The Third Rail: A Year of Magical Books About Drinking

December is the month of the listicle. Every magazine, newspaper, and Web site has its own series of year-end round-ups. While there may be plenty of best-of lists for books (heck, the New York Times Book Review alone has at least three), they tend to play to the cut-and-dried categories of Fiction, Non-fiction, etc., and as a result, plenty of interesting works get thrown under the bus. After the jump, we’d like to pay tribute to the year’s best books for scholars of the bar, so pull up a stool and get comfortable.


Best Book by Bartenders, for Bartenders
Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus, by Scott Beattie is the type of full-color tome that can be gushed about by fellow mixologists for its inventiveness. And really, seasonal drinks with fresh ingredients make for a great bar theme. It’s not exactly accessible for your average home bar, unless your liquor cabinet includes hearts of palm and edible flowers, but it’s okay to gaze lustily at a glossy image of a “Rhubarbarella” while drinking your more pedestrian but classic Sazerac (rinse your glass in Pernod, add ice, a dash of Simple Syrup, dash of bitters, 2 oz. Rye Whiskey, plus an always in season maraschino cherry).

Best Drinking as Destiny
“Willie Hugh passed a milestone when he got drunk on beer for the first time, at the age of nine. He’d accompanied his father, Ira, to Albert’s Place, a beer joint across the county line toward West. Both sat in with Charlie Brown’s band, and little Willie sang a couple numbers. When nobody was looking, he was also knocking back beer.” We think you can guess what Willie we’re talking about here. Joe Nick Patoski’s biography Willie Nelson: An Epic Life also chronicles an epic degree of beer-swilling. Considering some of the other trouble the Red-Headed Stranger has gotten into, perhaps he should have stuck with the beer, or at least Arkansas’ local moonshine, “White Mule.”

Best Literary Drinking
This winner is a reissue, but worth noting. Sir Kingsley Amis may be known first as one of Britain’s finest twentieth-century novelists, but his reputation as a drinker follows as a close second. Amis married these fine attributes into a series of charming, not entirely reliable books, combined and republished this year as Everyday Drinking. His baffling recommendations (a Bloody Mary with no Tabasco, just ketchup?) would probably give Artisanal Cocktail’s Beattie the shakes, but Amis trumps other drink columnists with his humor. On dealing with oenophiles, he suggests “If asked what you think, say breezily, ‘Jolly good,’ as though you always say that whatever it’s like. This may suggest that your mind’s on higher things than wine, like gin or sex.”

Best Evidence that Wine Snobs are Nuts (a.k.a. the Sideways Award)
The Founding Fathers are a cottage industry in publishing, but 2008 was not especially kind to Thomas Jefferson. While The Hemingses of Monticello chronicled the lives of his “other” family, Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar showed that Americans are lucky there weren’t grape stains on the Declaration of Independence. Readers may question his shopping sprees around the vineyards of Europe, but at least he bought bottles that were meant to be consumed. The contemporary connoisseurs in Wallace’s book prove willing to spend thousands of dollars on wines they never even drink. Amis has written a word or two about these types of people, but nothing we could reprint without getting you in trouble at work.

Best Fictional Bar Scene

Most people picked up Richard Price’s literary crime novel Lush Life for the type of purportedly street-smart dialogue that made The Wire — which Price co-wrote — a critical favorite. As the name suggests, though, there’s more than a little drinking going on here as well. The cover features a well-known bar and Lush Life’s witty play on the clichés of Manhattan’s Lower East Side include plenty of close-to-home descriptions of the neighborhood’s hipster watering holes, such as the No Name, “a slender Chrystie Street bar that had no sign, no listed phone number, and whose clientele were admitted ‘by appointment only,’ buzzed in from behind a scarred narrow door on this obscure stretch of a Chinese-dominated side street; single-batch Cruzan Rum, absinthe, and cocktails made with muddled ginger or ignited sugar cubes the specialties of the house.” Hmm, sound familiar?