Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: Boozehound, by Jason Wilson

Phew!  It has been an age, but I am finally catching up after some post holiday chaos.  I figured I'd start the year off with a book review on a book I received as a Christmas gift, Jason Wilson's Boozehound:  On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated Spirits.  Wilson has been a spirits columnist for the Washington Post for several years now.  I believe my first introduction to his writing was a piece I found while looking for more info on swizzle sticks (a decent chance I am not referring to what you think I am referring to) and swizzles.  With Boozehound, Wilson provides us with a work that is one part travelogue, one part documentary on rare and interesting spirits, with a dash of recipe book thrown in; shake with plenty of ice and strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with humor.

Wilson has had the enviable job of traveling the world exploring interesting spirits, and in Boozehound he recounts some of those travels, along with various tales behind the spirits themselves and a smattering of colorful anecdotes from his younger days of traveling (and drinking) to tie together the narrative.  Among the interesting spirits and drinks her touches upon are Tuaca, an Italian vanilla liqueur with hints of citrus that Wilson notes is poised to be the next Jagermeister in the American shooter market; Genever, the Dutch precursor to gin that combines juniper flavor with a more whiskey-like taste profile; the Peruvian brandy Pisco; rhum agricole, a form of rum that is made entirely from cane sugar, without any molasses; aquavit, a Scandinavian flavored spirit; and Barolo Chinato, a form of quinquina similar to Cocchi Americano, but using the higher end Barolo wine as its base. 

Some of these beverages I have had an opportunity to sample already, or at least had some passing familiarity with, while a few I knew nothing about (I had heard of Tuaca prior to reading the book, for example, but have recently picked up a bottle in part due to be being inspired by Wilson's coverage).  In that vein, I would wager that for someone less acquainted with the more obscure range of spirits, aperitif's and the like, this book would open up a whole new world of drinks to explore.  There's still room for even the more well-versed in such topics to pick up a few interesting facts, however, and if nothing else Wilson's anecdotes and opinionated musings make for an entertaining and light-hearted read.  In addition to specific spirits and other boozes like the ones mentioned above, Wilson provides some useful general knowledge on topics such as Italian bitters and amaros, vermouths, and tequila, with travel tales to go with them, as well as answers to questions like "why are there so many vodkas on the market?"  That said, if you are looking for an encyclopedic reference resource on spirits or bartending, or a recipe book for that matter, this is probably not the book for you (though it does have some of those elements).  More to the point, that's not what it tries to be.  Boozehound is a fun, casual read that will get you excited to try new drinks you had previously never heard or, or get you to take another look at some drinks you might have given short shrift to in the past.  You will be entertained, and learn some things without feeling like you are reading a schoolbook.  The "bonus material" of recipes and other sundry advice to the home bartender is also pretty solid, although again, not the primary reason to pick up the book.  So, if getting inspired to drink Campari while sitting somewhere in the Italian countryside sounds like it would be up your ally, give Boozehound a shot, and then hit up a good bar and see if you can channel some of that sense of there being more to the world than you knew before into a new taste experience that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.  Better still, if you can afford it, go book a plane ticket and explore on your own - if you've got money to burn, send me one too!

Cheers, and Happy New Year!


  1. Pedantry: Barolo is the town in Piedmont that lends its name to the DOCG wine. The grape is Nebbiolo.


  2. Thanks Seth! I edited appropriately. Sad part is I actually knew that in the recesses of my brain, but my late night posting made it such that that part of my brain had already fallen asleep, methinks...