The best books about the history of alcoholic drinks

4 authors have picked their favorite books about the history of alcoholic drinks and why they recommend each book.

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Uncorking the Past

By Patrick E. McGovern,

Book cover of Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

Patrick McGovern is an archeologist on a mission to discover ancient tipples. In Uncorking the Past he recounts several of his most significant finds, including the world’s oldest-known manmade alcoholic beverage at Jiahu, a nine-thousand-year-old site near the Yellow River in north-central China. The story of its discovery—and recreation with Dogfish Head Brewery—is fascinating, but the explanation of the role of alcohol in neolithic Chinese life makes it required reading.

Who am I?

Derek Sandhaus is an award-winning American author of several books on Chinese history and culture. He worked as an editor, publisher, and tour guide in Shanghai, then moved to Chengdu and turned to drink. In 2018 he co-founded Ming River Sichuan Baijiu with China’s oldest distillery, and now spends most of his time talking about Chinese alcohol to anyone who will listen. He currently lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and a very well-traveled dog.


I wrote...

Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture

By Derek Sandhaus,

Book cover of Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture

What is my book about?

China is one of the world’s leading producers and consumers of liquor, with alcohol infusing all aspects of its culture, from religion and literature to business and warfare. Yet to the outside world, China’s most famous spirit, baijiu, remains a mystery. This is about to change, as baijiu is now being served in cocktail bars beyond its borders.

Drunk in China follows Derek Sandhaus’s journey of discovery into the world’s oldest drinking culture. He travels throughout the country and around the globe to meet with distillers, brewers, snake-oil salesmen, archaeologists, and ordinary drinkers. He examines the many ways in which alcohol has shaped Chinese society and its rituals. Along the way, he uncovers a tradition spanning more than nine thousand years and explores how recent economic and political developments have conspired to push Chinese alcohol beyond the nation’s borders for the first time. As Chinese society becomes increasingly international, its drinking culture must also adapt to the times. Can the West also adapt and clink glasses with China? 

Drink

By Iain Gately,

Book cover of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol

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.


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.

Everyday Drinking

By Kingsley Amis,

Book cover of Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis

The first book I read by British novelist Kingsley Amis was Lucky Jim, one of the greatest satires on academic life ever written (I do not, however, recommend reading it when you are applying for a teaching position as I foolishly did, since it will mess, mess, mess with your head). Amis enjoyed the drink far more than he should have, earning him the reputation, as he put it, “of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time.” His extensive familiarity with the bottom of a glass bore at least one good fruit. Everyday Drinking is a painfully witty, laugh-out-loud collection of essays and even quizzes on different kinds of alcohol from around the world. 


Who am I?

One of my fondest childhood memories is the holiday parties that my parents threw. Lying in bed I could hear roars of laughter crash the silence and gently ebb as the grownups shared stories and made merry. Later in life, I came to realize how different that kind of drinking is from the frat-boy binging of college and the anxious bracers at singles’ bars. As an adult, I became a Catholic theologian, got married, and had a family of my own. My wife Alexandra and I have relished an evening cocktail together in order to unwind and catch up on each other’s day (Alexandra has homeschooled all six of our children, which is itself a compelling reason to drink daily).


I wrote...

Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour

By Michael P. Foley,

Book cover of Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour

What is my book about?

Drinking with the Saints pairs beer, wine, and cocktail suggestions with the feast days of the Church year: you look up a date, read a brief sketch of the saint whose feast is being celebrated that day, and make a drink in his or her honor. The book contains over 350 cocktail recipes (38 of them original), and it even includes drinks for Lent. Besides all the tasty beverage ideas, Drinking with the Saints encourages a culture of Christian merriment and festivity. Christianity and alcohol have had a long and illustrious history together, from Chartreuse (made by Carthusian monks) to Trappist beer to Franciscan missionaries literally planting the seeds of the California wine industry.


Ancient Brews

By Patrick E. McGovern,

Book cover of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created

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.


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.

Proof

By Adam Rogers,

Book cover of Proof: The Science of Booze

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.  


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 Bad Catholic's Guide to Wine, Whiskey, & Song

By John Zmirak, Denise Matychowiak,

Book cover of The Bad Catholic's Guide to Wine, Whiskey, & Song: A Spirited Look at Catholic Life & Lore from the Apocalypse to Zinfandel

This could be the most bizarre monograph you will ever have on your bookshelf. The subtitle is no lie: for every letter of the alphabet, Zmirak has assembled an entertaining assortment of food recipes, drinking songs, history lessons, wine suggestions, or one of the Ten Commandments impishly explained. In the dedication, Zmirak and contributing author Denise Matychowiak list as their inspirations Pope Benedict XVI, food authors Paula Wolfert and M.F.K. Fisher, and Weird Al Yankovic. Need I say more?


