The best books on the joys of alcoholic beverages

Who are we?

Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle are both curators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  Rob is a molecular systematist who has done research on everything from fruit fly diversity to human language, and Ian is a specialist in the study of human evolution and primates. They have collaborated on several exhibition projects, including the American Museum’s Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, and have written several books together, including the trilogy we are featuring here.

I wrote...

A Natural History of Wine

By Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle, Patricia J. Wynne (illustrator)

Book cover of A Natural History of Wine

What is my book about?

A Natural History of Wine (and its companion volumes A Natural History of Beer and the forthcoming Distilled: A Natural History of Spirits) all involve the science behind the alcoholic beverages we enjoy. Having long relied on wine for inspiration while writing books on subjects as diverse as race and the origin of humans, we ultimately realized that this magical drink brings together many different branches of science, from anthropology to zoology via areas as disparate as astrophysics, neurobiology, systematics, and ecology.

And as forbidding as those subjects may sound, we realized that all are much more fun and accessible when seen through the lens of wine. We also discovered just how much understanding a drink’s history, and how it found its way to that glass in your hand, enhances one’s enjoyment of it.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created

Ian Tattersall Why did I love this book?

Patrick (Dr. Pat) McGovern, the Indiana Jones of ancient alcoholic beverages, takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through the nine extreme brewed beverages of history. On these journeys, McGovern is at once an archaeologist, a chemist, and a homebrewer.  His book is an amazing compilation of the mechanics of brewing both ancient and modern, and a wonderful comment on the human propensity for drinking and enjoying fermented and brewed beverages. It includes some recipes and food pairings for the ancient brews it describes. This book is a must-have for any beer aficionado, brewer, homebrewer, or even your everyday barstool cowboy.

By Patrick E. McGovern,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ancient Brews as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Patrick E. McGovern takes us on a fascinating journey through time to the dawn of brewing when our ancestors might well have made a Palaeo-Brew of fruits, honey, cereals and botanicals. Early beverage-makers must have marvelled at the process of fermentation, their amazement growing as they drank the mind-altering drinks which were to become the medicines, religious symbols and social lubricants of later cultures.

McGovern circles the globe-to China, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Scandinavia, Honduras, Peru and Mexico-interweaving archaeology and science to tell stories of making liquid time capsules. Accompanying homebrew interpretations and matching meal recipes help bring the past alive,…

Book cover of The Terroir of Whiskey: A Distiller's Journey Into the Flavor of Place

Ian Tattersall Why did I love this book?

Terroir of whiskey? Come on! It’s just distilled grain, right? Rob Arnold begs to disagree, vigorously arguing the case for terroir in whiskey. His thesis that the areas producing the raw materials for whiskey have a profound impact on drink’s flavor and character is a difficult one to test, but he manages in this book to clearly lay out the science of such terroir. Along the way, there are brilliant examples of whiskey distilling, the role of ingredients in whiskey making, and the cultural and social contexts of the beverage. His book sometimes reads like a detective story, making his overall thesis entertaining and compelling.

By Rob Arnold,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Terroir of Whiskey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Look at the back label of a bottle of wine and you may well see a reference to its terroir, the total local environment of the vineyard that grew the grapes, from its soil to the climate. Winemakers universally accept that where a grape is grown influences its chemistry, which in turn changes the flavor of the wine. A detailed system has codified the idea that place matters to wine. So why don't we feel the same way about whiskey?

In this book, the master distiller Rob Arnold reveals how innovative whiskey producers are recapturing a sense of place to…

Book cover of Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours

Ian Tattersall Why did I love this book?

This enormous volume is not for the faint of heart – or for the thin of wallet – but it is the most comprehensive account available of the many hundreds of different grape varieties that are made into wine. It is the varietal that makes the greatest contribution to the characteristics of each wine and that helps make each bottle you open distinctive, and Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vuillamoz profile nearly 1,400 grape varieties providing descriptions and thumbnail histories and the latest DNA-based conclusions on how they are all related. If this book does not start you thirsting to open a Graševina, a Nosiola, or a Tribidrag at the earliest opportunity, nothing will!

By Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wine Grapes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An indispensable book for every wine lover, from some of the world's greatest experts.

Where do wine grapes come from and how are they related to each other? What is the historical background of each grape variety? Where are they grown? What sort of wines do they make and, most importantly, what do they taste like?

Using the most cutting-edge DNA analysis and detailing almost 1,400 distinct grape varieties, as well as myriad correct (and highlighting almost as many incorrect) synonyms, this particularly beautiful book includes revelatory grape family trees, and a rich variety of illustrations from Viala and Vermorel's…

Book cover of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol

Ian Tattersall Why did I love this book?

People have been making and drinking alcoholic beverages for as long as the technology has been around that allows them to do so – some 8,000 years, as it turns out. In this glorious gallop through the long and varied history – or, rather, multifarious histories – of beer, wine, and spirits around the world, packed with odd facts that will make you a champ at any booze trivia quiz, Iain Gately entertainingly shows how tightly intertwined the various forms of alcoholic beverages have been over the centuries with the societies that produce them, and how our western love/hate relationship with the demon alcohol has evolved.

By Iain Gately,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Drink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A spirited look at the history of alcohol, from the dawn of civilization to the modern day

Alcohol is a fundamental part of Western culture. We have been drinking as long as we have been human, and for better or worse, alcohol has shaped our civilization. Drink investigates the history of this Jekyll and Hyde of fluids, tracing mankind's love/hate relationship with alcohol from ancient Egypt to the present day.

Drink further documents the contribution of alcohol to the birth and growth of the United States, taking in the War of Independence, the Pennsylvania Whiskey revolt, the slave trade, and…

Book cover of Proof: The Science of Booze

Ian Tattersall Why did I love this book?

Any distiller, even a moonshiner, has to be a respectably good intuitive chemist; and as Adam Rogers shows in this very readable book, distilling is just the tip of the iceberg of the science that goes into producing the spirits we drink. There is science in the selection of ingredients for distilling – which include the yeasts that ferment the sugars in a huge variety of grains to produce the initial alcohol, the grains themselves, and, once the distilling is done, the aging and the addition of botanicals, if any. And then there is the science of understanding the effects of alcohol on the body, and particularly on the brain, although, sadly, Rogers can’t convincingly report the discovery of a sure-fire hangover cure.  

By Adam Rogers,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Proof as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller, science journalist Adam Rogers's Proof is a spirited narrative on the fascinating art and science of alcohol, sure to inspire cocktail party chats on making booze, tasting it, and its effects on our bodies and brains, from "one of the best science writers around" (National Geographic).

Winner of Gourmand Award for Best Spirits Book
An IACP Cookbook Awards Winner
Finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

Humans have been perfecting alcohol production for ten thousand years, but scientists are just starting to distill the chemical reactions behind the perfect buzz. In a…

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By Sharman Apt Russell,

Book cover of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

Sharman Apt Russell Author Of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

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Who am I?

Author Explorer Runner Mother

Sharman's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Citizen Scientist begins with this extraordinary statement by the Keeper of Entomology at the London Museum of Natural History, “Study any obscure insect for a week and you will then know more than anyone else on the planet.”

As the author chases the obscure Western red-bellied tiger beetle across New Mexico, where she lives, she explores a dozen other citizen science programs with lyrical prose, humor, and a profound sense of connection to place. Diary of a Citizen Scientist celebrates a renewed optimism in the mysteries of the world and a renewed faith in how ordinary people can contribute to science and environmental activism.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

By Sharman Apt Russell,

What is this book about?

A critically acclaimed nature writer explores the citizen scientist movement through the lens of entomological field research in the American Southwest.

Award-winning nature writer Sharman Apt Russell felt pressed by the current environmental crisis to pick up her pen yet again. Encouraged by the phenomenon of citizen science, she decided to turn her attention to the Western red-bellied tiger beetle, an insect found widely around the world and near her home in the Gila River Valley of New Mexico.

In a lyrical, often humorous voice, Russell shares her journey across a wild, rural landscape tracking this little-known species, an insect…

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Interested in the history of alcoholic drinks, brewing, and whisky?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the history of alcoholic drinks, brewing, and whisky.

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