The Boozy Bookshelf: Drinking Distilled by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up Drinking Distilled by Jeffrey Morgenthaler and give us both of their opinions of said book.

Marlene’s Review:
I figured I’d like this book the second I flipped it open to a random page and saw a section header simply called “Barfing”. Anyone who’s followed our reviews for a while knows I’m a sucker for tone, and any book comfortable enough to drop that casually into its first 20 pages is pretty likely to be a casual, easy romp. And it doesn’t disappoint on that front: with wide margins, largeish type, numerous breaks and tons of white space make it a breeze to get through in a sitting or two.

Which is not to say that it isn’t informative – it is. Definitely targeted more towards consumers of spirits rather than those of us who sling them, it’s nonetheless got some useful background and a coherent, if slightly unusual structure.

Divided into four sections slightly reminiscent of the “How, Why and Where” phases (and only slightly less entertaining than Douglas Adams’ version), he gives the reader topics including “General Instructions”, “What You’re Drinking”, “When You’re Drinking”, and “Where You’re Drinking”. The aforementioned “Barfing”, along with some bon mots on drinking games and executing the perfect Irish Exit are covered in the first section, paving the way – once you know enough not to throw up on yourself – for the chapter on distillation, basic spirit categories and the fundamentals of cocktails. More experienced folks may feel that much of it is grossly over-simplified, but if you ever find yourself explaining distillation, or why whisky is different from brandy to someone without even a baseline of knowledge, you could do much, much worse than to regurgitate his descriptions.

There’s also nothing overly precious about Morganthaler’s attitude; when he talks in section 2 about whether or not to add water, his philosophy – backed up by his own admission that sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t – is live and let live. He also (gasp!) doesn’t think that shaking a martini will cause some sort of rift in the cocktailing space-time continuum. Utterly incongruous, then, is section 3 on “When to Drink”, where he lays out rules that are admittedly mostly common sense (don’t drink Bloody Marys after noon, don’t drink martinis at breakfast unless you’re an alcoholic), but run counter to the ethos he just espoused in the previous chapter. He’s forgiven though, for his useful tips for such celebrations as bachelor parties and baby showers, as well as the proper use of a flask and how to make a killer champagne tower.

Finally, the first part of section 4 “Where to drink” will undoubtedly resonate with industry folks, as it’s largely an instruction manual for how to conduct yourself in a bar. He also offers some words of wisdom on drinking at friends’ houses, the office, on the golf course, in airports/on airplanes, etc whose tongue-in-cheekiness save them from getting too preachy.
Recipes aren’t exactly plentiful, but all the classics are covered and he offers up a few handy tips (even if a couple of them feel a little like cheating (make a Ramos in a blender, you say?).)

Marlene’s Last Word: Without a ton of depth on spirits and lack of complex, advanced recipes, this is by no means essential for every bartender. But it’s not directed at bartenders. And with its handy tips on how to drink like a grown-up and how to behave in a bar, it should certainly be on your list as a stocking stuffer for anyone in your circle who’s ever waved a $20 at a barback on a busy night, or insists that gin can be “bruised”.

Lucas’s Review:
I would assume that most of the folks coming to Bartender Atlas, let alone the ones making it through my reviews, are already seasoned bar professionals. With that in mind, Jeffery Morganthaler’s new book, Drinking Distilled, isn’t for you. Or, well, sort of not for you. If you’re a fan of light-hearted, well-reasoned treatises on drinking, especially ones that won’t take up much time or wear out their welcome, then it could be for you. If you’re a fan of clever but accurate everyman drinking books and essays, like Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking (and you probably should be), then Drinking Distilled is probably for you. If you, like me, have been reading Morganthaler since his blog days and would read 200 pages on, say, Brandy Alexander variations if he wrote it, then Drinking Distilled is a definite must-read.

I have mentioned Mr. Morganthaler’s last book, The Bar Book, many times in our reviews, as I consider it to be the simplest and most direct introduction to bartending for a novice (though some tough competition has emerged). I pre-ordered Drinking Distilled sight-unseen based on his previous works, and was surprised to find that it goes even simpler than the Bar Book, explaining the etiquette of, potential faux pas involved in, and exploding myths around drinking alcohol for a casual drinker, while also giving very basic tips on the mechanics behind drinking and creating drinks. The book has only very occasional line-art, and is quite compact (not quite pocket-sized, but easily placeable in, say, a fashionable fanny pack worn by a classy gentleman about town), making it feel lean and concise. In holding with Mr. Morganthaler’s well-developed, almost journalistic style, the language is tight and very clear, with a lighthearted but informative tone. There is very little fat on the bones of the book: no lengthy cocktail section, no elaborate spirit histories, and the whole thing clocks in at 170 pages including index. I mentioned Kingsley Amis before, and a lot of what Morganthaler is doing here is basically kissing cousins to the boozin’ work of the notable British humorist, but he manages to avoid the out-of-date wine lists and quizzes that make half of Amis’s work inessential. It’s actually quite impressive, and I miss the days of mass-market paperbacks being a thing, because a skinnier pocket edition would be a killer stocking stuffer — that said, at $17US, it definitely makes a great gift for those family members that inevitably want to impress you with how much they know your business or want to show off how they think they can get served faster at the bar.

The structure of the book is a little scattershot and anecdote-driven, but there are some basic bones keeping it together (I really like the what/when/where approach). With the sporadic art, the book feels like it could be a collection of, say, Esquire articles, but it does remain readable in one sitting. There’s a lot of Morganthaler trademarks in here: his love of Wisconsin drinking, his willingness to update and embrace the pre-modern-cocktail-boom drinking culture, his ability to inform but still feel like that cool teacher with the rolled-up sleeves who rides a motorbike to school and takes off his leather jacket at the start of class (but not, y’know, the creepy one). Morganthaler has really staked his claim as an ambassador of bar culture and drinking to the interested and uninformed, and the Drinking Distilled, while a bit slight, serves as a great alternative to The Bar Book to hand to people who know very little about the weirdly esoteric world of bars.

Lucas’s Last Word: Buy Drinking Distilled for someone you know who is a drinking enthusiast but maybe not a bar professional (or who may be one but still somehow has, say, less-than-good bar etiquette). Before you give it to them, read it. Then buy more copies for everyone else that might like or need it, possibly including yourself, re-reading optional. If everyone read this book once, it would make every bartender’s job easier.

Famous Last Words
Famous last words, opened in October 2016 in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood, is a bit like a library - if the library made kickass cocktails and let you play vinyl. They regularly host book clubs, readings and book launches and have built a literary-inspired cocktail list over 40 drinks deep with chapters of "Short Stories", "Modernists" and "Classics". A self-described lifelong book nerd, Marlene opened famous last words to combine her two loves: reading and cocktailing. She can be found behind the bar a few nights a week and, according to Lucas, is the master of the four ingredient sour. Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Lucas Twyman moved to Canada because it was the only other country in North America that makes whiskey. He bartended pretty much everywhere in Toronto's Junction neighborhood and can be found at Famous Last Words. Marlene recommends asking Lucas about his publishing career and/or his clarified milk punch recipes.
Famous Last Words on FacebookFamous Last Words on InstagramFamous Last Words on Twitter