Saturday, January 16, 2010

Weekend Cooking...How's Yours Drink? [6]

How's Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well by Eric Felten
(Agate Publishing, ISBN 978-1-57284-101-7)

Now let me just say right up front, I am not a big drinker. Really!
Yes, I have been known to enjoy a nice dark beer (oh, do not get me started on the vile, watery liquid sold by Budweiser) or a glass of wine with dinner or even a fruity cocktail on a summer day. Maybe two. And I always thought it would be nice to have a signature drink, a classic cocktail you could fall back and order when the opportunity calls.

But more than the actual alcohol, I find the whole culture of alcohol fascinating. Maybe it was growing up in a bar, probably being in the bar that my parents own every day from the time they bought it when I was 6, until the time I graduated from college and my mom sold it. All the variety of bottles behind the beautiful mahogany bar, different colors, different shapes- a variety of different glasses, shakers, strainers..that long skinny spoon used to get an olive or cherry out of the jar. I have toured beer breweries (Budweiser...beautiful, historic brewery...watery beer made with RICE!) and whiskey distilleries in several countries, and I find them very interesting. The history, the technique, the whole interplay of our culture and alcohol is intriguing, and now I have found the perfect book to feed that interest!

In How's Your Drink, Mr. Felten takes us on a charming tour of the history of the cocktail, from the questionable origin of that name, up to the present day, and my personal pet peeve, the misuse of the term martini to name every mess poured into a martini glass. Gin, arguably vodka, and vermouth, historically a dash of bitters, shake with ice...martini.
"Thus we have Martinis and Vodka Martinis, but what of the dizzying variety of pretenders that have usurped hat cocktail honorific in recent years? The distinguishing characteristics of the modern bar has been the surfeit of "Martini" that aren't Martinis-those candy-colored cocktails with labels like "Raspberry Martini" or Apple-tini" that fill out the the inevitable "Martini List. For the purist, it's bad enough that a drink of vodka and vermouth is referred to as a Martini. But one doesn't have to be a stickler to realize that a drink of vodka, sweet liqueur, and fruit juice is not a Martini."
Oh, Mr. Felten, you are my hero! Let's start a petition, pass a law!!

But the joy does not end there. Felten takes us on a tour through the history of the last several hundred years, tracking the origins of any number of classic drinks and the role those cocktails have played in our culture, in politics, in the military, in film and, very interestingly, in literature. Any number of people make an appearance in the stories he shares, from Teddy Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, James Bond (and let it be known, he drank many more interesting things than that always mentioned stirred martini), John Updike (who he claims killed the Old Fashioned), to Dickens and my personal favorite, Lucy the chimp.
"You don't have to be a nuclear scientist to enjoy a G&T (gin and tonic). When Lucy the chimpanzee was famously learning sign language, she picked up a few other human habits as well. Jane Goodall recounted her experience meeting Lucy in the book ; 'I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic' Lucy 'took the drink to the TV' and after a little channel surfing, turned off the set, 'as though in disgust.' Lucy had taste in drinks and entertainment."
There are many recipes of classic cocktails, along with their often fascinating histories, and other related stories, like the story of a New England merchant who made his fortune shipping ice in ships from the frozen ponds of his home to ports as far away as Calcutta...really.

Bottom line, Mr. Felten believes that how we drink and what we drink speaks to who we are and how we want to be seen by the world. And he offers himself as a guide through this world, with great trivia, great stories, definitive recipes and any number of amusing and serious anecdotes.
"Let's resolve to avoid tedium at the cocktail hour and recognize that in some ways, drink choices are like that of wardrobe...To know the what, the when, and the where of cocktails, we need to know more than just what's tasty- the culture, the business, and even the politics of liquor. The more we know about drinks, heir origins, their literature, and their lore, the better equipped we are to clothe ourselves in the right cocktail. How's Your Drink? is devoted to enjoying these social lubricants, and enjoying them with style."
Mr. Felten, who also writes a column in the Wall Street Journal, has written a delightful, entertaining guide to this important aspect of our culture, maybe best enjoyed with a Dark and Stormy or a Dubonnet Cocktail, straight up or on the rocks. Because you know we Americans love our ice.

This is my contribution this week to Weekend Cooking. Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.


  1. I wonder what the fact that I rarely drink says about me? The book does sound interesting.

  2. Wow! This was so beautifully written with just the right illustrations and quotes. I'd say I'll read the book but the truth is I'll read your review again and maybe again. Thanks for brightening my morning.

  3. Fabulous review. Really. The book sounds so interesting -- I love food history. You used some great quotes. I am definitely adding this one to my foodie wish list.

  4. What a great coffee table book! I enjoy a cocktail of vodka and Sprite with a twist of lime myself. This sounds like a very interesting book and I'm adding it to my list too!

  5. My husband is a most excellent mixer of drinks, so we partake on a regular basis. Plus the wine of course. But we are not alkies, I swear! Since going on the Game On Diet though, there is much less alcohol being consumed in our house, which is a big bummer. I'm pretty sure I would enjoy this little read. I'm making note!

  6. Personally I'm not a martini drinker but I do like some of those other drinks that they call martinis. Just wish they would stop putting them in the martini cups which I tend to slosh half the drink out of onto my hand or top. arg.

  7. This sounds like a really interesting book. I am so clueless when it comes to drinking because I so rarely do it! On New Year's Eve I pretty much let the waitress suggest my drink because I wanted something but had no clue what. :-)

  8. this is a book that might guide the not too frequent drinker to an understanding of what cocktail they might order when called upon to order a New Years.

    I found it interesting that, as he tell the story in his book, the astronauts were direct to what they should drink when they appeared in public. A great belief that the drink made the man...or astronauts. A tall highball was the drink...

  9. I don't drink at all but this book sounds really interesting! :-) I am so clueless when it comes to the history and culture of drinking so I think I'd learn a lot.

  10. Even if you don't drink, the stories and their tie-ins to history and movies and books, is very interesting...IMHO, of course.


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