After being mostly disappointed by 'Gin Glorious Gin' earlier this year I've finally found a book about the history of spirits I can be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about. 'Rebellious Spirits, the illicit history of booze in Britain' does, to be fair, have a wider remit than being a history of one spirit (gin) in basically one place (London), which gives it a much wider appeal, but it makes the most of it (and is blessed with an index which is useful).
Basically, Ruth Ball (The Alchemist), starts with the way Dionysian cults used spirits in initiation ceremonies - the secrets of which were passed on to monks, and takes us up to the present day. Given that it's not a long book the history is potted but it gives an entertaining overview of not exactly legal alcohol in the UK with plenty of anecdotes along the way. Perhaps more importantly it also gives recipes to recreate an approximation of what those drinks might have tasted like.
Perhaps the most evocative example is for an idea of what smuggled brandy might have tasted like after it had spent some time at sea, being hidden in a net of gush, and finally (as well as optimistically) hidden under a haystack. It calls got something cheap in the brandy line as well as some oak chips to replicate the effect of being stored in a small cask, half a handful of hay, and most evocatively, half a teaspoon of nam pla (fish sauce). It's that pungent dose of nam pla that illustrates most clearly to me just how nasty a lot of illicit booze could be. It's also something I'm really tempted to try.
The suggestion for an S.S. Politician inspired (of 'Whisky Galore' fame) scotch on the rocks with just a couple of drops of salt solution added to your whisky and ice is also really appealing. I'm not sure it's something I'd want to try with my best single malts, but if I find myself in possession of a suitable blend - which would be more authentic - I'll most certainly be trying it. I think suitable would be something at the sweeter more sherried end rather than anything particularly smokey.
The final chapter deals with the current speakeasy style bar scene in London. I must admit the idea of heading into a cafe, giving a password, and finally being ushered through a fridge door into a bar hidden behind it does nothing at all for me. I doubt very much that I've ever quite had the confidence to engage with that kind of drinking scene, but then when I had the disposable income to go out for cocktails the best I could initially hope for was a brandy Alexander in the student union, when I got my mortgage (goodbye nights out in bars) cosmopolitans were still reasonably sophisticated. Things appear to have moved on a lot since then, which is good - cocktails should have a bit of theatre about them. A recipe for a gypsy martini (raisin and Rosemary infused gin, Lillet Blanc and St Germain elderflower liqueur) sounds amazing, as well as easy enough to make at home (as long as I plan a week in advance to infuse the gin with rosemary and raisins).
In the end I loved everything about this book; the enthusiasm it brings to its subject, the try this at home approach, it's humour, and the stories it brings to life. It really has a lot to recommend it. The alchemist sounds intriguing too - apparently one of her commissioned cocktails was for the British library - it had to evoke the flavour of old books, now that's something I'd like to try.