These books on booze deserve a toast, says Daniel Okrent
1. The Alcoholic Republic
By W.J. Rorabaugh
This excavation of the most drink-sodden era in U.S. history (1790-1840) is as damning as it is enlightening. At a time of easy access (there were 14,000 American distilleries by 1810), rough frontier mores and poor water quality, liquor seeped into every corner of national life, writes W.J. Rorabaugh. Americans “drank at home and abroad, alone and together, at work and at play, in fun and in earnest. They drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn.” If you wish to understand the temperance movement’s nobler impulses—that is, those that were untouched by the xenophobia and political cynicism that later drove the campaign— you might start here.
2. Domesticating Drink
By Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Johns Hopkins, 1998
Despite her subtitle, “Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940,” Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s primary subjects are female and her perspective decidedly feminist. But by focusing on women and drink—territory previously unexplored by scholars of her ability—she is able to tease out some of the puzzling and persistent anomalies and contradictions in American attitudes toward booze: women soldiers of the temperance movement co-existing with matrons who chugged Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound (20.6% alcohol!) to alleviate their “female complaints”; the instant acceptance of women into the speakeasy, after they had been barred for decades from the saloon; and the absolutely decisive role of women in bringing about Prohibition’s repeal, just they had been critical to its creation.
3. Noble Experiments
By “Judge Jr.”
John Day, 1930
This pocket-size oddity—chiefly a compendium of novel cocktail recipes— tells you how impotent Prohibition had become during its waning years, at least in the big cities and other places where the wish to obey the law ran a distant second to the wish to imbibe. Published three years before the arrival of Repeal, “Noble Experiments” (the title was taken from Herbert Hoover’s characterization of Prohibition) wasn’t about the appreciation of fine liquors and wines. A typical concoction (gin, brandy, apricot brandy, lime juice) was known as “The Bridge Table,” the pseudonymous author tells us, “because after a few of these your legs will fold up.” Among those who contributed recipes were journalist Heywood Broun, actor Roland Young and impresario Florenz Ziegfeld; among those who declined was the usually ombibulous H.L. Mencken, who in a rare moment of moderation said he’d rather make the argument for wine and beer.
4. The Speakeasies of 1932
By Al Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn
More than a decade before he began to insinuate his daughter’s name, Nina, into his grand caricatures of entertainment figures and other celebrities, the 29-year-old Al Hirschfeld devoted a good chunk of a year to prowling some of the 32,000 speakeasies tucked into every corner of New York. (“This may be the best damned researched book ever,” he wrote in a preface to the 2003 edition, when he was 99.) Ranging from Bowery dives to the “all marble and gold” Bath Club on West 53rd Street, where the entertainment was chamber music, Hirschfeld produced a portrait of speakeasy life infinitely more reliable than the distorted renderings concocted for film and television.
5. Martini, Straight Up
By Lowell Edmunds
Johns Hopkins, 1998
In the midst of his distinguished career as a classicist, Lowell Edmunds paused to focus his critical talents on a cultural artifact packed with just as much meaning as a Minoan terracotta or an Ionic capital. Originally published in 1981 as “The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization,” Edmunds’s book finds seven meanings in the martini (among them: “The Martini Is Optimistic, Not Pessimistic,” “The Martini Is the Drink of Adults, Not of Children”) and four ambiguities (“The Martini Is Sensitive—The Martini Is Tough”). He’s not quite the cocktail snob that I am—he is willing to consider that a martini can be made from vodka—but one suspects that Edmunds does prefer his bullets straight up and very dry.
Mr. Okrent is the author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” He writes a monthly book-review column for Fortune.