Published in September 2016, Colonial Spirits – A Toast to Our Drunken History, is an instructive and compelling account of the history of spirits in colonial America. The book itself looks like a piece of history with its quarter cloth binding, hand-drawn illustrations and yellowish paper.
Its author, Steven Grasse, is a man of many talents. An advertisement professional, he created Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum – not only the brands’ identities but their products! – and works for other alcohol brands through his spirits-focused creative agency Quaker City Mercantile. He’s launched his own range of liqueurs, Art in the Age, which he sells in the namesake store he opened himself and he’s built his own “small-batch, farm-to-bottle distillery and test kitchen”, Tamworth Distilling and Mercantile.
In Colonial Spirits, Grasse reminds what were the major factors in the success, or lack thereof, of alcoholic beverages on the New Continent: the terroir, the fruits and grains available, and, of course, the political and economical context of the time. He explains the effects of each in chapters dedicated to beer, cider, wine, rum, punch, liqueurs, non-alcoholic drinks, “medicinal” beverages, all the way to bourbon. He intersperses explanations about spirits history with humorous insights about American colonial society. The two are indeed closely linked, or, as Grasse says, “[…] we got drunk and invented America”.
Laughing ? Well, I told you the book was entertaining ! The writing is witty, slightly provocative, even somewhat impudent (if you’re nationalistic that is ; for others it’s pretty funny). A born storyteller, Grasse truly has a way to relate history in an amusing manner sharing numerous anecdotes that are not only informative but diverting as well. For example, did you know that Benjamin Franklin wrote a “Drinkers’ Dictionary” compiling various expressions to say “drunk”? I was amused to discover the « Have been at Geneva » one as Geneva is my hometown in Switzerland. However, after some searching, I was slightly disappointed to read that it didn’t really allude to my city but was rather a pun on the font used to print the Geneva Bible, the English translation of the Bible first printed in Geneva in 1560, and on Geneva, the Anglicized name for jenever, aka Dutch gin. So to read Geneva print means to drink gin and to have been at Geneva, to be drunk, but I’m getting off-track.
Back to Grasse’s statement that Americans’ ancestors got drunk and invented America: spirits did in fact play a role in the creation of America. As Grasse recounts, the revolutionaries who fomented the sedition of the old colonies from the Crown of England met in taverns (quite ironic considering these were established per order of the King of England himself) and several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were involved in the spirits business as distillers, producers, etc.
As with most books about spirits, Colonial Spirits contains a number of recipes, over 50 actually. Grass and his team have researched and tested centuries old recipes found in cookbooks dating from the colonial times and have updated them to our modern palates; sometimes offering their own twist. Some drinks have a potential for success nowadays ; others might raise a few eyebrows if only for their names. Anyone fancy a Cock Ale or an Artificial Ass’s Milk? At the end of the book, Grasse gives suggestions as to the resources readers can use to (re)create cocktail recipes.
I thoroughly enjoyed Colonial Spirits and I am eagerly waiting for its follow up on which Grasse is currently working. Colonial Spirits is a definitive must-have in your library but, in case you need more convincing, here is the book’s trailer!