelves first), and occasionally even using it as (or rather instead of while I’m abstaining) a nightcap.

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