Stick to baseball, 11/11/17.

I have a new boardgame review at Paste, covering the card-drafting game Skyward. I also had two Insider posts go up earlier this week, one previewing some potential offseason trade targets, the other ranking the top 50 free agents this winter. And I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Feel free to sign up for my free email newsletter, which I send out … I guess whenever I feel like it. I aim for once a week, although I’ve gone as long as two weeks between issues when I haven’t had much to say. You can see past issues at that link.

Also, don’t forget to buy copies of Smart Baseball for everyone on your Christmas list! Except for infants. They might eat the pages. Get them the audiobook instead.

And now, the links…

Proof: The Science of Booze.

Adam Rogers’ book Proof: The Science of Booze delivers handsomely on its title: It’s a book about adult beverages, and it will make you want to go drink some, but it also gives quite a bit of information on the (light) science involved in the production of and flavors behind those libations, especially distilled spirits. While some of the stories around booze manufacturing get too bogged down in operational details, there are also magnificent anecdotes within the book, including the best mystery you’ll ever read where the culprit is a fungus.

Rogers divides the book into eight chapters, each revolving around some essential element of alcohol production – yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation, aging – or its consumption – smell/taste, body and brain, and the hangover. That gives him the latitude to talk about just about anything he wants that’s related to the manufacture of sauce and suds, including but hardly limited to some deep dives on what we do and don’t know about the science of such beverages.

Alcoholic beverages, especially distilled spirits – often called “hard liquors,” produced by putting some alcohol-containing mixture through a still, leading to whiskey (from fermented grain mash, like that created in beer production), brandy (typically from wine), rum (from fermented molasses or sugar cane), vodka (usually potatoes), and so on – have dozens or even hundreds of aromatic and flavor compounds, some of which still aren’t identified, that give them their distinctive tastes and smells. When you sip an aged spirit, often whiskey but applicable to rum and brandy as well, you may pick up “notes” much like you’d identify in good wines or coffees; those notes are specific chemicals or combinations of chemicals formed during the aging process, sometimes on their own and sometimes due to the interactions between the spirit and the wooden (sometimes charred wooden) casks in which they’re housed.

Rogers explores this angle, and many others, with visits to artisanal producers of these various beverages, moving his writing lens from wide shot to close-up and back, extrapolating from individual producers’ experiences to discuss larger points that he can back up (sometimes) with science. He talks about the obsessions distillers have with the shapes of their stills, even trying to reproduce flaws in old stills when it comes time to replace them with new ones. He talks to a barrel maker – apparently this is about as dying as a dying art can be without being, you know, dead – about the specifics of manufacture and the demands of clients. He gets into the lactones formed during the aging of whiskey in wood barrels, a subject so critical it’s even been the topic of academic research. He also compares production of alcoholic beverages from eastern and western cultures; where Europeans relied heavily on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Japanese beverages such as sake and shōchū come from a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).

Speaking of molds and fungi, the best passage in Proof is, by far, the mystery of the whiskey fungus, practically a detective story about one man’s quest to identify a specific organism growing on buildings near a particular whiskey distillery. The distilling term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of a distilled spirit lost to evaporation during the aging process, usually water but sometimes a mixture of water and ethanol, the latter of which attracts certain fungi that will be found growing on surfaces where the evaporated alcohol may condense. The story Rogers tells is told in greater scientific detail in this free Mycologia journal article – you probably still have that back issue at home – which describes the mycologists’ development of a new genus to encompass these molds, including Baudoinia compniacensis, now identified as the “angel’s share fungus.” Rogers infuses the story with a bit more drama than the journal piece does, of course.

Rogers even gets involved in the debate over wine ratings, where the American Association of Wine Economists (led in part by the perfectly-named economist Richard Quandt) is among the leaders in arguing that the judgment of wine experts like Robert Parker is too subjective to have any value. Quandt and Orley Ashenfelter, who also appears in Ian Ayres’ book Super Crunchers, are in effect the leading sabermetricians of oenology, whereas Parker is … I don’t know, Old Scout or something. Quandt even wrote his own manifesto comparable to Percentage Baseball or early Bill James Abstracts, called “On Wine Bullshit“. Rogers takes a somewhat middle road here, pointing out that truly objective wine measures are impossible until we’ve identified all of the molecules responsible for their flavors and aromas, but I thought he sided with the quants – as will many of you, I’d wager.

As only a casual drinker but one who greatly enjoys a well-aged rum and a well-mixed cocktail, I found Proof (which I listened to as an audiobook) both entertaining and informative, aside from the occasional tangent into manufacturing minutiae. I wish he’d spent a little more time on spirits beyond whiskey, but brandy gets a fair shake and I may merely be expressing my pro-rum bias. If you tipple, you’ll enjoy this book.

