Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails edited by David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum

The first book I met and then bought when I got a job in a wine shop in 1999 was 'The Oxford Companion to Wine', I'm on my 3rd edition now. Even Waitrose supplied a copy for staff use because any questions you had about any part of the winemaking process, grapes, and I can't even think what else now, was likely to be answered by that book, or at least point you in the right direction. Concise, well written, easy to use, and authoritative, I still find it indispensable and I cannot begin to tell you how much I wish the Companion to Spirits and Cocktails had been around at the same time.

On the other hand, there's never been a better time for it than now when interest in making cocktails at home is still growing, and when the range of available spirits and liqueurs has probably never been more baffling. Not that this book contains an exhaustive list of products - they come and go too fast for that to be practical or desirable. Nor is it a recipe book, although it does contain cocktail recipes, but it is the best place to start a bit of research on any given spirit or cocktail research from.

As an example, I've been looking into Milk Punch after Richard Godwin had a recipe for it on his The Spirits newsletter and it occurred to me it might be useful for something else I'm doing. With head hung and a slight blush, I'm going to admit I forgot this book as I slogged around the internet looking for verifiable facts - and then I spotted it on my desk as I closed the laptop and kicked myself a bit. A quick check underlined exactly how much time I'd wasted - everything useful was in the Milk Punch entry, and as for the bits I wanted to verify - they're mentioned here, and I consider it a good enough source to quote (Wikipedia, unfortunately, is not).*

I accept that some of my interests are a bit niche and that not everyone will be as interested as I am to read about the history of Seagrams or Diageo - although a lot of people in the trade will be. There's a lot of fairly technical information in here which will be of more use to the professional than the casual reader as well - but it's also a big part of the appeal of the book for me. It's the kind of information I don't know I want until I need it. 

I do know that the drinks history entries are really useful to me, and anybody else who occasionally writes about these things or just finds them interesting, and kind of to our surprise D and I spent a happy afternoon getting lost in this as we looked up odd bits and followed references - the great thing about so many of the Oxford companion's is how enjoyable they can be to read when you dip in and out of them. I knew I'd find it interesting, but I hadn't banked on him falling down the rabbit hole with me.

If I sound a little bit breathless and overexcited about this book - well, I am. There hasn't really been anything like it before which covers so much in one place. Finding cocktail recipe books is easy enough (finding really good ones is a little harder, but there's no shortage of them). There's plenty of books about individual spirits - although again finding really good ones is sometimes a challenge. But a guide that covers production methods, recipes, tells you what the major families of spirits, liqueurs, aperitifs, digestives, and more are, can give you a reliable potted history of all of these that covers the most influential bartenders and mixologists from the beginning of the art to now, name-checks the classic books, and more, and more, and more? It's quite a big deal.

I hesitate to use the C word in November, but if you're looking for a Christmas present for a drinks enthusiast I don't see how you can miss with this book. 

*Milk punch, hot or cold, turns out to be excellent - there will be more about this in the future.


  1. This looks fabulous - I love both the Oxford Companions to cheese and to Italian food, so definitely one for me.