AUSTIN — Summertime — when you’re sprawled out on a towel at the beach or simply relaxing on your backyard patio — is always an opportunity to catch up on some reading. It’s also a season that practically demands drinks to keep you cool.
So why not combine these activities and learn a couple insightful facts about your booze of preference? Knowing the history of that drink just might enhance your appreciation and thirst for it. Here, we offer four boozy book suggestions to add to your summer stack.
Although “Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit” (William Morrow, $25.99) is most certainly a history book, you won’t even realize you’re absorbing dates and events from as far back as the 1500s as if you’re back in high school. That’s because author Dane Huckelbridge brings bourbon’s birthplace, Kentucky and the rest of the U.S., to life with the sort of witty, character-rich zeal AMC writers might employ if they took over the History Channel.
He argues that the whiskey backwoods farmers first developed in the 1700s -- the corn-based beverage eventually dubbed bourbon -- isn’t just America’s spirit because it originated here. Bourbon embodies our collective spirit, too, “a version, captured in glass and brought down to miniature, of the very country that willed it into existence.”
It’s hard to argue with that when he presents such a thorough, intoxicating case for it. “Take a simple glance at bourbon’s history, and the parallels (between the spirit and the American experience) become undeniable,” Huckelbridge writes. “A primary ingredient (corn) first cultivated by Native Americans. A cultivation technique brought from Europe by immigrants. A recipe invented on the Western frontier. A spirit of rebellion born of social upheaval (during the Civil War). A coming of age in the tumult of the Roaring Twenties.
‘’To know its story is to know our own.”
Once you’ve filled up on bourbon facts, top it off with a book that celebrates the resurgence of a classic whiskey cocktail. “The Old-Fashioned” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99) by Robert Simonson, drinks writer for The New York Times, covers the lore behind a drink that was once simply a mixture of bourbon or rye, bitters, sugar and water, but became, “when the expanded backbar led to experimentation and the adulteration of time-tested formulas,” a modern mess of additional ingredients such as fruit, absinthe and soda, Simonson writes.
Ironic that the Old-Fashioned has returned to its original, elemental state in recent years given that it was christened the Old-Fashioned in the late 1800s as a cry by bar patrons to mixologists -- a term that also dates from that century -- to make drinks the way they wanted them, not so complex and put together in a precise manner. But Prohibition, as Simonson writes, “did no favors to any cocktail.”
However, you won’t be engrossed in his book just because of all the mythology surrounding this storied drink. It’s filled with gorgeous photos of the Old-Fashioned in its eponymous glass and with recipes (which comprise a good half of the book) both traditional and modern, swapping out the whiskey for pretty much every other spirit available. The Old-Fashioned, as Simonson notes in his “about the author” paragraph, really is his favorite drink. After reading his book, it might be yours, too.
Only better with age
Patrick Dawson has been collecting, aging and consuming vintage beers for more than a decade, and his personal cellar holds around 300 beers at any given moment. That makes him a pretty bang-up authority for a guide on how to age beers to transform their taste and study how they improve over time. “Vintage Beer” (Storey Publishing, $14.95) won’t give you the stories of the people behind these beers, but it is a solid manual on cultivating a cellar like his for the craft beer fan who wants to take his hobby to the next level.
‘’Why go to the trouble of aging beers?” the introduction asks. “Well, the answer is very simple: aging beers allows time for various flavors not immediately present to develop and meld.”
Some of Dawson’s tips on aging include keeping in mind that very few beers will benefit from multiple years of cellaring -- about 1 percent of all craft beers being brewed. Age dark, higher-alcohol beers, however, and you’ll catch anything “from sweet (toffee and caramel) to fruity (apricot and grape)” on your tongue; let sour ales sit and they’ll soften over time, allowing bursts of other flavors to assert themselves.
And if you’re going to age, Dawson advises finding a place to keep the beers that’s dark and cool. Texas might not have cellars, but it does have refrigerators, cabinets and closets. Just be sure to keep the bottles upright.
Austin’s booming craft beer industry is downright fledgling when compared with the industry as a whole. In fact, in 1993, when the Texas Legislature made brewpubs legal -- a reversal of an old Prohibition-era law -- pioneering breweries across the country had already been leading the long, hard-fought charge to turn craft beer into a desirable beverage, even though the beers tasted nothing like the light lagers Americans had been used to sipping.
Right in the thick of the struggle was Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery in 1988 and author of the recent “The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers is Transforming the World’s Favorite Drink.” His book chronicles the success of breweries like his at peddling their humble wares, to the point now that sales of craft beer have risen 20 percent even though beer sales overall have dropped.
“(Americans) are drinking less but drinking better,” he writes. In no small part that’s because of the big ideas of the small breweries, all willing to experiment on a craft they wholeheartedly believe in.
What makes Hindy’s book so compelling is the simple hook that he’s been part of it all since the 1980s, when craft beer really started taking off in the U.S. He’s good friends with brewers like Gary Fish, founder of Deschutes. He was right in the center of quarrels not just between the craft breweries and big beer companies but between the craft breweries themselves.
And he serves as an example of what all brewers had to do in their company’s early days -- brew as much as they could and introduce it out of the back of their vans to bars and beer fans and hope they liked it.
You don’t need to flip to the last few pages to know how it ends. The obstacles for craft brewers today are different than they used to be. “There’s a growing demand for craft beer, and I think, if anything, craft brewers are going to have trouble keeping up with the demand,” Hindy said.
Which is not a bad problem to have.
— Rye/Bourbon Old-Fashioned
Muddle the sugar, bitters and a bar spoon of warm water at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass until the sugar is dissolved. Add the rye or bourbon. Stir. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
“The Old-Fashioned” by Robert Simonson.
Combine all the ingredients except the lemon twist in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
-- Bobby Heugel of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge, as adapted by Robert Simonson in “The Old-Fashioned.” Arianna Auber writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: aauber(at)statesman.com.