Wow. Just, wow… what a book. Imbibe! by David Wondrich is the winner of the James Beard Award and generally considered one of the most in depth cocktail books available and for very good reason. The amount of research, work, and passion that went into this project is evident in every single page and it makes me excited to read Mr.Wondrich’s other book, Punch. That said, I’m not sure I can fully recommend this to the at-home or beginner bartender. It took me several weeks to make it fully through this book, partially because I have a poor attention span, but also because the sheer amount of information is overwhelming. I am currently in the process of re-reading Imbibe and taking notes as I go to ensure that I fully understood and remember the material… I’m on page 3 of notes and I’m not even halfway through. The only other book I’ve done that with (so far) is Proof: The Science of Booze. That said, lets get down to it!
I purchased the hard cover copy of Imbibe as I do with all my ‘work’ books, since they are intended as reference material and that translates poorly to Kindle. Also they will most likely be kept in a bar so I prefer to have the sturdier option as opposed to a soft cover. The picture on the front of the book is exemplary of what you will find within it’s pages: it features an old illustration of a bartender pouring a flaming drink back and forth to the amazement of his customer. This does come with a half size book jacket that adds to it’s aesthetic, though I personally hate book jackets. Fortunately it isn’t one of those books where the jacket is essential.
As for organization, the book can essentially be broken up into two categories: context and recipes. I found the “context” section to be the most engaging; it spans the first two chapters and about 100 pages wherein Wondrich explains who Jerry Thomas was and how his book became so influential in bartending. He also delves into American drinking culture, a segment has been instrumental in helping me to visualize and immerse myself in the time period Wondrich describes. You cannot possibly overstate how much culture Americans lost to prohibition. As someone who grew up in a relatively alcohol-free home, the world that Imbibe describes is as utterly foreign to me as my world would be to a 18th century bartender. That’s not to say that the learning and context stops with the recipe section however!
In most cocktail books, when you get to the recipes section you might get a small blurb about the origins of the cocktail or serving suggestions and the like. Not so with Imbibe; it treats you to an in depth explanation of the cocktails historical context, it’s most likely origin, common myths shrouding the drink and then also the recipe along with variations. For every question it answers it leaves you with five more. Now, I’m all about having more information all the time but Mr. Wondrich really pushes the boundary with this. As a learning material, this makes perfect sense. Even the recipes are formatted in an informative way. As a reference guide? Not so much… When I was recently attempting to recreate some of the eggnog recipes from the book it took upwards of 20 minutes to translate the information given into a usable recipe. On the one hand, it was very useful to me (a non-eggnog drinker) to see what the basic tenements were, but if someone is searching for a recipe book, look elsewhere. Probably the most egregious example is the Morning Glory Fizz. After giving the recipe and the likely spirits used in it Mr.Wondrich goes on to give a slight variation:
“For the equally effective Saratoga Brace Up,… use a whole egg, replace the scotch with brandy, lose the lime juice, cut the absinthe down to 2 dashes, and add a couple of dashes of Angostura” (p.137, Imbibe)
… straightforward enough, but when it’s every recipe it can become somewhat strenuous.
There is certainly one place where Imbibe stands far and above all other cocktail books I’ve read thus far: Notable Quotes. Perhaps people just don’t talk about drinking the way they used to before prohibition… perhaps in all respects our descriptions have become less ‘colorful’ and ‘evocative’. It’s a terrible loss in my opinion. No other book have I set down frequently to just take in a delightfully sassy review of someone’s cocktail or untimely demise.
“He spent page after page dissecting the literary, theatrical, and political celebrities whom he served, from Sullivan and Morgan to Edwin Booth, Oscar Wilde, and Tomb Thumb… This is the world that Prohibition destroyed, a world where you could pop into a bar for a glass of something cool and find yourself standing next to, and soon conversing with, a senator, a playwright, and a sculptor of renown. The culture was convivial and the barrier to acceptance was low.” (p.110, Imbibe)