After a fun but often chaotic holiday season, whiling away an afternoon with a good book — transporting you to a new world, perhaps, or revealing something new about your current one — can work wonders for the soul. Here are four books you might consider adding to your Christmas wish list if you want to learn more about the beer, wine, spirits and cocktails that will no doubt contribute to your merrymaking this December.
Wine like a boss
It’s no wonder that Mark Oldman has become one of the most well-known experts on wine in the country. He’s written multiple books on the subject — including “How to Drink Like a Billionaire: Mastering Wine with Joie de Vivre” ($28.95, Regan Arts) — and has been a featured speaker at many a wine festival, including the Austin Food & Wine Fest for multiple years, because he knows how to distill big ideas into informed but pint-size chunks.
That’s no different with “Billionaire,” an engaging guide to just about anything you could want to know about wine: how to pair it with food (“reds can swim with the fishes” while “whites have a beef”), why your enjoyment of a certain bottle isn’t proportional to its price and even how to properly decapitate your Champagne bottle without hurting anyone. It’s a cool party trick, to say the least.
People who love lists will feel particularly at home with Oldman’s book, which also offers his recommendations for different varietals of wine. His 10 Best Alternatives to Pinot Grigio, for example, will introduce you to wines you’ve probably never even heard of, like the peachy, floral white grape Arneis from Italy.
A cocktail renaissance
Though New York Times drinks writer Robert Simonson’s first booze book was about the Old-Fashioned, the cocktail that ultimately turned him away from wine was the Sazerac, and thank goodness it did.
He’s now compiled an engrossing narrative history about the modern cocktail renaissance that brought back the classics and then riffed on them. “A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World” (Ten Speed Press, $27) features the influential people behind the revolution as well as cocktail recipes.
The real-life people who color his tale are so precisely rendered that it’s as if these quirky characters formed straight from Simonson’s imagination. They include, briefly, Austin’s own Jason Kosmas, who helped create New York’s Employees Only in 2004, possibly “the highest-grossing cocktail bar, per square foot, in the country.” The gone-too-soon Sasha Petraske, of the legendary Milk & Honey, is a more prominent pillar of America’s transformed bar scene.
Of the Sazerac, Simonson writes that “it was a seamless, cultivated, elegant whole, and like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was a drink with a story, a past, and more depth than most people I know. The world stopped.”
You might well feel that sense of wonder about his book — and the people in it — by the end.
Go on a beer adventure
With “My Beer Year” ($16.95, Roost Books), certified cicerone Lucy Burningham taps into the essence of why craft beer has caught on so much. For fans, it’s a deeply personal passion, albeit one shared by a community of people who like to talk about it nonstop with each other and drink their best bottles together.
Her first-person narrative starts at the beginning of her journey to become a cicerone (the equivalent of a wine sommelier), which means readers are learning about beer and the brewers who make it right alongside her. There won’t be any doubt that she’s successful in her quest — her title as “certified cicerone” is on the cover of the book — because you’re meant to relax during the beer-soaked ride.
And it’s an easy one, even if the test to become a cicerone isn’t.
Her breezy writing style and descriptive stories will get you through half the book before you look up and realize you’re about an hour past your bedtime — or your mouth will be watering because you’re thirsty for one of those beers she’s enjoying, such as a wit that smells “like a floral perfume,” a kölsch whose color is “dried-gingko-leaf yellow” or an IPA whose “spike of bitterness ease(s) into warm earth and crushed blossoms.”
If you can use some exotic booze, let’s fly away
Despite the explosion of craft cocktails exposing drinkers to all manner of unusual spirits and liqueurs, there’s one type of whiskey that still remains elusive, even mysterious. Whiskey writer Dominic Roskrow is hoping to change that with “Whisky Japan: The Essential Guide to the World’s Most Exotic Whisky.” The immersive, coffee-table-book-size tome transports us to the perfectionist distilleries of Japan, making malted whiskies similar to Scotch.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking these complex spirits are mere copies of the internationally recognized Scottish whisky. Instead, Roskrow writes, “Japanese whisky has taken a Scottish blueprint and quite deliberately tweaked it to suit a Japanese palate.”
That palate is wide-ranging, “from huge, plummy, sherry-soaked, battering-ram oak, and industrial-strength peaty whiskies at one end, to whispering, delicate, floral, and throat-caressing gossamer at the other. And pretty much everything in between.”
The book helpfully provides information on Japanese-centric bars around the world, including in the U.S., where you’ll be able to find a hearty selection of bottles: everything from the slightly smoky, green apple-forward Hakushu 12 Year Old to the sweet toffee-filled Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel. Seek them out during your travels — they’ll reveal just as much, if not more, about Japanese tastes as the fermented beverage sake already has.