The Ombibulous Me
They talk of my drinking but never my thirst.
The first liquor i ever experienced, as a teenager, was sambuca—the anise liqueur often served after dinner in Italian restaurants, with three coffee beans for good luck. The only reason for this is because, in our house, a lonely bottle of sambuca sat at the back of our kitchen pantry, hidden behind the hodgepodge bottles of Chivas Regal, Canadian Club, and VO. My parents didn’t drink whiskey—they were the type of baby boomers who as young adults had eschewed spirits and cocktails for the pleasures of wine—and so they likely kept those bottles on hand solely for guests who liked whiskey. As for why sambuca lurked in a dark corner of our shelf, I have never discovered an explanation. We are not Italian-Americans. It’s not as if my parents were jet-setting in Portofino (more like Ocean City, New Jersey). And we’d never hosted a foreign exchange student. Perhaps it was a gift from a guest, someone who believed that my parents might enjoy a bracing, licorice-tasting after-dinner spirit? In that case, it was one of the most misguided gifts of all time.
However, since this bottle of sambuca sat totally untouched and unmonitored, it ended up being the perfect liquor for a sixteen-year-old boy and his friends. My parents were occasionally out to dinner, and so after the police had broken up a keg party in the woods or on the eleventh hole of the local golf course and we were suddenly out of Milwaukee’s Best, my friends and I would find ourselves rummaging deep in my family’s pantry for our now-favorite Italian digestivo.
If we’d had any choice, I doubt sambuca would have been at the top of the list. After all, most American kids grow up calling red Twizzlers “licorice” and picking around the black jelly beans in the jar. My friends thought sambuca was gross, and we mainly drank it in shots. But I kind of liked it. Or at least I pretended to like it. I don’t mean to suggest that I had esoteric tastes as a teenager. In reality, I was a rube who subsisted on Gatorade and Ho Hos, gagged on mustard, and scraped the onions or mushrooms off any dish served with them. But I had seen La Dolce Vita on VCR tape, and I took on an air of sambuca connoisseurship as if I’d just returned from café life on the Via Veneto, splashing in the Trevi Fountain with Anita Ekberg, and now had a Vespa parked in the garage next to our riding mower.
The reason was quite simple: L., a certain Valkyrie-like girl who’d recently moved to our neighborhood and started hanging out with us. Her mother had an accent, and everyone said they were “European.” They had a last name that seemed vaguely Scandinavian or, as some in the neighborhood called it, “sort of Aryan.” But who knows where they came from. Regardless, the stunning blond-haired, blue-eyed L. was clearly different from most of the Jersey girls who went to high school with me. I was smitten, and had spent an entire summer trying to convince her to fall in love with me, but had remained squarely in the friend zone.
Still, I was on the lookout for ways to impress her. One autumn night, a group of us fled a busted party on the golf course. “Sambuca, anyone?” I suggested. Among our friends, L. and I walked to my house, cozily arm-in-arm in the crisp fall air. On that night, I decided to make my move.
The sambuca bottle had one of those plastic pourer spouts. After so much usage—since we didn’t really know how to use it properly and never wiped it off—a sugary crust began to form, making it increasingly hard to pour. As luck would have it, on that very night the crust had finally grown impenetrable; I couldn’t even coax a trickle of sambuca from the spout. “What’s the deal?” my friends wanted to know. “We want shots!” L. joined the chorus. Panicked, seeing my moment slipping away from me, I began hacking away at the crust with a butter knife. When that didn’t work, I grabbed a pencil from the kitchen counter and jammed it, forcefully, into the spout. The pencil immediately broke in two, and the top part somehow ended up floating inside the sambuca bottle.
My friends erupted in laughter. L. did, too. I was eventually able to pour the shots, but by then—humiliated in the way only a love-struck teenage boy can be—I’d lost my nerve and pride. When, later, I embarrassingly, tearfully, professed my undying affection to L., she gently patted me on the head and told me I was “a good friend.”
