Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book: Boozehound, by Jason Wilson (2010)

In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the protagonist drafts a list of dream jobs that are, shall we say, specific. Journalist for New Music Express from 1976-79 is number one with a bullet, with producer at Atlantic Records in the late ‘60s hard on its heels. I now have such an entry myself. I want to be Jason Wilson, spirits columnist for the Washington Post. Touring Italy to put various amari through their paces, nipping up to Oslo for a nip of aquavit, stopping in the French Alps to pick elderflower liqueur.

Wilson’s book is an intoxicating blend of travel writing, memoir and cocktail guide. It helps that we share many of the same tastes – we’re both partial to the Red Hook and the Boulevardier, and have a healthy disdain for vodka (especially the flavored variety), the cult of exclusivity that surrounds many contemporary speakeasy-style bars, and the gargantuan size of current glassware. Wilson won me over by saying the signs of a serious cocktail establishment are bottles of maraschino and green chartreuse, both of which I have at home. Above all his work is about encouraging a broader palette, tasting “something – anything – that makes you stop for a moment and pay attention and experience.”

He offers an interesting theory about “why so many Americans end up drinking what they enjoyed in high school or college.” Those hard-won initial quaffs are like the popular songs of youth, and with age and disappointment “people fall back on the visceral experience of memory.” This accounts for Wilson’s lingering soft spot for Jägermeister, an affection I can’t abide. It also might explain why I became a cocktail enthusiast: I have no such memory. I’m the child of Irish immigrants who took the Pioneer pledge. We never had liquor in the house and hiding a buzz from swiped vodka seemed like too much trouble. The behavior stuck through college; no keg parties for me. I was well into my twenties and married for several years when I had my first drink, a free watered-down gin and tonic at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. I’m grateful for that upbringing now. It makes everything I drink these days gloriously new to me.