Recent reading, drinks edition

Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails, Tony Abou-Ganim with Elizabeth Faulkner — Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States, except among fancy mixologists. As craft cocktails have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, whiskey, gin, rum, bitter and herbal liqueurs, and other flavorful spirits have found favor with bartenders. Vodka, though in demand from many consumers, often struggles to find a place on the menu.

Vodka doesn’t have much presence in the canon of vintage American cocktails, which is one reason cocktail bars shun the spirit. Whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, and fortified wines abound in vintage books. Vodka arrived late on the scene, not taking off in the United States until enterprising marketers mixed it with ginger beer to create the Moscow Mule, served in frosty copper mugs. This early success set a smart strategy for vodka: Rely on other ingredients to provide flavor and present cocktails in a striking way.

Like many bartenders, I tend to avoid vodka on my own menus. There are a limited number of ounces to work with in a drink and it can seem a waste to use them up on a spirit that is legally defined in the United States as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” With the wealth of other spirits now available, there is almost always something available to complement the other elements of a drink and provide additional layers of complexity: The botanicals of gin or aquavit, the funky notes of rum or cachaca, the oakiness of cognac or whiskey. Why opt for vodka instead?

Thus Tony Abou-Ganim has his work cut out for him Vodka Distilled. Abou-Ganim aims to fix the disconnect between consumers who love vodka and the craft bartenders who often ignore it. With more than three decades in the industry, including landmarks such as Po and the Bellagio, there’s no one better suited to do it.

“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me to write this book,” writes Abou-Ganim in the introduction. He also disputes the popular notion that all vodkas are the same. “Think about tasting and comparing one vodka to another not, not as comparing apples to oranges but akin to comparing apples to apples — apples of the same variety grown in different orchards with differing geography and under various climate and nutrient conditions.” Though subtle, the differences are there.

Following his advice, I pulled out the myriad bottles of vodka I’ve acquired over the years, most of them never opened, and had an impromptu tasting. I tried them first neat at room temperature, then again after chilling in the freezer. It’s been a long time since I put much thought into tasting vodka, and I have to admit that it was a worthwhile experience. Subtle nuances were readily apparent and drinking them chilled was enjoyable.

The most valuable part of the book may be the chapter of vodka cocktail recipes. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, one’s guests (at home or in a bar) are likely to request vodka cocktails from time to time. It’s good to have some drinks up your sleeve. Vodka Distilled provides a good selection. And while I might be tempted to substitute gin in a few of them, they make a tasty collection of classics and a few new creations.

Other sections of the book look at vodka and caviar pairing — currently out of the budget of this reviewer; regulations and definitions; methods of production; and tasting notes on 58 different vodkas. Photographer Tim Turner’s work is elegant. I learned quite a bit from the book, and recommend it.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, Amy Stewart — How much fun can a book that’s essentially an orderly listing of plant facts be? If it’s about how plants are transformed into drinks and it’s written by Amy Stewart, quite a lot. I found myself eagerly consuming The Drunken Botanist — sassafras to sundew to sweet woodruff, to take a random selection — on a long plane trip. It begins with the plants used for fermentation of alcohol, moves on to those used for flavoring during productions, and ends with fresh ingredients added at the last minute in the making of cocktails.

The book includes recipes and tips for gardening, though I’m going to find the most use of it as a very thorough reference (at least until I move into a place more friendly to growing plants). It’s engagingly written and highly informative, easily one of the best drink books to come out last year.

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, Tom Acitelli — Maureen Ogle, who has been the go-to historian of American beer since the publication of her book Ambitious Brew, endorses Tom Acitelli’s history of modern American craft brewing: “My reign is over. Craft beer has a new historian, and I hereby hand my crown to him (and do so with good cheer).”

It’s a very thorough, well-researched book, and covers both the very early days of brewing at Anchor and New Albion along with recent developments. (Maybe I’m being provincial, but my one complaint is that the Pacific Northwest brewing scene seemed to be a bit neglected.) The history may be too detailed for a casual reader who’s not deeply into beer, but for those who are, this is the book to get.

Bar Jutsu: The American Art of Bar Fighting, James Porco — This book isn’t about drinking, but rather the potentially violent situations that arise when people drink too much. Having spent most of bartending career in genteel spots like The Carlyle and Metrovino, my qualifications for reviewing a book on bar brawls are extremely dubious. I did fence in college though, and took a year of aikido, so my skills may come in handy if a fight ever breaks out while I’m sabering a bottle of champagne.

James Porco, a professional bouncer and certified ninjitsu instructor, is qualified to write one. His book explains basic techniques, with an emphasis on ideally avoiding violent confrontation altogether and on ending it as quickly as possible with strategic grapples when fights do erupt. It’s written in a jokey style, sometimes veering too much into bro territory, with some amusing real life anecdotes involving pickle fights and drunken circus clowns (really). Techniques are broken down with photographs and instructions. You’ll need a partner to practice the maneuvers, and learning from a book is much harder than learning in person, but there seems to be enough detail here to try things out. It’s a fun book with some sound advice that, hopefully, one won’t have many occasions to use.

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