Holiday spirits are supposed to be high, not haute. But if the proliferation of cocktail “creations” and infusions and artisan mixers has you and your friends flummoxed, here are a handful of drinkers’ delights that could either adorn the coffee table or—just in time—restore your hostly confidence.
Once upon a time, wine drinkers aspired to be connoisseurs. Then came the wine wonks—those who carried calculators for vintages and futures—and the geeks, who bought by the ratings. Now we have entered the age of wine nerds, who buy the wine equivalent of self-help books.
For example: Hello, Wine: The Most Essential Things You Need to Know About Wine by Melanie Wagner, a self-confessed former wine “bumpkin” turned Certified Sommelier. Like most such books, it begins with a confessional, then runs through a catechism of allure and reassurance to bring the reader resoundingly into the converts’ fold. Once Wagner hits her stride, her descriptions of varietals, tips on restaurant wine lists, tasting, hosting and food-matching, etc., are very good. And her picks for dependable producers—particularly those whose wines are under-$15 steals or fall in the “sweet spot” of $26 to $50—are spot on, so to speak.
This season’s best gag gift, perfect for pairing with a bottle, is the unexpectedly entertaining The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit: A scant dozen spreads illustrate the pithy tips from Master Sommelier Richard Betts. (A Certified Sommelier ranking is Level 2; a Master is Level 4, the highest.) “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury” is Betts’ mantra. He demystifies in guy-pal style: “In this case, size does not matter: We’ve all got a great schnoz.” The cartoons by Wendy MacNaughton contribute so much to the book that she really should have been acknowledged on the cover. Betts includes a pullout map to the “whole wine world” that attempts to match mood to olfactory method. While the scratch-and-sniff technology is in need of a little tweaking—the leather may be the best simulacrum—the illustrations, both literal and figurative, of the aromatic elements are memorable.
Although the title is a little man-cave chic, The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer Geeks, From Novice to Expert in Twelve Tasting Classes is an accessible and impressively informed dissertation on beer styles and best labels. Longtime beer journalist Joshua M. Bernstein has traveled, tasted, interviewed and researched centuries of brewing lore. Like nearly all his colleagues, Bernstein is prone to the pun (“yeast of Eden,” “all is not white in the world,” etc.). His picks of breweries and beer-centric restaurants and festivals make this a consumer’s guide in both senses.
For those who want to go straight to the good stuff, World Beer: Outstanding Classic and Craft Beers from the Greatest Breweries, by veteran British beer critic Tim Hampson, disposes of brewing techniques, history, beer styles, tasting techniques and flavor pairings in a few high-gloss pages and launches headlong (sorry—the punning is contagious) into profiles of more than 800 fine craft beers organized by country and region. And Hampson does mean “world beer”: Who knew Namibia was a big microbrewery center? This is a serious coffee table book that could be the co-star of a fine beer-tasting party.
Drinking mirrors pop culture, and having passed through the “Mad Men” martini renaissance, Americans are testing the “Breaking Bad” waters—which is to say, whiskey, derived from the Gaelic for “water of life.” In Drink More Whiskey: Everything You Need to Know About Your New Favorite Drink, Daniel Yaffe, founder and editor of Drink Me magazine, covers the wide world of whiskey from the U.S. to the U.K. to Japan (and beyond), from single malt to small batch to honey whiskey to moonshine. Like Wagner, he can flourish a bit too often: “If a single malt is a group of violinists with a brilliant tone, a blend might be the full orchestra.” “Like people, peat mellows with age.” (Clearly, he and I have not met.) But if the flash is weak, the spirit is indeed willing: Yaffe mixes history, trends, ingredients—both within the barrel and in the glass—and technique into a truly tasty cocktail.