Who am I?

One of my fondest childhood memories is the holiday parties that my parents threw. Lying in bed I could hear roars of laughter crash the silence and gently ebb as the grownups shared stories and made merry. Later in life, I came to realize how different that kind of drinking is from the frat-boy binging of college and the anxious bracers at singles’ bars. As an adult, I became a Catholic theologian, got married, and had a family of my own. My wife Alexandra and I have relished an evening cocktail together in order to unwind and catch up on each other’s day (Alexandra has homeschooled all six of our children, which is itself a compelling reason to drink daily).


I wrote...

Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour

By Michael P. Foley,

Book cover of Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour

What is my book about?

Drinking with the Saints pairs beer, wine, and cocktail suggestions with the feast days of the Church year: you look up a date, read a brief sketch of the saint whose feast is being celebrated that day, and make a drink in his or her honor. The book contains over 350 cocktail recipes (38 of them original), and it even includes drinks for Lent. Besides all the tasty beverage ideas, Drinking with the Saints encourages a culture of Christian merriment and festivity. Christianity and alcohol have had a long and illustrious history together, from Chartreuse (made by Carthusian monks) to Trappist beer to Franciscan missionaries literally planting the seeds of the California wine industry.


The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails

By Dave Wondrich, Noah Rothbaum (editor),

Book cover of The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails

This is the very first and very major reference work to cover the subjects of spirits, mixed drinks, cocktails, and the people who created them from a global perspective, providing authoritative, enlightening, and entertaining overviews. It makes this not only a valuable source but a great recreational read for enthusiasts to scan and share with friends and family. Into pub quizzes? This book offers enough libatious fodder to create thousands of brain-teasing questions.


Who am I?

I’ve been researching and writing with my co-author husband Jared Brown about spirits and mixed drinks for three decades. After writing more than three dozen books plus hundreds of articles about the history and origins of alcoholic beverages, you could say I am addicted to the topic in a big way. While we’ve travelled and tasted drinks around the world we’ve also amassed a few thousand books on the subject. It’s served as a launch point of our secondary careers as drinks consultants and master distillers for global spirits brands. I'm currently finishing my doctoral thesis on early-modern English brewing at the University of Bristol to put a feather on the cap of my long career.


I wrote...

Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two

By Anistatia R. Miller, Jared McDaniel Brown,

Book cover of Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two

What is my book about?

The second volume of an award-winning two-part history, Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Volume 2 revisits and revises much of what is generally known about spirits and mixed drink history, covering the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. A few surprises include the earliest known use of the word “cocktail” in a London newspaper in 1798; the Tom & Jerry was not named after or invented by Jerry Thomas; and the true stories behind the origins of both the Bloody Mary and Bloody Cesar. Spirituous Journey reminds readers that the world of spirits and drinks is more than just a shake, stir, or throw. There's pride in a rich history, too.

Cocktail Boothby's American Bartender

By William T. Boothby,

Book cover of Cocktail Boothby's American Bartender

William T. Boothby’s bartending guide was published 29 years after the first cocktail recipe book written in 1862 by American barman/impresario Jerry Thomas. In my opinion, Cocktail Boothby’s offers a more mature vision of cocktail culture in the 19th and early 20th century’s Golden Age, serving as a boozy time machine back to the era when many classic cocktails – the Manhattan, the Martini, the Mint Julep, to name a few – were born. Along with a thorough compendium of recipes, the book includes Boothby’s “Valuable Suggestions” to bartenders (“Do not serve a frosted glass to a gentleman who wears a mustache”) and his “Ten Commandments” of bartending, as well as a selection of old advertisements and various handwritten recipes. The author’s celebration of, as he calls it, “the art of mixology”, never fails to delight me.


Who am I?

Lesley Jacobs Solmonson has written the book Gin: A Global History and is completing Liqueur: A Global History. Her work has been seen in the Los Angeles Times, Imbibe, Sierra, and Gourmet. She is Senior Editor at Chilled magazine, as well as Cocktail/Spirits Historian at the Center of Culinary Culture in Los Angeles. With her husband David Solmonson, Lesley co-wrote The 12 Bottle Bar, a #1 best-selling cocktail book on Amazon. Named one of the “9 Best Cocktail Books" by the Independent UK, The 12 Bottle Bar is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of the American Cocktail. The Solmonsons’ work has been featured in numerous media outlets.


I wrote...

