REVIEW by Eric LeMay
Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits
by Jason Wilson
Ten Speed Press, September 2010
Hardcover: 224 pages, ISBN: 1580082882
As a teenager, I swam competitively. Mostly, this meant spending long, chlorinated hours in a cold pool, but occasionally my team got to compete in exotic locales like central Florida. These trips inspired endless scheming: How could we smuggle alcohol with us, so that our nights in the Econo Lodge would transform into the beachside debauchery we’d witnessed in spring-break movies? We knew our parents and coaches would inspect our luggage, purportedly to make sure we’d packed enough sun screen and socks, but really to prevent us from having the underage, unmonitored, drunken fun we felt we deserved.
These Econo Lodge nights, as you’ve certainly guessed and perhaps experienced, ended in the toilet’s orbit. This happened not only because of our over-consumption, but also our smuggling method: shampoo bottles. Suffice it to say, no amount of rinsing, scrubbing, re-rinsing, scouring, re-scrubbing, and pouring boiling water in and out of a shampoo bottle on a Tuesday night while your parents are sleeping lightly upstairs will prevent that bottle from infusing the vodka poured into it with the taste of shampoo. It was vile. And yet we drank it, in shots, straight from the cap.
I have always seen my teenage folly as a testament to America’s romance with alcohol: the way we imbue it with exoticism, glamour, taboo, and sex. Who, after all, is more susceptible to romance than Ohio teenagers? Only after reading Jason Wilson’s Boozehound did I realize that our shampoo-infused Smirnoff was on the cutting edge of American spirits. "I feel the need to say a few words about the explosion of flavored vodkas," writes Wilson in his chapter on "Flavor and Its Discontents." Wilson ultimately says two words ("totally ridiculous"), then explains why:
I mean, I can understand the impulse behind, say, a basic citrus vodka, and maybe even a vanilla. But is there any earthly justification for the existence of a lychee-flavored vodka? Or coconut vodka? Cherry and black cherry vodka? Huckleberry vodka? Kaffir lime vodka? Blood orange vodka? Pink lemonade vodka? Organic cucumber vodka? Sweet tea vodka? Cola vodka? Root beer vodka? Sake-infused vodka? Protein powder-infused vodka? Dutch caramel vodka? Espresso vodka? Double espresso vodka? Bubble gum vodka? Yes, every one of these vodkas has sat on a liquor store shelf, and this list represents only the tip of the iceberg. In 2003, there were about two hundred flavored vodkas on the market. Today there are more than five hundred.Wilson hopes to guide us from these spirits hatched in a "Jelly Belly store" toward those with true flavor, "actual tastes that grow out of a place, a tradition, an artisan method."
And he succeeds. A literary mixologist, Wilson creates a cool blend of travelogue, personal essay, social history, and how-to, ending each chapter with drink recipes that send me out to buy the appropriate barware. One measure of Wilson’s success is how much the guy has cost me. I still live in Ohio, which means I have to ship in the booze he describes—it’s so enticing, I can’t not try it: Dutch genever, for example, the original Renaissance gin that sprung from juniper; or Barolo Chinato, a quinine-infused wine that pairs so well with dark chocolate you’d think a miniature Cupid had collapsed on your tongue.
A few sips in, I find myself forgiving Wilson, but if the boozehound ever follows the trail to Ohio, I’ll have a new vodka for him to try.September 14, 2011