The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, edited by David Wondrich with Noah Rothbaum

Review by Hayley Anderton

The first book I met when I started working in the wine trade was Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine. Every shop I worked in over two decades in the trade would have a more or less up to date edition, and anybody serious about passing their WSET exams would have a copy too. I’m on my third updated edition (the 4th, reviewed here) and even though I’m no longer selling wine it’s not a book I’d ever be without.

With that in mind I’d been looking forward to seeing what The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails would be like and had fairly high expectations for it. Now I’ve had a chance to have a proper look through the thing I can’t tell you how much I wish it had been available when I was in the trade. 

Both spirits and cocktails have been enjoying a renaissance. Starting with the growing interest in single malt whisky, taking in vodka, the madness that has been gin production in the last decade, occasional hopes that rum or tequila would follow as the next big things, and going hand in hand with the international bar scene, interest shows no sign of abating. 

I have a couple of theories about making good cocktails at home, and a lot of opinions on spirits generally. They range across keep it simple, have at least a couple of recipe books you trust (the internet can be your friend for recipes, but it can also lead you horribly astray), and don’t waste money on poor quality ingredients. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails isn’t necessarily a book you need in your library if it isn’t tied to your profession but trust me when I say I think it’s a book you’ll want if you have an interest in drinks.

There’s no shortage of cocktail books, distillery lists and directories, or lists of so many things to drink before you die (I really dislike the latter), but there really hasn’t been anything which offers such a comprehensive overview as this book does and it’s well overdue. It’s also a really enjoyable thing to sit and browse through. The entries are concise, well written and authoritative, one entry leads to another in a beguiling way which has left me more or less reading a dictionary quite happily for hours at a time. 

The authority the Oxford label brings to the entries is important too. There are a lot of legends attached to drinks – who first drank or invented what cocktail. Secret ingredients and claims to antiquity abound and working out what has some foundation and what’s pure myth is a minefield. It matters in so much that if I’m using a story to sell something, even to myself, I like to know if it’s just a good story or if it’s true. 

There are entries in here on production methods, brands, styles of drink, iconic cocktails, equally iconic bars and bartenders or mixologists, merchants, glass ware, mixing paraphernalia, history, methods, and much more. It’s a treasure trove of information for anybody with the least little bit of interest in the subject, and as I’ve already said whilst you might not really need it, you’ll definitely want it if that’s the case. Even more so because something else to repeat is how enjoyable to read this book is.  

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum, The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails (Oxford, 2021). 978-0199311132, 834pp., hardback.

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