America Walks Into a Bar.

I have a post up for Insiders today on keeping faith in some players who had less-than-great years.

Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops is a thoroughly academic look at the history of the watering hole, mostly in the United States but with a brief look at its origins in Europe and in the Near East. Like most histories, it lacks any real narrative thread, but Sismondo does present a clear thesis – that the bar or tavern has had an essential role in the cultural history of the U.S. – and does a great job of backing it up through interesting and often funny anecdotes.

The book is built around discrete chapters, each of which covers a specific movement that either got its start in the taverns or found faster growth through tavern culture, starting with the revolutionary spirit in the U.S. that led to the Stamp Act protests, the Tea Party (the real one, folks), and eventually the American Revolution and the nascent U.S. government. In that era, there were no real town halls or any kind of community center where anyone (meaning any adult man, although occasionally women were admitted) could gather to hear news, exchange information, or tip off the ragtag militia that the British were coming. Even churches would often have to close due to weather, moving their religious services to the local to take advantage of the latter facility’s heating. From there, Sismondo jumps ahead slightly to the abolitionist movement, then bounces through about 150 years of U.S. history, covering the temperance movement (and the Anti-Saloon League), the disaster of Prohibition, and the gay-rights movement that exploded, in literal and metaphorical terms, during a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

The challenge for Sismondo isn’t making this interesting – she’s talking about booze and bars, with the frequent injections of sex and violence, so, really, I already have your attention by now – but making her arguments convincing. Some are easy, like the rise of the American revolutionary movement in taverns, because at the time, that’s all there was. If you wanted to associate, you had few options besides the town local. Others are more difficult, such as the speakeasy’s role in advancing women’s rights, because earlier proscriptions on women drinking alongside men or even sharing the same space in a tavern were dropped when all such establishments were banned. The political machines of the 1800s, notably the Tammany Hall regime in New York, certainly rose through the taverns of the age, especially because votes were procured in exchange for booze, but would they have risen without those places? Couldn’t votes be bought in other ways, as they are today here and in other countries? Sismondo makes a strong case, but it’s all anecdotal (as it has to be), so those chapters are more about reader interest than proving a hypothesis.

The interest level can be pretty high, depending on the chapter and subject. Sismondo gives brief portraits of some of the earliest celebrity bartenders, such as Jerry Thomas, and gives a lot of detail on some of the key figures in the Haymarket riot, where anarchists bombed a peaceful pro-labor rally, leading to four executions in a gross miscarriage of justice that further spurred the embryonic American labor movement. We get a sketch of Mary “Texas” Guinan, an actress who owned a speakeasy, the 300 Club, that became one of the most popular during Prohibition and launched careers of the likes of George Raft and Walter Winchell (the latter of whom made his name by printing the gossip Guinan fed him). And there’s a host of amusing stories of Prohibition evasion, much of it tolerated, enabled, or even run by the very folks who were supposed to be enforcing the silly, misguided Volstead Act. My main complaint with the book, though, is that we never seem to get enough of any of these things. The stories are all short, which keeps the book moving, but misses opportunities to add color to its pages with details on the eccentric characters or the devious/comical events that were planned at or took place in the American bar.

Next up: I just finished Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book Alton Brown recommended twice on podcasts earlier this year, and have begun John Williams’ western novel Butcher’s Crossing.

The Wounded and the Slain.

American author David Goodis’ work has largely been out of print since his death at age 49 in 1967, but the author of pulp novels and short stories in the noir and crime-fiction genres has seen a modest resurgence in popularity in the last decade as a few of his works have been republished. The Library of America has printed five of his novels in a single collection, including Dark Passage, which may have been the inspiration for the TV series “The Fugitive.” (A lawsuit was settled out of court after Goodis’ death.) Hard Case Crime brought The Wounded and the Slain back in 2007, part of their ongoing effort to revive those once-scorned pulp novels by introducing them to a modern audience – and I, as a fan of noir in general but a reader unfamiliar with Goodis’ work, can add my recommendation to theirs.

Wounded isn’t really a crime novel, earning its noir designation from its themes and setting rather than from its plot, even though there is a crime within the story. James Bevan is the drunk at the novel’s center, on a disastrous vacation with his wife, Cora, as their marriage threatens to dissolve in a highball glass of gin. James can’t stand to be sober, yet his self-destructive tendencies increase exponentially when he’s under the influence, which leads him to wander the slums of Kingston at night, eventually putting him in a bar where a riot breaks out and he’s drawn into the melee even though he’s too drunk to comprehend what’s happening around him. Cora shows vast patience with James, blaming herself for much of his licentiousness, but ultimately drifts into a flirtation with another guest at the posh resort where they’re staying. The novel concentrates more on James’ death spiral – and his reluctance to resist it – until Cora is forced to decide between fighting for her husband or pursuing her own happiness elsewhere.

