The best holiday gifts for the wine-, beer-, and spirits-lovers in your life are not actual bottles (unless those bottles are particularly rare, old, or expensive) but books about those subjects. And the publishing world agrees with me, which is why it continues to pump out volume after volume, year after year. Here are my recommendations for 2011.
Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop: This may be the ugliest and unsexiest book I've ever recommended. Its bright yellow cover doesn't exactly suggest curling up with it and a nice glass of Beaujolais on a quiet winter afternoon. The text isn't particularly lively or artful either. But the book's greater value is its general explanations of the details of winemaking, both natural and commercial (e.g., sulfur use, organic and biodynamic farming, common wine additions, etc.). It will provide satisfying answers to technical questions for the questioning oenophile in your life.
An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection—and Profit—in California by David Darlington: This is a well-reported and well-written account of the modern history of wine in California. Darlington paints great characters and has a highly engaging reportorial style. Starting in the 1970s, he traces the paths of a few California vintners—especially the consultant Leo McCloskey and the winemaker Randall Grahm—as they navigate the disciplines that wine inevitably and haphazardly crisscrosses: science, art, commerce, and agriculture. The book delves deep into controversial issues like the role of technology in the manipulation of wine, the impact of critics, and the tug of war between making something personal and something commercial.
Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World's Craft Brewing Revolution by Joshua M. Bernstein: This book looks at almost every important trend in craft brewing today. The focus is primarily on the American scene, but includes some global references (like an engaging profile of Mexico's Cucapá brewery). Bernstein spotlights current topics like seasonality and reviving lost beer styles, always in an engaging way with lots of stories of individual brewers and the problems they solved to create their new brews. The book is designed to look like a personal journal, with different fonts, photos "pasted" in with the images of paper clips and tape, etc., all of which is a bit too cute for my taste. But it gives the volume an accessible, if busy, feel. (This is not the place to find definitions of things like tripels, or entries on Belgian beer, though. For that, get a copy of The Oxford Companion to Beer, which would be a nice book to package with this one.)
The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover's Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation by Christian DeBenedetti: A lovingly written touring guide to America's craft breweries. It describes each brewery's scene, philosophy, and "key beer" contribution to American brewing. While it's a great road trip guide (complete with suggested itineraries for regional touring), what I love is the context it provides for each brewery. When I'm striding into an unfamiliar brewpub, I want to know why it's important and what beer it's known for, and this book tells you.
Spirits and Cocktails
Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy by Charles Neal: Very few things are as satisfying after a great meal as a glass of well-aged, amber Calvados, which captures the sweetness of autumn better than any other spirit. This book is likely the most authoritative volume on the apple- and pear-based brandy of northwest France that has ever and will ever be written. Neal, who is an importer of the stuff and researched the book over years and years of visits to the region, explains everything: subregions, soils, fruit varieties, Norman cuisine (with recipes), distillation methods, cellaring, etc. He also includes profiles of pretty much every producer in existence, totaling around 180 unique entries. This is a book of rare obsession and thoroughness, essential for any proper library of spirits books. It would be lovely as a gift alongside a bottle of something delicious.
Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons: This book gives a full-sized accounting of what's in those little bottles that bartenders these days are always shaking into their cocktails. We're living in a golden age of bitters: After decades of there only being a couple of varieties available (e.g., angostura and Peychaud's), spirits shops today are full of them, in flavors from lavender to cherry to celery to xocolatl mole. Parsons's book discusses all of these and the companies that make them. Parsons also offers more than a dozen recipes for making your own bitters at home. These are quite useful, as I can assure you that using homemade bitters is always more satisfying than using ones you've purchased. Finally, there's an excellent, if somewhat typical, section on how to set up a home bar. But I really like Parsons's annotated list of the 10 essential bitters for the home bar; and his recipes for bitter-forward cocktails, both new and old, are terrific.
The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender's Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy by Jim Meehan: This will make a wonderful gift for the cocktail-lover, even if they've never set foot in the eponymous Manhattan new-school speakeasy. Meehan's recipes (for both classic cocktails and contemporary originals) and explanations of tools, techniques, and equipment are excellent and authoritative. Most electric about the book are the illustrations by Chris Gall, animating the recipes and evocative cocktail names with vivid, witty comic-book-style brilliance.