The Cocktail Book

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

My day job is selling wine, spirits, and beer, something I fell into when I became interested in learning more about wine. That was eighteen years ago, and I’m still only scratching the surface. One of the things that keeps the job interesting is the way that changing tastes constantly lead to new discoveries and rediscoveries, and in recent years the most exciting of these has been the way gin has exploded back into popularity.

A decade ago, if a retailer sold half a dozen gins you would have thought you had a pretty good choice, bitters meant Angostura, vermouth pretty much gathered dust on bottom shelves, Campari was in about as much demand, and things were generally different. Now finding a choice of forty plus gins in a supermarket, never mind a specialist outlet, is not unusual and we want more than tonic water to serve them with.

To help answer the ‘how would you drink it’ question I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year going through vintage cocktail books, of which this one from the British Library is the most recent to be made available. Originally published in 1900, it is reckoned to be the first dedicated guide to the cocktail compiled for private use – a book for the home rather than a bartender’s guide. Its aim is to allow the user to provide friends ‘with most of the standard beverages, mixed in an acceptable manner.’

I should make it clear at this point that it not only covers far more than gin, it also makes room for several non alcoholic drinks (though as a gin fan I was really interested to see Genever, Plymouth, London Dry, and Old Tom styles all being mentioned – they’re not interchangeable!).

There are advantages to looking quite a long way back for drinks inspirations; a lot of these drinks are quite simple to make, calling for a minimum of equipment and ingredients. Broadly speaking the flavours are also in tune with contemporary taste, veering towards the dry, and there are sound basic principles about mixing drinks to be picked up.

Whoever wrote this book also really liked their bitters, which cover a much broader spectrum than just Angostura encompasses. I found this particularly useful because although I’m no stranger to the transforming effect of a dash of bitters, they can be the sort of thing that sit neglected at the back of a cupboard for lack of inspiration.

In short, it’s easy to write books like this off as curiosities rather than useful guides, but this one is definitely both. A fascinating insight into the drinking habits of the Edwardians, and full of things worth making.

Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader, where on occasion she likes to match her drinks to her reading.

The Cocktail Book (British Library, 2017). 978-0712356909, 87pp., hardback.

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