Poetry and prose, as we know, is strewn with boozy content—from Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Bukowski to Hunter S. Thompson, Dorothy Parker and Tennessee Williams. These aren’t lifestyles to recommend or emulate, necessarily, but those authors and others like them sure did leave some tremendously sozzled writing behind.
Of course, the treasures that the aforementioned writers gave us are well known. Less well known, perhaps, are some soberer writings about wine, whiskey and other libations, any of which would make for a terrific holiday gift for your favorite book and booze lover—or be worth a trip to the library to read for yourself. Some are new, some not so new. All of them are great reads.
Teetotalers, foodies, gardeners, naturalists and drinkers alike will find Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist a fascinating read. Subtitled The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, Stewart takes the reader on a dizzying historical tour of the plants—obscure and otherwise, from rice and barley to fungus and flowers—that have found their way into alcoholic libations over time. There’s even practical info like drink recipes and gardening tips for the home gardener/mixologist.
Another excellent alcohol-related history is Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. While today we may think of bars as places to forget our troubles, meet interesting strangers, gather socially or just get sloshed, Sismondo reminds us that bars in America have always been the place where political and social movements were hatched. And, as nutty as Utah’s present-day Zion curtain seems, Sismondo reminds us that there are bizarre and byzantine liquor laws throughout the country that can give you a hangover just thinking about them.
Jon Bonné—wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle—knows as much about California wine as anyone I can think of. And, with his book The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wine Behind a Revolution in Taste, he raises the curtain on California winemaking and shares insights into that industry that could only be unearthed by someone so close to it. There’s no sugar-coating here; Bonné’s authoritative look at California wine is unflinching.
If I had to narrow a bookish gift down to a single one for a wine lover, I’d probably choose from Jay McInerney’s three outstanding books about wine: Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, The Juice: Vinous Veritas or A Hedonist in the Cellar. All are first-rate. No one writes more engagingly or with more passion about wine than McInerney, but his wine prose isn’t solely for snobs. In fact, folks who care and know zero about wine would love passages like this one about Riesling: “Riesling is a Laurence Olivier of a grape, capable of playing everything from farce to Othello.” McInerney is money.
Simply put, there is no better wine reference book on the planet than the new, seventh edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. It’s an absolute must for wine enthusiasts: an essential, authoritative and beautifully produced wine companion that is so much more valuable than its $35 street price might suggest.
Finally, for sheer boozy pleasure, I recommend sitting down with a glass of Port and indulging in Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking. The newest paperback version has an introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens. With essays like “The Hangover,” “How Not to Get Drunk,” “First Thoughts on Wine,” and “What to Drink with What,” Booklist got it right with what it said about Everyday Drinking: “It’s refreshing to see an artifact from a more hedonistic era.”