Wine encyclopedias. Cocktail histories. Autobiographies and anthropological deep-dives. Scientists and raconteurs. Try to find a discipline, a point of view, a lens, through which no one is investigating alcohol and making books about it. You can’t.
There are booze-books to intrigue and entertain everyone on your holiday gift list (probably even your friend who had to quit after that bar brawl where he ended up missing a tooth, though I respect your decision to give that guy novelty socks). Our list of these books is not exhaustive and it isn’t ranked, because they’re simply too wide-ranging for that.
Apéritif: Cocktail Hour the French Way (Rebekah Pepler; Potter)
This book is a sleek little volume for people who love, or might discover they love, the apéritif concept. Aperitifs are widely varied, but the general idea is a light, concise, appetite-stimulating drink usually accompanied by a modest snack and enjoyed before the evening meal. A plain old glass of dry wine can be an apéritif, but this is the cocktail zone where bitters, fortified wines, and various medicinal spirits really shine. If you love the stylish bottles and old-timey glam factor of things like vermouth and sherry and spirits like Dubonnet and Aperol and St. Germain but you’re not quite sure what to do with them, here’s a great place to start. Peppered with historical trivia about the origins of some of these exotic brews and benefitting greatly from Pepler’s background as a food stylist, this book will make you comfortable with a whole constellation of social and digestive lubricants, and yes, it does offer a lot of recipes for cool little snacks to go with them.
Be Your Own Bartender (Carey Jones, John McCarthy; Countryman Press)
In the “everyone should probably have this” category, Be Your Own Bartender is the answer to the irksome and honestly very probable situation that arises when you are not manning a high-end cocktail bar but sitting at home with an array of random ingredients waiting for inspiration to strike. Jones and McCarthy’s excellent flow chart-based tome asks the right questions, such as “Do you have gin? If yes, are you in the mood for something intense or something laid back? OK, do you have a lemon? Here are three recipes you can probably pull off without pulling a muscle.” Offering over 150 original recipes with a broad range of not-totally-random elements, this book is a godsend for those in need of an answer to one of the most perplexing philosophical questions: “What should I drink?”
Beer Hacks: 100 Tips, Tricks and Projects (Ben Robinson; Workman)
You have a problem. Your beer. Is. Warm. And you don’t have time to wait for the fridge to do its thing. Ben Robinson to the rescue. Perhaps you are in need of inventive ways of handling empty bottles, or intimidated by the thought of tapping a keg, or need stemware assistance (red wine goblets can assist the tulip-challenged with harnessing the aromatics of a craft IPA). This book is handy, insouciant, laid back and smart, with a terrific mordant sense of humor and a lot of sound advice on a wide range of beer topics. Even if you style yourself an expert on the subject I bet there are a few things in here that never occurred to you. They occurred to Ben Robinson, luckily, and now you can claim them too.
The Cocktail Guide to the Galaxy (Andy Heidel, St. Martins Griffin)
For the nerd in your life (or your inner nerd… or not-so-inner inner nerd), this essential cocktail guide will pair you up with the right libation for your specific sci-fi fantasy kink. As in, say hello to your new five-o’clock friends Cognac the Barbarian, The Vermouth is Out There, and the George R. R. Martini (and of course, intelligent pairings for Klingon Bloodwine if you cannot get grass-fed cruelty free Heart of Targ where you live). If you want one bar book that will maximize your nerd creds and make you 33% more hilarious to your houseguests, this is the one.
Drink Like a Man (Ross McCammon, David Wondrich; Chronicle Books)
Some people are bona fide geeks, the kind of folks who probably should be writing books because they hoard vast amounts of data on arcane subjects for pure pleasure. Then there are these guys, under the auspices of Esquire Magazine who clearly think substance is tedious and should be decoupled from style with extreme prejudice. That’s a thing, and if it’s your thing, bet you’ll appreciate the airy, stripped-down, badda-bing, git ‘er done nature of this cocktail Cliffs Notes. They note that a Rob Roy is “weird” but hey, since Rob Roy was apparently some sort of Scottish hero, let them but their non-rye whiskey in your Manhattan and smile graciously. You should also smile while serving a Sazerac but apparently not a Toddy. OK: some of the writing has a certain dudely insouciance. Truly. Just… not all of it. But hey, if you want a basic, blunt primer on the classics with a few advanced seminar moments sprinkled in, this is a perfectly decent one.
Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé (Victoria James; Harper Design)
Firmly in the stocking stuffer category but not as much of a throwaway as the goofy pink cover, modest scale and School of Cute illustrations would have you believe. James is a sommelier and a well-traveled ambassador for pink wine. The book investigates the history of rosé wine, from an Austrian grape known as the “rabid pearl” to the terrorist known as White Zinfandel; ponders the long-standing appeal of the pink, and offers bottle suggestions as well as celeb-chef food pairings. It’s not profound, but it’s a cute gift.
Down to Earth: A Seasonal Tour of Sustainable Winegrowing in California (Janet Fletcher, George Rose; Wine Institute)
For the eye candy connoisseur, this substantial hardback is full of beautiful photos of some of California’s emblematic wine country scenery, and the text is focused on people and places where sustainable winemaking is just… winemaking. I’m not going to lie, there is something about this book that smacks of marketing and it’s a little suck-uppy to a demographic of people who arguably don’t need their rings kissed. But look, there’s a reason why California is such a vino holy land and if you enjoy being dazzled by beautiful vineyards, gorgeous mountains, happy people holding stemware and glam closeups of ladybeetles and glaucous Cabernet grapes, you’re going to enjoy this. And so will any eco-goofball wine lover in your circle.
Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure (Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall; Penguin)
A guy spends a year deliberately giving himself varying degrees of alcohol poisoning on a quest to find the definitive hangover cure. You gotta love that, man. Bishop-Stall’s investigation into the mysteries of the hangover is funny, offbeat, authentic and eye-opening. It’s a wide-ranging quest and vividly described (there is some drink writing that makes you really, really want a drink. This is not an example of that). Whether you’re looking for this Holy Grail yourself or just looking for a good read, this is an engaging investigative journey into the nature of addiction, excess and (hopefully) getting up the next day. (If you’re wondering if he finds a true cure… possibly!) This is a really fun book and more diligent and informative than I was expecting it to be.
The Mixology of Astrology (Aliza Kelly Farragher, Simon and Schuster)
You know what would have been awesome? If the astrologer who wrote this knew anything about mixology. Because it’s a funny idea. But as a “fiery, dramatic, superstar Leo” who is insulted by shitty cocktails, I can tell you right now where you can stick your Cosmopolitan, but hey, maybe it’s because I have Venus in Cancer and Chiron retrograde in house 4. Not sure. Basically, the idea that there is a cocktail palette to suit your horoscope is cute and fun and if nothing else you can blame the next morning on the fact that your horoscope told you to have a White Russian or three (how, how, how is that an Aries drink? That shit’s wall-to-wall Capricorn. Possibly Gemini. There are no fire sign cocktails with milk in them.) Anyway, as long as you have ample suspension of disbelief and are not frequently accused of “analyzing things,” or “being deep,” you might have fun with this. PS the book is pink, so if that activates you in some way, please see Drink Like A Man.
The Periodic Table of Cocktails (Emma Stokes; Abrams Image)
Actually, this book can help you understand how the real periodic table of the elements is organized in case chemistry was an elective at your high school or if it just always seemed weird to you (understandable). Over a hundred cocktails, from old-timey to nouveau, basic to… complicated (C’mon, you thought I was going for “acidic,” right? Um…) organized by dominant spirit, “gravity” and number of electrons. I mean ingredients. From Martinis and Aviations to Snappers and Zombies, you will be able to classify, build and consume all the elements of scientifically vetted, peer-reviewed potable science.
Tasting the Past (Kevin Begos; Algonquin)
Well, I am the first to note that anyone who opens with a quote from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam has the freakin’ floor as far as I am concerned. Kevin Begos is a real-deal old-timey investigative journalist (remember those, y’all?) and the beauty of dudes like this is that their entire skill set is founded in generalized, expansive curiosity and a desire to do their homework. If you want to learn something, to get textbook-grade detail in a storyteller’s voice, this is an approachable and intelligent look at the history of winemaking and the strange little accidental window this guy opened on it when he randomly popped a cork in a hotel room in Jordan. If you are a fan of the food writing of Mark Kurlansky or Michael Pollan, for example, you probably want to have this book on your radar. If you like esoteric wine, ditto. If you like the idea that wine gives us a way of drinking history? That too. This is a smart book, and of every title on this list the one I most wish I’d written.
Ten Grapes to Know (Catherine Fallis; The Countryman Press)
Catherine Fallis is a master sommelier, and was the fifth woman to earn that credential back in the day. This book is a really good beginner’s guide, as it focuses on ten very commonly produced wines and makes them really understandable. You won’t get sidetracked by a rhapsody on a rare grape produced on five hectares on an Ionian island even if that grape is really tasty. You’ll get easy-to-translate downloads on stuff like Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. If you are confused by grapes that have lots of expressions depending where and how they are grown and vinified, Fallis has you back, explaining why pinot gris / grigio seems like completely different creatures in Alsace versus Italy (or heck, New Zealand), gives you specific recommendations so you can navigate a restaurant wine list with confidence (and while taste is personal in the end, I can tell you hers looks pretty ironclad to me), and super-helpfully, gives you basic, brief, “if you like this and want to branch out, here’s what to try next” notes. Fallis isn’t quite as hilarious as Karen Gordon but she’s good-natured and witty and importantly, not a snob. Indeed, you get pairing suggestions for Lean Cuisine entrees, which is a niche. She offers very cute “dating profiles” for each grape (“I am rich and have great legs,” says Chardonnay. “Date Pinot Noir. Then marry me,” Syrah suggests.) Basically, if you are already a wine expert, you will still find this book amusing and well-crafted, and you might easily still learn a bunch of things you didn’t know or hadn’t thought about that way. If you are bewildered by wine, read this and you won’t be.
Wine For Dummies, 7th Edition (Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan; Wiley)
Yep: seventh edition. If you are a “for dummies” kinda guy, there’s nothing not to love here. You will probably not find it rich in poetry, or lore, or comedy, but if what you are after is lots of semitechnical information in an easily absorbed format, this book will give it to you. From how to select a wine seller to “yes but does it really have to breathe to “Which bottle will make me look cool when I order it at a business dinner?” as well as thorny unquantifiables such as how to deal with the reality that taste is subjective, this book will make the dummiest dummy into a pro. Not a poet, a comedian or a folklorist and not necessarily an inspired big-sky thinker. But a pro.
Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing (edited by Jay McInerney; Atlantic Monthly Press)
If Tasting the Past is the book on this list I most wish I’d written, Wine Reads is the one I’d most loved to be included in-this is some fine company. Jay McInerney (yes, the Bright Lights, Big City Jay McInerney) has compiled an amazing tasting flight of wine writing from Jancis Robinson to Rex Pickett, Auberon Waugh to Kermit Lynch. There’s fiction and essay, memoir and journalism, and all of it is basically excellent. This book would be a great gift for anyone in your life who loves good wine or good writing or, especially, both.