If you're going to buy one book with a political bent during this crazy political season, I suggest you consider "Colonial Spirits: A Toast to our Drunken History" by Steven Grasse. Why? Two reasons: the book looks at the early days of the United States through the lens of booze, and it also has plenty of drink recipes. (Let's face it: We're going to need a lot of liquor, beer and wine over the next few months to get us through Nov. 8.)
Back to reason number one, though. This history/recipe book teaches through story, and that's the most enjoyable way to learn history as far as I'm concerned. In this case, the stories are centered around alcohol and the people who "got drunk and invented America."
Lest you think Grasse is out to paint early Americans as a bunch of alcoholics, he begins the book by explaining that early settlers polluted the drinking water by dumping every manner of waste into it — to the point that alcohol became safer to drink than potable water. By imbibing, people could avoid such diseases as smallpox, lockjaw, bloody flux, rickets, sores and more. Bring on the booze!
What kind of booze? According to Grasse, "... the early Americans tried to make booze from literally anything they could their hands on." They created beer, rum and punch; temperance drinks; liqueurs and cordials; medicinal beverages; cider; wine, whiskey and bourbon, and Grasse tells the tales behind those creations with humor.
Each drink comes with stories — tales that weren't mentioned in the history classes most of us took. The introduction and chapter on beer explains the importance taverns had in shaping America, as our forefathers spent their time discussing ideas over many pints at the tavern. That's not so surprising, but there are less expected stories like the one that accompanies the recipe for a beer known as Cock Ale, what Grasse says is perhaps "America's first erectile dysfunction medication." The story speaks of a pamphlet called "The Women's Petition Against Coffee," which claimed that coffee was causing men to "fall down flat" (and not on their face, if you know what I mean). This is the interesting minutia that doesn't get taught in school.
In fact, there's so much information in this book that was never covered in American History 101. In the cider chapter, we learn that a fermented apple drink was so popular in the mid 1800s that during its heyday, a new level of connoisseurship was developed. People with advanced palates could detect a cider's terroir, much like some wine experts can do today. And back in the day, Applejack was not a brandy; it was a method of creating cider with "potency that bordered on out-and-out toxicity." Legally, Grasse can't go into much detail about that method.
The video below is a hilarious introduction to Grasse's approach to the book, which includes the illustrations of the Rev. Michael Alan.
The use of alcoholic beverages for medicinal purposes has its own chapter as do temperance drinks — those non-alcoholic drinks that teetotalers preached. Another chapter covers the origins of vodka, gin and whiskey and how they crossed the Atlantic and became popular in America. Whiskey, so says Grasse, got a thumbs-up from George Washington when he swapped out his tobacco crops for corn for monetary reasons. When Washington died, he was one of America's largest whiskey producers, another detail you probably missed in history class.
Grasse is a great storyteller, and in "Colonial Spirits" he tells the tales of America's earliest interactions with alcohol with wit and authority. He knows his booze, being behind brands like Hendrick's Gin, Art in the Age, Sailor Jerry and more.
There are more than 50 recipes in the book that have been updated for modern times to make sure that if made or drank no one would "die or even be hospitalized." Traditional Cock Ale, for example, was made by literally parboiling a chicken, and then smashing it to bits adding some raisins, mace and cloves, and then putting it in water to let it ripen as other ale. Grasses recipe, thankfully, uses chicken stock.
"Colonial Spirits" is due out Sept. 13, right about the time this year's election cycle will have us needing to reach for something that will make us think fondly of America. This dose of booze-soaked history should do the trick.