For those of you who missed yesterday’s Kansas City Star, here’s a list of some worthy cocktails and spirits reads. For those of you who did see it, read on—there are a few extra bits that didn’t make it into the printed version.
The King of Vodka—Linda Himelstein recounts Pyotr Smirnov’s rise from serfdom to dominate Russia’s vodka industry. How it became one of the world’s best-selling premium spirits brands is riveting tale. And it turns out that moonshine and efforts at prohibition were rampant in Russia long before the Americans thought of them. Which brings me to Samogon. The Russian word means “home distilled,” and there was undoubtedly a lot of it around in Smirnov’s time. Here in Kansas City, we get something better—a new premium spirit that might remind you of grappa, or perhaps pisco, but that is entirely its own thing. See what bartenders like Arturo Vera-Felicie are doing with it, or check out Jason Burton’s review in the latest Tastebud.
Boozehound—Jason Wilson’s romp through the spirits world in search of intense, complex flavors. My favorite of his finds: Cocchi Barolo Chinato, a lush, bitter Barolo-based digestif. Look for it at Michael Smith and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, as well as retailers including Gomer’s Midtown and Cellar Rat. It’s also at Grünauer, where the KCBA’s Brandon Cummins graciously treated me to a glass last Friday.
Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails—Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail, published the first edition of this book in 2004, back when orange bitters, Fernet Branca, rye whiskey and other once-common ingredients were all but extinct. Happily, times have changed. Haigh’s added more recipes and an appendix of personalities driving modern cocktail culture, but the book’s premise still holds true. Want more? Read his stuff at Imbibe Magazine.
Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl—Punch is no less than the foundation of the cocktail, and David Wondrich traces its arc from the 1600s, through the height of civilized popularity, and then into ignominy by the mid-1800s. There it languished—until now. Bartenders are again making punch, thanks in part to this book. Check out the Birdie’s “Country Fair” Punch made by the glass at The Rieger, or call well ahead to order a whole bowl.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition—Daniel Okrent’s answer to the question “How did it happen?” explores the forces that resulted in the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. Women’s suffrage, religion, racism, political machinations, xenophobia, war, greed, crime, naïveté — it’s all here. What you can’t find might be in Ken Burns’ forthcoming PBS series about Prohibition, to which Okrent contributed.
The World Atlas of Whisky—Dave Broom juxtaposes terroir with distilling creativity in this of some 350 whiskies. Wondering what to expect from that bottle of Amrut Indian whiskey you found at Cellar Rat? This book will tell you. Hurry, though. I’ve heard Amrut lost its local distributor, so the bottles at Cellar Rat may be it for a while. Want a taste before you buy the book? Read what Broom’s been writing in Whisky Magazine.
The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto—Bernard DeVoto’s book is delightful for the language alone. “This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections grow and valor is reborn,” DeVoto writes of that most civilized of inventions, the cocktail hour. Lovely stuff.