The only other thing I remember from that night is my mother dragging me to my bedroom by the ear, yelling at me. Apparently, my parents found me passed out in the kitchen in my boxers, and I would be grounded for quite some time. Fortunately (or unfortunately), my brother had earlier stashed the sambuca bottle safely in its regular hiding spot. Years later, well after I’d graduated from college, my mother was clearing out the pantry and found it. She remained puzzled as to why there was a broken pencil floating inside a half-empty bottle.
Soon after, L. began dating a guy in his twenties with a classic Mustang who drove around town with photos of L. in his hubcaps as a sign of affection—pretty much a deal maker in 1980s suburban New Jersey. Of course, I was crushed. This was my first true romantic heartbreak, and its sting was so acute that I can vividly recall the feeling more than twenty years later. What could I do? I was still a boy, and no match for a dangerous older man with a Mustang. Stealing that sambuca, gagging down the overwhelming 80-proof anise liqueur—this was about as edgy as I got in those days.
• • • • •
It’s a curious thing about memorable flavors. They always come back.
When I began writing my column, one of the first big spirits stories I covered was the legalization of absinthe. Until 2007, the mythic, louche liqueur of nineteenth-century Parisian decadence was classified as a dangerous, potentially hallucinogenic, and banned substance by the U.S. government. The reason it had always been verboten was because of a chemical called thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood. Wormwood is the mysterious plant that makes absinthe absinthe—the Green Fairy, with its legends of hallucination and belle époque debauchery embraced by writers and artists such as Verlaine, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Modigliani. By the turn of the twentieth century, absinthe was so popular that the French were drinking thirty-six billion liters of absinthe versus only five billion liters of wine. But then in 1905, some crazy guy in Switzerland named Jean Lanfray, drunk on absinthe, murdered his family—which led to a public outcry against the spirit. One by one, Western nations began banning absinthe. Some historians suggest it was actually the powerful French wine industry, concerned about its eroding market, that helped trump up the Lanfray murder and lobbied for the Green Fairy’s prohibition. Regardless, by 1912 absinthe was illegal in the United States.
But here’s the thing: absinthe was never banned by name. In the United States, the law expressly prohibits any spirit that contains over ten parts per million of thujone. It took nearly a century, but in the late 2000s, someone suddenly had the bright idea to apply a little modern chemistry to the issue. A New Orleans–born chemist named Ted Breaux was creating a new absinthe called Lucid, and he began testing bottles from the late nineteenth century to show that properly made absinthe contained very little thujone. He proved that just about all absinthe, both historical and contemporary, had less than ten parts per million of thujone. The whole thujone scare appeared to be overblown, and the ban existed mainly because, until 2007, there had been no way to prove absinthe’s innocence. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau did similar tests and came to the same conclusion. The ban had been misapplied. Voila! Americans were now free to drink absinthe.
Over the next twelve months, absinthe seemed very much in demand, dovetailing with another new fad for classic, speakeasy-era cocktails. The New York Times, in December 2007, announced “A Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback.” Nearly every lifestyle publication followed suit, championing the obscure, notorious spirit’s return. By the end of 2008, at least a half dozen premium absinthe brands had come on the market, most selling for more than sixty dollars a bottle, including one called Mansinthe created by Marilyn Manson. You knew the inevitable backlash was only a matter of time, but even jaded observers had to be surprised at just how swiftly the cognoscenti gave the official Thumbs Down on poor old absinthe.
The first New York Times Sunday Styles section of 2009 declared absinthe “uncool,” with Styles reporter Eric Konigsberg calling it “falsely subversive” and likening absinthe to such fleeting cultural fads as cigar bars, soul patches, women’s lower-back tattoos, brushed-nickel kitchen fixtures, and “blogging about one’s bikini grooming.” He wrote, “Once the naughty aura of the forbidden fruit is removed, all that remains is a grasp at unearned sophistication.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food section was more blunt, calling absinthe “out” in its 2009 New Year’s predictions. Harsher still: “We liked it much better when it was illegal. Somehow the notion of being illicit overrides the flavor of NyQuil dripping down your throat.”
