Three books on the science and history of boozy delights, recommended by Casey Selden, Fellow of Odd Salon, home brewer and cocktail science aficionado.
I bought my first home brewing kit at the end of 2008, when I moved to San Francisco. Since then, every few months I get the urge to pull out my brew pot and make some kitchen science / magic. My mind knows it’s science happening in that carboy, but when you participate in this process, it feels a lot like magic. You combine strange-smelling ingredients in a 5-gallon cauldron, boil them for an hour, and then the next day the concoction you made starts to burble and belch like a living thing, and eventually a delicious potion results from this strange process that makes your feel funny when consumed. To feed the logical, “I know it’s science” side of this equation, I started to read more and more about the history and science of this practice of this potion making process. Here are three of my favorite resources on the subject.
Tom Standage, Bloomsbury, 2005
“John Adams, by then one of the country’s founding fathers, wrote to a friend: “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes.”
“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever,”…. sounds like something that an Oddling might say, but it’s actually a quote from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. Delightful gems of in-depth and boozy research like this are sprinkled about in this book, which divides world history into chapters themed around beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. Each one is copiously thorough on the whos and wheres and whens of each of these iconic beverages, but the tone is much more scholarly and less lubricated than the next book on this list.
Wayne Curtis, Crown Publishing Group, 2006
“Rum has always had a distinctly American swagger. It is untutored and proud of it, raffish, often unkempt, and a little bit out of control. The history of rum tends toward the ignoble, many times pleasingly so.”
Wayne Curtis traces the history of America in 10 chapters, telling this tale through the lens of whichever boozy rum concoction was popular at the time. From the Kill-Devil of Barbados to the lawless pirate period of the Caribbean, to the Rum-and-Coke of the midcentury, Curtis’s historic tone is delightfully story-forward, like a buzzed friend telling you pirate tales across a candlelit bar table. BONUS: Each chapter comes with a cocktail recipe, so you can play along.
Adam Rogers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
“William Faulkner is supposed to have said, “Civilization begins with distillation,” but I’d push even further — beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, mead, sake … all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.”
This book is perhaps my favorite of the three, because it blends together (whiskey pun intended) the strengths of the previous two. Rogers takes his reader on a journey to understand the intricacies of the science behind the booze, blending history with chemistry with personal experience to create a very readable and information-rich tomb. He illustrates his lessons through a series of field trips to labs, industrial production facilities, yeast libraries, scotch distilleries and even a warehouse in Brooklyn where the staff plays Drum ’n Bass music to its barrels at night to speed up aging and induce the Angel’s Share.
Casey Selden is a Fellow of Odd Salon and a fermentation dabbler. She’s made beer, cider and wine for kicks in her kitchen, and if you are a willing distilling teacher, please be in touch! When not writing educational lectures aimed at drunkards for Odd Salon, she works writing educational museum tours aimed at drunkards for Museum Hack. Details and discounts on summer tours here: Museum Hack San Francisco
Books to inspire, awe & bewilder: See all our book reviews here: THREE ODD BOOKS
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