Friday 1 January 2016

Rebellious Spirits - Ruth Ball

A delicious history of the secret, exciting and often dangerous world of illicit spirits

For as long as spirits have existed, there has been someone doing something really naughty with them: selling gin through pipes in a London back alley; standing guard on a Cornish clifftop waiting for a smuggler's signal; or dodging bombs and shrapnel running whisky in the Blitz. It is a history that is thrilling, utterly fascinating and uniquely British.

Packed full of historical recipes, from Milk Punch to a Wartime Martini, along with cocktails from contemporary bartenders, Rebellious Spirits is a treasure trove for the curious drinker.

From the gin dispensed from a cat's paw at the Puss and Mew shop which could have been the world's first vending machine, to whole funeral corteges staged just to move a coffin filled with whisky, the stories show off all the wonderful wit and ingenuity required to stay one drink ahead of the law. The accompanying recipes are just as intriguing: How did we drink gin before tonic? Was punch really made with curdled milk? Or breakfast served with brandy porridge, and gin mixed into hot ale? What did the past really taste like?

What did I think?

Although it took me a while to read it, this book was really interesting.  It is so full of information that I could only read one chapter at a time so I could fully digest what I had read, and spend some time sampling the alcohol I had just read about, of course.

I absolutely loved the recipes, both original and alchemist versions, although I have yet to try them out.  It will be really interesting to try some authentic versions of drinks our ancestors will have supped.  I'll start off with some easier ones like Egg Flip, Gimlet or Bobby Burns as some of them are really adventurous like the Blue Blazer whereby a stream of liquid fire is passed between two containers - with the author pointing out that you should make sure you have a helper to put you out if it goes wrong.

The book starts with a chapter on the origins of alcohol, but also has excellent sections on whisky, gin and poitin.  I had many laugh out loud moments at the hilarity of hiding whisky from the excise officials - from whisky babies to innovative seating arrangements.  I have taken great delight in telling my friends the story of the Puss and Mew shop, although having read later chapters whereby people were paralysed by illegal alcohol perhaps it wouldn't be such a good idea to drink unnamed spirit passed through a spout in a painting. Desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures and it just proves that Brits will do anything for a shot of gin.

Something else that really interested me was the hidden bars also known as secret speakeasies.  From a secret bar in New York called PDT (Please Don't Tell) which you access via a phone booth in a hot dog joint to a Detective Agency in Kensington which has a bar hidden behind a secret entrance in the wall, they sound like amazing places that I would love to visit.

It's such an interesting book that I am sure I will pick it up again for many years to come.  It has certainly made drinking whisky and gin much more interesting as I now have so many stories of their origins.  I think the author has done a brilliant job of writing such a comprehensive history of booze, with just the right amount of history and humour.

I received this book from the publisher, Elliott & Thompson, in exchange for an honest review.

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