As I observed this phenomenon, I thought, “Well, duh.” Americans mostly don’t like the taste of licorice. Absinthe is flavored with anise, givi...
Revue de presse
—Wine Enthusiast, December 2010
“A longtime travel writer, currently a spirits columnist for the Washington Post, Wilson's book is part pithy memoir of a sambuca-soaked kid-turned-haute-liquor-pro, part homage to the beauty of odd bottles, part social commentary, and part irreverent travelogue that's at its most engaging when Wilson is on the road.”
—Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/16/10
“With recipes for all sort of cocktails and libations, plus lots of highly-opinionated rants and raves (and a few pot-shots at the big guys, like the €30 cocktails at the Ritz in Paris that use bottled juice, not fresh) it’s not as much fun as sitting with Jason around a table of spirits, ready to be sampled. But until we meet again, this book is the next best thing.”
—DavidLebovitz.com, Favorite Cookbooks of 2010, 12/6/10
“It's like reading a food memoir but with drink as the backdrop and instigator. . . .There is education here, certainly, but via a pleasurable, relaxing read. Like a fine drink, at its finish, I found myself thirsty for more.”
—San Francisco Bay Guardian, Best of 2010, 12/3/10
“This is not a cocktail book, per se, so much as a grand tale of Cocktailia, circa 2010, complete with heroes and charlatans.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, 5 Essential Wine & Spirits Books of 2010, 11/28/10
“A smart globe-hopping tour behind the scenes of the current ‘cocktail revolution.’”
—The Week, 11/12/10
“The Washington Post's spirits columnist since 2007, Mr. Wilson has never been one for 100−point scales and tasting notes. For him the best drinks are trips down memory lane. . . The wit and judgment that mark Mr. Wilson's column are evident throughout Boozehound, his journey through the modern spirits market. He has had the good fortune to be on the beat as the classic cocktail revival led to the reappearance of long−missing liquors, drinks, and ingredients. In nine chapters, covering everything from artisanal bitters from Italy to how to make a Fizz fizz, he celebrates the new abundance while remaining skeptical about liquor conglomerates' marketing schemes. . . . Throughout his bibulous wanderings, Mr. Wilson never loses sight of the drink in the glass.”
—Wall Street Journal, 10/23/10
“Wilson may just be the best virtual drinking buddy you’ve ever had, as he mixes his insights with hilarious war stories. . . .Whether he’s detailing happy hour in Milan, the annual ‘Tales of the Cocktail’ convention, or Peru’s glass-sharing tradition, one thing’s for sure: this book will make you want to drink—and drink something interesting. . . Let’s hope there’s another round coming soon.”
—Ward Sutton, Drawn to Read, BarnesandNobleReview.com, 10/17/10
“Call him the Sherlock of scotch, the Poirot of pisco or the Marlowe of malt whiskey.”
—Washington Post Express, 10/13/10
"The book is entertaining, and the info is accompanied by a healthy chaser of acerbic wit and plenty of personal asides."
"Entertaining, thoroughly engaging, and utterly informative. . . . In the end, Boozehound is not just a book for drinkers. Rather, it’s an invaluable volume for curious people everywhere, and its insights into culture, history, travel, and, yes, spirits, are rewarding on any number of levels. They’ll also make you seriously thirsty for a cocktail--with a renewed sense of appreciation for what went into it, of course."
—Uncork Life!, 10/11/10
"A breezy, archly opinionated picaresque from the world of tippling, on the order of a milder-mannered Anthony Bourdain."
