Some Authors Understand Alcohol's Not Interesting, but How We Drink It Is

Books about booze, like those about sex and music, take on the task of describing something better experienced than read about. I can't count how many booze books I've sifted through that have been written by enthusiasts whose desperate need to show off their specialized knowledge bogs down every page. Alcohol isn't interesting. How we drink it—where, with whom, on what occasion—is. The following books transcend their genre because they put alcohol in its place: Do not confuse Raw Spirit by Iain Banks (Arrow Books, 2004) with a raw-foods book of the same title. This U.K. import concerns scotchy, scotch, scotch—which many Scottish just call whisky. Banks is one of the greatest science-fiction writers alive, known as much for his wit as his imagination. The title of this book regarding his country's greatest beverage is also its best description. Raw Spirit isn't a highly polished XYZ of distilleries; it is equal parts useful travelogue and pensive journal, with a splash of reference. Banks serves information anecdotally, visiting distilleries far and wide, large and small, by all manner of transportation. Sounds high concept, but thanks to Banks' skill, it's a satisfying journey, with a bonus personal history for fans of his other writing. Read it on a rainy Sunday at Brouwer's Cafe (400 N. 35th St., Fremont), where you can pass over the beer list and check out one of Seattle's most thoughtful scotch collections. Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew (Harcourt, 2006), is not a member of the beer cognoscenti. In fact, beer never figured into her life, other than at happy hour, until she decided to write a book about it. Her objectivity toward the industry makes for a fascinating read about a small but very significant piece of America's beer history: the rise of a particular style of beer (lager) in a certain time and place (Milwaukee). During the years leading up to Prohibition, a cabal of German brewers—including Schlitz, Busch, and Pabst—became rich while solving the industrial problems that kept beer from being a large-scale, salable commodity. Ogle frames their accomplishments in the context of the American dream and tracks the implications of their moguldom into the microbrew age. Read the book while toasting the little guy at Big Time Brewing (4133 University Way N.E., University District), because even Anheuser-Busch started small. Did you ever watch that old PBS show, Connections? The host would start with Roman aqueducts and somehow follow a chain of inventions to the jet engine. War, Wine, and Taxes, by John V.C. Nye (Princeton Press), which will be released in May, reminds me of the show, nerdy but filled with profound implications. Nye writes 100 percent pure, uncut nonfiction to get your geek on, putting the myth of three centuries of British trade superiority on trial. Examining the protectionist tariffs the country used against the French, particularly on agriculture and wine imports, War, Wine, and Taxes casts Britain in a less liberal light than most histories. Free trade being one of the hottest topics of our age, Nye's fresh hindsight is timely. Depending on your leanings, either scoff at the book while downing a pint in the tiny, English library-pub setting of Pike Place's White Horse Trading Co. (1908 Post Alley), or cheer on those poor, misunderstood French, one demi-pichet at a time, up the block at Le Pichet (1933 First Ave.). mdutton@seattleweekly.com

 
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