Like it or not, alcohol has been with us for centuries now, and its popularity shows no signs of letting up. The huge (and aptly titled) Ultimate Bar Book contains everything anyone might ever want to know about the subject of spirits. The book covers the history of alcohol, the most popular types by region, cocktail recipes, and more booze trivia than you can shake a (swizzle) stick at.
The Ultimate Bar Book is a nice title, but at over 800 pages, it is almost an encyclopedia. The tale begins with the distillation process, which dates back at least to the 13th Century BC Sumerian people. Whether they were actually producing alcohol at the time is still a matter of debate, but by the mid-12th Century AD, the manufacture of al-kuhl was in full-swing in Europe.
Early reports of the revelatory properties of hooch were ecstatic. Quoting from the book: “Initially said to be a miracle substance capable of turning inexpensive metals into gold, they [alchemists] soon interpreted it to be a kind of universal medicine believed to grant health, strength, eternal youth, and wisdom.” Some of us still believe that, actually.
In the 17th Century, upper-class Londoners developed specific tastes for the brandies of the Cognac region of France. Thus the first “top shelf” liquors were born. The enjoyment of spirits was quickly adopted by all the classes however, a process that was accelerated a great deal with the Industrial Revolution.
Nobody really knows the origins of the word “bar,” although the book offers a number of plausible legends surrounding it. It was certainly in common usage by 1862, when Jerry Thomas published his definitive Bartender’s Guide.
The bulk of the book is taken up with discussions of the most popular types of alcohol from around the world. Photo-filled chapters in this section concern Cognac and other brandies; whiskey and bourbon; grain spirits (vodka, etc.); rum and tequila; absinthe; vermouth; liqueurs; and fortified wines (sherry, etc.).
Following this insightful trip around the world, and each region’s specialties comes the recipe section. There are 160 specific drinks included in this department, with 20 of them nonalcoholic or “virgin” concoctions. There are a few that look absolutely amazing. In the pousse-café’s (or rainbow drinks), different colored liquors are stacked atop each other in the glass for a stunning effect.
The picture of a blend called a 4th of July, which has a red, a white, and a blue layer is unbelievable. The ingredients are very simple: Grenadine, Blue curacao, and Batida de Coco. If you pour them into the glass slowly in that order, you will have a drink that is red on the bottom, blue in the middle, and white at the top. Pay attention to the book’s description however: “This is likely to please every American. Whether it also tastes good is another question.”
The grossest-looking drink I have ever seen is also included. It is called a Prairie Oyster. This is one of four mythical “hangover cures,” which also includes that old standby, the Bloody Mary. Here are just a few of the ingredients that go into a Prairie Oyster: one raw egg yolk, Olive oil, ketchup, Tobasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and Cognac. Sounds like we should call Eddie Vedder, because it’s time for a hurl-jam.
One of the most amazing bits of trivia I came across in book is where the U.S. fits in on a per-capita consumption level worldwide. Thanks to the massive amount of advertising we are inundated with, as well as the constant reminders about drunk driving, I figured we were way up there on the list. The truth is, we rank number 50 out of 115, with an average yearly intake of 11 pints. In contrast, the Russian Federation is number three, with 42 pints per person. Number one is the Virgin Islands, at a whopping 57 pints, while number 115 is Morocco, with a meager three fluid ounces per person per year.
For drinkers and non-drinkers alike, there is a great deal of fascinating information about these magic elixirs. The book was designed to give the individual all the information they would need to set up the greatest bar ever, a goal it definitely achieves. But The Ultimate Bar Book manages to be more than a simple guide. This is a funny, informative and endlessly interesting tome, and a book I thoroughly enjoyed.