Kris Rothstein's Blog

Books and BC Distilled 2017

Kris Rothstein

BC Distilled is just four years old and already one of my favourite Vancouver annual events. There is something about distilling and crafting spirits that makes people exceptionally passionate and animated about their work. Everyone is eager to share their next audacious project, whether it is creme de violette (coming soon from Gillespie's in Squamish) or trying to use an herbal infusion of salal (Odd Society), huckleberry or fir tips (Woods). BC Distilled happens April 3rd to the 8th so there is still time to get into an event.

Last year the main tasting event made me ponder the relationship between alcohol and literature. It was easy to find some interesting new books on the topics of how to distill your own spirits, how to use craft beer in cooking, and crazy new ideas for cocktails based on Canadian geography and agriculture. But it was more of a challenge to find serious and original literary work that probed the theme. This year I had more time and dug deeper to find some fascinating relevant books.

The Dionysian love affair of a disproportionate number of great writers with wines, beer and spirits has been responsible for personal joy and creative inspiration but also for despair and destruction. In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, British author Olivia Laing investigates this juxtaposition through the story of six towering figures of American literature. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams are among those whose relationship with alcohol was partly responsible for failure and death. "I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically I wanted to know why writers drink, and what affect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself," she writes. And in an epic journey across America she probes the ways writers used drink to inspire and to prop themselves up when troubled. The list of daily drinks downed when these writers thought they were taking it easy is truly staggering.

Fitzgerald wrote, “The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar,” giving credence to the idea that drinking and creativity go hand in hand. Said Tennessee Williams, “Drink heightens feeling. When I drink, it heightens my emotions and I put it in a story. But then it becomes hard to keep reason and emotion balanced. My stories written sober are stupid...” And Hemingway’s thoughts on why he drank also suggests both the poetic and prosaic aspects of alcohol: “When you work hard all day with your head and you know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? Modern life, too, is often a mechanical question and liquor is the only mechanical relief.” A few of these authors attained sobriety, but after drink had taken a terrible toll. This is a sad book, which also reflects on suffering through alcoholism in the author’s own home, but The Trip to Echo Spring is an ambitious project and is well worth reading.

Proof: The Science of Booze follows the science of alcohol from the activities of yeasts, sugars and fermentation, the human discovery of distillation, how aging changes and deepens flavours, how we taste and how the brain reacts to alcohol and finally all the way to the science of the hangover (understudied and not understood!). One of the things that makes the book particularly interesting is it there isn't as much science on any of these topics as you might think. As author Adam Rogers writes, the fun part of science isn't the answers, it's the questions, and the story of alcohol is still full of questions. The book is both anecdotal and comprehensive an includes visits to places like the national collection of yeast cultures and university labs designs to look like bars where researchers investigate what is actually happening in the brain when we drink. Rogers finds makers who are willing to try ever-crazier techniques in order to distill the perfect drink, from using barrels of different wood, aging with different sound frequencies in the background, or aging barrels on boats to include briny flavor and slosh liquid around the barrels more. The book is perhaps a little detail heavy, but it includes more captivating knowledge that it is even possible to mentally absorb.

In Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, Jessica Warner tells the story of the rise of gin in England in the eighteenth century. A combination of factors led to the intense popularity of this originally Dutch spirit, including hostilities with France which resulted in the banning of French wine and brandy, many years of over-abundant grain crops, the growth of the urban working class and a few decades to refine the taste of English gin (previously vile). The resulting drunkenness and moral outcry reads like a thoroughly contemporary tale, with the poor censured for behaviour tolerated and encouraged in the rich. Reading about the living and working conditions of most of the population makes it entirely understandable that many people would choose to be almost perpetually drunk on the strongest and cheapest liquor available.

For lighter fair I read Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. In it, Martin and Rebecca Cate describe how the tiki craze blended the drinks of the Caribbean with Polynesian aesthetic around the time of the Great Depression, when the mystery and exoticism of foreign travel was beyond the reach of most people. Tiki promised madness and adventure far from the mundane life and a few visionary pioneers created bars and lounges so inviting that ‘pop Polynesia’ was born, with very little public interest in the actual history or cultures it drew from. The book is attractive and weighs a ton, and includes tips on tiki decorating, advice on how to throw a party and tons of cocktail recipes. But it is the fascinating analysis and history which really attracted me and it made me wonder about the convergence of current social factors which has inspired the newest tiki revival.

A full report and more books, after the festival.



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