A trifecta of international spirits books for the festive season and beyond »
What’s your fave spirit? Gin, whisky, bourbon and more, these have you covered
By Robyn Lewis
Spirits are hot right now, especially anything hand-made or that speaks of provenance. From gins, whiskies, bourbons and brandies to vodka, grappa and rum, they are on a roll, fuelled by a resurgence in cocktails, the craft movement, and perhaps a desire for value and taste without having to get all cerebral about what you are drinking.
Books like these help you decipher all those labels appearing in bars and bottleshops, and give ideas for what to do with them other than drink them neat. Summer cocktails, anyone? Bring them on!
First is The Australian Spirits Guide by drinks writer and Melbourne whisky bar founder, Luke McCarthy. This book is so timely given the huge increase in boutique spirits being made around Australia, from Far North Queensland to Tasmania and pretty much everywhere in between, as the map on p 28 shows.
Never heard of these craft distillers’ before? Chances are they’re in this book, which features 51 standout Australian distilleries and a range of their labels, including “the world’s best whisky” and “some of the world’s finest booze”. It covers vodka, gin, rum, brandy, whisky (including moonshine) and other spirits like absinthe, eau-de-vie, oyzo and more.
McCarthy notes that Australia does not yet have a national spirit – what will it be?! Perhaps Tasmania’s inventive Pete Bignell of Belgrove Distillery will be its pioneer – he’s certainly come up with a few innovations already (I dare not tell you his latest!), and even gets a special feature at the end of the book.
In between, McCarthy covers a brief history of Australian spirits, an explanation of how they are made (warning, do not try this at home, you can kill yourself or others if you don’t know what you are doing, plus… you have to pay government excise) and an explanation of “how this book works”.
The Australian Spirits Guide is essentially based on flavours and geography, with serving suggestions for each drink, and in good Australian style, a price guide, so you can tell if you’re being ripped off or not, or what the best value is.
Each spirit starts with an introduction, then a run through of the stand-out producers of each, with location and opening hours, and if open to the public.
There’s a vodka made of sheep’s whey, gin flavoured with wattleseed, some made from grape spirit (the number of winemakers turned distillers is increasing every month, due in part to the attractive short-term financial returns, no doubt), others from sugar cane, the list goes on….
Like The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace (see review below) it’s a geographic tour, although around our big country, not international. And like that title, it’s indispensable for anyone interested in the burgeoning spirits scene, what’s new and hot and makes the best cocktails.
A great gift at RRP $A39.99, The Australian Spirits Guide would make any spirits lover very happy over the summer holidays, even though you might be starting an expensive new passion, or providing a new dimension to an existing one!
Also published by Hardie Grant is Gin – Shake. Muddle. Stir by Dan Jones, a writer, editor and gin lover based in London, which as the book’s title suggests is all about gin-based cocktails.
Even if your level of gin knowledge or interest only extends to the relatively simple, classic gins like Gordon’s, Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire, this handy little volume gives you plenty of ideas on how to dress them up and have loads of fun in the process.
The versatility of gin is astonishing. There are over 40 cocktail recipes – you could master one nearly every week for the next year!
What is perhaps surprising for the novice is to “mix the subtler (gins) with mixers and save the flavourful ones for cocktails that let the botanicals sing out – like a dry Martini or a Gin Old Fashioned”. Your gin bar will need a couple of upscale gins for mixing, plus at least one small batch, handcrafted premium gin for cocktails.
The book starts with a very brief gin history, and quickly moves on into the world’s best gins, all 8 pages of them and including one from Australia, Four Pillars from the Yarra Valley, plus the three best tonics (and yes, Schweppes remains one of them).
Next are the tools you’ll need for your cocktails, to measure, mix, shake and serve, plus “upscale extras” if you’re aiming to impress. Jones recommends investing in decent glassware to really make the most of your cocktails, which these days is not expensive.
It also runs through what other quality spirits you need to make the cocktails, not “fine vintage spirits –their qualities are lost in the mixing” however, but quality whisky, vermouth, tequila, rum, vodka…
All set? Not quite. You will need sugar syrup, which is very easy to make (recipe p 45) or you can buy ready-made, or use agave syrup. You can also make infusions flavoured with tempranillo (see recipe below), sloes, star anise and more to add depth and complexity of flavour.
Then it’s onto the recipes, some of which sound like a meal in themselves: Gin Power Shot; Smashed Cucumber; Pine Forest (made with almond milk); Grapefruit and Tarragon Collins; Rhubarb Sour. There are the classics, a cocktail inspired by the Queen Mother’s favourite drink, cocktails for Christmas, dirty cocktails and “an x-rated Naked Peach”. My only criticism of this book is that the styles are all jumbled up together, but I guess you’ll work it out and find your favourites.
Another great gift for the gin lover in your life, or for those looking for gin-based party fun!
Last of the spirits trifecta is Bourbon: the Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey by Fred Minnack published by Quarto Publishing USA. This is a totally different style of book, as deep and serious and the brown of its cover.
It’s all about the history of bourbon in the USA, how it started, and its long journey to stardom with Sean Connery and even in the White House with its own #bourbonsummit hashtag.
Neither being American nor a bourbon lover I found it very hard to get into this book, but I saw the eyes of a local rye whiskey maker light up when I mentioned it to him. If you are into bourbon and its history, then no doubt this book will be fascinating.
A few serving suggestions and cocktail recipes (hello Mint Julep?) would have done a lot for me, plus more on the Kentucky Bourbon Trial, which is apparently that state’s Number 2 tourist attraction.
And more on the makers, please! If bourbon is going to have a renaissance, their voices need to shine, too – today’s drinkers are as attracted to the contemporary stories as they are to the drinks themselves.
The Australian Spirits Guide by Luke McCarthy is published by Hardie Grant (Melbourne, 2016; hc 240 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.99
Gin – Shake. Muddle. Stir by Dan Jones is also published by Hardie Grant (Melbourne, 2016: hc 144 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$29.99
Bourbon: the Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey by Fred Minnack is published by Voyageur Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing (Minneapolis MN USA, 2016; hc 240 pp) and is distributed in Australia by Murdoch Books, where it retails for RRP A$29.99
- Melbourne (VIC)
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