The 12 Bottle Bar: Make Hundreds of Cocktails with Just Twelve Bottles

By David Solmonson, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson,

Book cover of The 12 Bottle Bar: Make Hundreds of Cocktails with Just Twelve Bottles

What is my book about?

When the Cocktail Renaissance of the 21st century erupted, classic and modern recipes began to appear by the hundreds in magazines and books. As co-authors David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson started mixing and shaking, they quickly became disillusioned with the ingredient demands – availability, cost, and future usability – of the recipes. Surely, they thought, there was a better way to build a bar on a budget with a fixed number of bottles and still make a wide array of cocktails.

The ultimate goal was to write the kind of drink book you actually want to read. While the book is definitely an instruction manual for creating your bar and mixing drinks, it’s also a compendium of drink history, trivia, bar tricks, booze ballads, and just general nonsense.

The Cocktail Lab

By Tony Conigliaro,

Book cover of The Cocktail Lab: Unraveling the Mysteries of Flavor and Aroma in Drink, with Recipes

I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Tony Conigliaro’s Drink Factory laboratory in London where I found a mad scientist’s lair filled with complex, technical equipment, dry erase boards covered in formulas, and shelves of esoteric, bottled ingredients. While The Cocktail Lab finds a logical home in the era of molecular mixology, it is far more than that, showcasing its author as part chemist, part bartender, and part magician. First and foremost, the book captures what Conigliaro calls his “love affair with liquids”. The book’s cocktails – many of which I have tasted – are sensory experiences that capture not only flavors, but aromas, textures, and even memories. While modernizing many classic recipes, Conigliaro simultaneously pushes the definition of what a cocktail is and can be. For me, The Cocktail Lab celebrates the ever-evolving possibilities of liquid pleasure in the modern world and how a cocktail can be a transformative…


Who am I?

Lesley Jacobs Solmonson has written the book Gin: A Global History and is completing Liqueur: A Global History. Her work has been seen in the Los Angeles Times, Imbibe, Sierra, and Gourmet. She is Senior Editor at Chilled magazine, as well as Cocktail/Spirits Historian at the Center of Culinary Culture in Los Angeles. With her husband David Solmonson, Lesley co-wrote The 12 Bottle Bar, a #1 best-selling cocktail book on Amazon. Named one of the “9 Best Cocktail Books" by the Independent UK, The 12 Bottle Bar is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of the American Cocktail. The Solmonsons’ work has been featured in numerous media outlets.


I wrote...

The 12 Bottle Bar: Make Hundreds of Cocktails with Just Twelve Bottles

By David Solmonson, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson,

Book cover of The 12 Bottle Bar: Make Hundreds of Cocktails with Just Twelve Bottles

What is my book about?

When the Cocktail Renaissance of the 21st century erupted, classic and modern recipes began to appear by the hundreds in magazines and books. As co-authors David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson started mixing and shaking, they quickly became disillusioned with the ingredient demands – availability, cost, and future usability – of the recipes. Surely, they thought, there was a better way to build a bar on a budget with a fixed number of bottles and still make a wide array of cocktails.

The ultimate goal was to write the kind of drink book you actually want to read. While the book is definitely an instruction manual for creating your bar and mixing drinks, it’s also a compendium of drink history, trivia, bar tricks, booze ballads, and just general nonsense.

Alcoholic Republic

By William J. Rorabaugh,

Book cover of Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition

Rorabaugh argues convincingly that alcohol of several types—but mostly rum and whisky—were part and parcel of, and at times even drove, early national American culture. Solo and group binges increased from 1790 to 1820 as the population tried to adapt to anxious and uncertain changes in their lives. Drinking became aligned with liberty—taverns were the “seedbeds of the revolution” and the “nurseries of freedom.” And although boozing came to be an early element in what was defined as the American character, the temperance movement was not far off.


Who am I?

I’m a professor at Northland College (WI) and an American environmental historian with specialties in wine, food, and horticulture. I mostly write on alcohol, garden history, botany, and orchids. The history of alcohol is wild, fraught, and charged with power—I’ll never tire of learning about it.


I wrote...

Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America

By Erica Hannickel,

Book cover of Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America

What is my book about?

The lush, sun-drenched vineyards of California evoke a romantic, agrarian image of winemaking, though in reality, the industry reflects American agribusiness at its most successful. Nonetheless, this fantasy is deeply rooted in the history of grape cultivation in America. Empire of Vines traces the development of wine culture as grape growing expanded from New York to the Midwest before gaining ascendancy in California--a progression that illustrates viticulture's centrality to the nineteenth-century American projects of national expansion and the formation of a national culture.

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