Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Globe Pequot, 2012) chronicles the stories behind some of the world's best cocktails. It's author, Mark Spivak, is an award-winning journalist and self-professed wine geek who specializes in stories about wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. In this new book, Spivak shares the untold stories of twelve spirits that virtually changed the world and created the cocktail culture. LGS spoke to the author about the book and the history of cocktails:
How did a self-professed wine geek like you get interested in spirits?
It began one day when I was thinking about Campari. I had done a story on Campari about six months earlier, and didn't like it because of the bitterness. I started thinking about the fact that the taste receptors for bitterness on our tongues are there to warn us that we might be about to consume something that's toxic or poisonous, and yet 27 million bottles of Campari are sold each year. I talked to scientists who were doing research on the physiology of taste, and they all had a different theory about it. So here you have a beverage that is unpleasant to many people—-a beverage that our brains are telling us not to drink, because it might kill us—-and it's been marketed as one of the sexiest things on earth.
From there, I started discovering more amazing stories: the Gin Craze in England during the 18th century, the connection between moonshine and NASCAR, etc. I realized that most of these stories were unknown to the average person.
Why has there been resurgence in cocktails?
There have basically been three boom periods in the cocktail culture: the 20 years or so prior to World War I; the post WWII period (the era of the Mad Men); and the present boom, which began in the late 1990s. I think it will definitely continue, because wine has become far less interesting. Many people won't like that statement, but there has been tremendous consolidation in the wine industry over the past few years. Multinational beverage conglomerates are buying up every small, family-owned winery in sight. There's still a lot of interesting wine being made, but many people can't afford to buy it. On the $10-15 per bottle level, which is where most consumers are drinking, it's a very homogenized product.
Your book is largely historical. What accounts for the rich stories behind the spirits you write about?
The most intriguing thread running through most of these stories is entrepreneurship. These are amazing tales of people who created something out of nothing, and took enormous risks to do so: Sidney Frank (Grey Goose), Rob Cooper (St-Germain), Joe Michalek (Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon). As I mentioned, I'm not seeing the same thing in the wine world right now. I've just returned from Colorado, where I was visiting craft distillers, and there's an explosion of activity there. There are 40 craft distilleries in the state (five years ago, there were 3 or 4) and some of them are doing remarkable things. I met one guy who was actually barrel-aging gin, which gave it an aroma and flavor profile I had never encountered. Another distiller was making potato vodka using his grandfather's recipe—-his grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. with all his possessions in a steamer trunk, and this guy dug the recipe out of the trunk and translated it from the original Polish.
In your opinion, which of the 12 iconic spirits has the most interesting story?
All 12 stories are compelling, but for me the most interesting was the connection between moonshine and NASCAR. I went to North Carolina and interviewed Junior Johnson, who's in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and was also a legendary bootlegger. He shared many stories with me about what things were like during the early days, and how bootleggers created stock car racing in America.
What is your favorite cocktail? Can you share the recipe with our readers?
I'm a whiskey drinker, so I'll usually order a Manhattan. Ordering the same cocktail is instructive because it allows you to observe very small variations in technique. For me, the ideal proportion is four to one, or two ounces of whiskey to half an ounce of vermouth. The type of whiskey dictates the choice of vermouth: Dramatic, high-proof whiskies will call for a rich vermouth such as Cocchi or Carpano, while smoother spirits will mix better with something like Dolin. Unfortunately, it's not easy to get a 4:1 Manhattan in most bars. The house needs to make money and normally wants to keep the price of a cocktail under $12, so they'll use more vermouth.
In the course of your research for the book, what are some of the insider secrets you learned about mixology?
Bartending turns out to be similar to being a sommelier (one of my previous occupations) in that it requires a knowledge of human nature. You have to be able to listen to people, and translate the information very quickly. I met some remarkable bartenders last year in a place called the Baker House in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. If someone came in who didn't know what they wanted, one of these guys would strike up a conversation with them, asking them what they drank at home, what their preferences were, etc. After a minute or two of this, they'd start making a cocktail based on what they had gleaned. I watched them do this a number of times, and it was impressive.
Conversely, if a bar is busy, it gives you're the opportunity to watch the bartenders for a few minutes. If you see that they're sloppy or not measuring, you might be better off drinking a beer than ordering an elaborate cocktail.