Usually when we write about books on the blog, they're cookbooks. This book is a little different.
Part recipe book, part cocktail history and all rollicking ride through the stories that shaped the modern cocktail bar, David Wondrich's tome--whose complete title is Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar--is a must-read for anyone interested in cocktails or drinking history. In fact, the book, which was published in 2007, is such a wealth of knowledge that it's required reading for Anvil bartenders. Alba Huerta, who is about to open Southern cocktail bar Julep, said she often referenced Imbibe! while researching for the new concept.
The idea is to know not just how to make a drink, but why drinks are made the way they are. Imbibe! is probably the best guide out there to the whys and hows of making classic American cocktails.
The central figure in the book is "Professor" Jerry Thomas, considered the father of the American bar. For a long time, Thomas was largely overlooked by historians more interested in culinary history than that of the bar, a den of iniquity. But, as Wondrich writes, Thomas made sure he was not completely forgotten by serving as "his own Homer, telling his story to anyone who would listen and getting his deeds, his recipes between the covers of a book before anyone else."
In 1862, Thomas published his seminal guide to cocktails entitled, simply, How to Mix Drinks and later amended to The Bar-Tender's Guide. It was the first drink recipe book ever published in the United States. Up until that time, cocktail recipes had been passed down and disseminated orally. Thomas's book is also noteworthy because it contained more than just recipes. It recounted histories and formulated principles for mixing.
Of course, Wondrich notes, Thomas would have laughed at the notion that you could learn how to make cocktails from a book. I imagine anyone who's ever worked in a bar would have the same reaction. I held a brief stint as a bartender one summer, and just as reading a cookbook doesn't make you a chef, reading cocktail recipes will not teach you to tend bar.
Still, Thomas's book--and Wondrich's book by extension--is an excellent place to start, whether you're aiming to make drinks or merely sound really smart about them when you're trying to pick up chicks at a fancy cocktail bar.
Imbibe! is divided into nine chapters. The first two provide a history of Thomas's life and career and a primer on what bartending was like back in the day and in the modern era of mixology. The rest of the book is devoted to histories and recipes for 100 of the cocktails that Thomas first recorded. There's also a special section featuring recipes from some of today's top bartenders.
At times, some of the history lessons--particularly those on cocktail name origins--get a tad dense, but in general, the recounting of a golden bygone era of cocktail making is a treat. If you have any interest in drinking beyond, you know, getting drunk, you'll find Imbibe! an interesting companion.
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But remember, as Wondrich writes:
"This book can't teach you how to mix drinks like Jerry Thomas; No book can. The professor's art came from constant practice and the knowledge that what he was doing was important to his customers, and they'd think badly of him, who was as good a man as any of 'em, if he screwed it up...While that might not have you tossing drinks over your head in liquid rainbows as white rats frolic on your shoulders, it'll at least have you turning out some pretty damn tasty drinks."
Noted. Now where's my shaker?
You can find Imbibe! online, in most major bookstores (my favorite, Brazos Bookstore, stocked it for a while but is currently sold out) and as an ebook. It retails for $25 in stores and less than that online. I highly recommend it.