—Dallas Morning News, 10/4/10
"Wilson got his sea legs as a travel writer so Boozehound dips hard into travelogue. Here, though, it's a crucial means of moving liquor beyond recipes to the realm of geography and personality. Recipes are there, of course. But Wilson's real fodder is the fabric of the cocktail revolution."
—San Francisco Chronicle, 10/3/10
“A global travelogue with a buzz.”
—New York Post, 10/3/10
"[Wilson] does an outstanding job of conjuring the images of time, place, and sensation that are so vital to the appreciation of any fine food or drink."
—The A.V. Club, 9/30/10
"Wilson not only has the rare opportunity to write about spirits on such a frequent basis, but he also has a true enthusiasm and affinity for the topic, which shows in the vibrancy of his writing. Boozehound takes Wilson's Post columns several steps further, creating for the reader a more comprehensive view of today's dynamic world of drinkables.I've enjoyed reading Wilson's columns for several years now, and Boozehound is a fantastic read as well."
—Paul Clarke, Serious Eats, 9/29/10
"A new combo travelogue/industry commentary/drink recipe collection addressing all that matters in the world of fine spirits."
—Philadelphia City Paper, 9/28/10
“This high spirited book is sure to quench your thirst for knowledge and fun.”
—Los Angeles Daily News, 9/21/10
"Wilson's rich descriptions will entice readers to try something new the next time they hop on a bar stool."
—Library Journal, 9/15/10
"If Post spirits writer Jason Wilson has any mission with his forthcoming book, Boozehound, it’s to inject some intellectual rigor into a form of journalism too often drunk on its own superficial prose."
—Washington City Paper, Young and Hungry Blog, 9/15/10
"Jason Wilson, the spirits columnist for The Washington Post, is funny, smart, and just irreverent and critical enough that you trust every word he writes. And he likes the sauce? Sounds like our kind of writer."
“Superbly informative, entertaining, and yet deeply subversive.”
—Anthony Bourdain, author of Medium Raw and Kitchen Confidential
"In his first book, Wilson, the spirits columnist for the Washington Post, has concocted an idiosyncratic exploration of the world of spirits. His primary ingredients include heavy doses of cocktail recipes, travelogues, history lessons, polemics against popular trends (flavored vodka is his primary target), all mixed together with a dash of autobiography. Wilson's bibulous quest takes him across Europe and the Americas, where he quaffs everything from Genever and Calvados to añejo tequilas and a substance called "Peanut Lolita." As he drinks his way around the world, Wilson also examines the myriad ways in which alcohol has shaped culture and his own suburban New Jersey upbringing. Wilson sees the American obsession with flavored vodka as part of the long hangover from Prohibition. Yet he also discerns a growing American interest in more complex spirits, and he makes it his mission to introduce readers to the delights of arcane substances like Chartreuse and Tuaca. Wilson succeeds in his pose as an American everyman abroad...Yet he has done his readers a real service: with cocktail recipes at the end of each chapter, Boozehound serves as a smooth personalized guide to classy mixology. (Oct.)"
—Publishers Weekly, 6/28/10
“There’s nobody I’d rather read on the subject of booze than Jason Wilson. Smart, funny, illuminating, and opinionated, this is a book I’ll return to often—both when I need a good read, and when I need a good drink.”
—Molly Wizenberg, creator of Orangette and author of A Homemade Life
“Boozehound takes you behind the labels and delves deeply—and humorously—into the world of liquors and libations. I’ve had the pleasure to sip, swirl, and savor a cocktail (or two) with Jason Wilson, and with this collection of highly spirited stories and recipes, you can too.”
—David Lebovitz, author of Ready for Dessert and The Sweet Life in Paris
“Jason Wilson’s overworked liver is a national treasure. A deeply entertaining guide to the periodic table of liquors, Boozehound is a serious fount of pleasures, chief among them Wilson himself: doggedly curious, acidly opinionated, refreshingly irreverent, and epically thirsty.”
—Jonathan Miles, author of Dear American Airlines and former cocktail columnist for the New York Times