The best books on the joys of alcoholic beverages

Ian Tattersall Author Of A Natural History of Wine
By Ian Tattersall

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.

The books I picked & why

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Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created

By Patrick E. McGovern,

Book cover of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created

Why 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.


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

By Rob Arnold,

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

Why 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.


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

By Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz

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

Why 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!


Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol

By Iain Gately,

Book cover of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol

Why 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.


Proof: The Science of Booze

By Adam Rogers,

Book cover of Proof: The Science of Booze

Why 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.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

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

5,888 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.

The History Of Alcoholic Drinks Explore 14 books about the history of alcoholic drinks
Brewing Explore 9 books about brewing
Whisky Explore 21 books about whisky

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Uncorking the Past, Everyday Drinking, and The Bad Catholic's Guide to Wine, Whiskey, & Song if you like this list.