Steven Grasse’s Colonial Spirits (Abrams Image, 2016) is the wackiest drinks book I have ever read. (I state this with admiration, and a bit of jealousy.) And I’ve read more than my share, and written a couple.
It starts with the 19th-century-like subtitle that is solong that it might need drop-quoted: “A toast to our drunken history being a revolutionary guide to brewing and batching, mixing and serving, imbibing and jibing, fighting and freedom in the ruins of the ancient civilization known as America.”
A few page-flips in one confronts a proclamation:
Spirits can be many things: a transcendental search, the embodiment of inspiration, a ghost in the closet, a bottle of booze. We the spirit of America as all of the above. Before democracy, there were spirits, and from the spirits we created taverns, and it was in those taverns that we laid the blueprint for a new kind of country, with a new kind of ideology, not ruled by kings and queens but by men and women. In other words, we got drunk and invented America.
The whole book is an eye-popping amalgam of old-timey-ness and gonzo. It begins with chapters that are thumbnail histories of early American drinking, beer, cider, wine, rum and punch. Then Colonial Spirits covers non-alcoholic drinks (Ass’s milk, anyone?), liqueurs and the like, before careening to spirits in Europe(!), and back to American whiskey. Illustrations whimsical and fetching by Reverend Michael Alan light up most of the yellowish pages.
Sprinkled throughout are lines like, “The lusty nature of our forefathers is something that has been covered up to all but the most astute readers of history for far too long. But we can say it now, and with pride: On a scale from Grandma Moses on one end and the filthiest pirate on the other, our early American drinkers most often fell somewhere closest to, say, Charlie Sheen in a three-cornered hat.”
Of immense value are the many recipes included within the book. Grasse has excavated recipes for early American drinks, like cherry bounce, switchel, and assorted shrubs. He then updates the recipes to make them a bit easier and less grotesque. So, the reader thirsting for cock ale is spared the ardors of the old recipe: boil a rooster, “flay him, stamp him in a stone mortar till his bones are broken (you must craw and gut him when you flay him),” etc.
If anyone would know how to translate old drinks into 21st century nectars it would be Steven Grasse, who invented Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, and the unbelievably wonderful Art in the Age Spirits. The latter are a line of retro distilled spirits made with rhubarb, sage, sassafras, and such.
Humor aside, Colonial Spirits illustrates something essential about America: we are a nation of inventors and entrepreneurs. Be it our drinks or our lives, we live by essaying — trying something new and living with the consequences, be they glorious (Apple Jack) or foul (Concord grape wine). Such are the blessings of liberty.