Goodis paints one grim picture after another, both in scenery and in mood. The Kingston of this novel is filthy, poverty-stricken, drug-riddled, a den of thieves waiting to pick any errant tourist clean of all but his skin should he leave the safety of his hotel. The handful of sailors on shore leave we encounter don’t come off a whole lot better. James wanders into this world in an alcoholic stupor, trapped in a mind full of catastrophic thoughts, grappling with questions of suicide until he finds himself about to die – twice – and has to choose to live, only to see that the life he’s returning to isn’t worth that much. That these experiences prove disillusive for James underscores the stark existential nature of Goodis’ writing here, a prime example of noir without a hard-boiled detective.

Where Wounded lost me a little was the denouement, where Cora’s and James’s stories intersect in somewhat unlikely fashion, although Goodis saved himself with an ambiguous resolution that avoids tying anything up too neatly, which would have de-noired the book. I didn’t like how James ended up in that specific situation, as it seemed too far-fetched for a novel that often danced at the edge of the mundane in its realism. In James, Goodis has even created a compelling character who is miserable and whose mimesis is limited to the less palatable aspects of the human character, whose treatment of his wife should repulse us yet whose Appointment in Samarra-esque hurtle towards destruction will not let us turn away.

Many of the details about Goodis come from his entry in Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong.

And a Bottle of Rum.

Wayne Curtis tries to downplay the ambitions set in the title of his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, implying that he’s not going to credit human existence or history to rum the way other authors have to cod or salt or other mundane foodstuffs. That’s all to the good in my opinion, as he sticks mostly to the history of rum and various people and products associated with its rise from “the distilled essence of industrial waste” to a top-shelf liquor commanding premium prices for aged varieties as you might pay for whiskey or brandy. (It’s also available on iBooks.)

Rum is, of course, distilled from molasses (or, rarely, sugar cane juice), which was originally discarded by plantation owners as the unwanted, unsaleable waste product of sugar production and refining. It gained popularity among sailors, even becoming part of a daily grog ration for members of the Royal Navy (a practice that was only discontinued in 1970), and then became the main liquor in colonial America, first as an import from the Caribbean and later as a homemade product, playing a role along the way in the Sugar and Stamp Acts. (Curtis also attempts to dispel the myth of the triangle trade, with a few references, saying that there’s no evidence any ship actually sailed those three legs or that the trade was as simple as the middle-school story indicates.) Rum faded from view in the U.S. only to regain popularity during and after Prohibition through Cuba tourism, the song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” and the rise of the tiki bar. It is a tumultuous history with plenty of associations with major world events, even if rum itself wasn’t always the cause of them.

Along the way, Curtis provides digressions about the real Captain Morgan and his namesake rum (which wasn’t always spiced), the American temperance movement against “demon rum” even though rum was rarely consumed at the time, the history of the mai tai and the tiki bar trend, Coca-Cola (and the Andrews Sisters’ song about the two), and Paul Revere’s ride with its possibly-apocryphal stop for a dram of rum. He weaves these stories into ten chapters, each covering a specific drink, including planter’s punch, the daiquiri – not the frozen sickly-sweet concoction, but the original rum-lime-sugar-crushed ice beverage that was the libation of choice of Ernest Hemingway – and the mojito. To his credit, he has proper scorn for flavored rums, pina coladas, and Coca-Cola, since all of the three take the focus of the drink off rum by inserting a dominant alternate flavor.*

*Curtis hits on a distinction I’ve been thinking about between cocktails and mixed drinks. If you read about the history of alcoholic drinks, you’ll come across two kinds – those that try to enhance the flavor of the central liquor or push it to the front of the drink, and those that cover it up because the liquor is of low quality or because the drinker can’t abide the taste of alcohol. The former group, what I think of as cocktails, comprised drinks that were seen as masculine, like you might find a Bertie Wooster drinking at the club, while the latter, simply mixed drinks, were seen as either girly or just déclassé. Curtis even mentions the rise of vodka, a liquor devoid of character and nearly devoid of taste, and its rise as younger male drinkers in the 1950s refused to acquire the taste for strong drink. A true daiquiri remains an acceptable drink in this dichotomy, as the rum is the star ingredient with the rum and sugar as supporting players. A pina colada isn’t, as Curtis explains, because “pineapple and coconut are the linebackers of the taste world,” obliterating any indication that there’s rum in the beverage. A dark-and-stormy (dark rum and ginger beer) works because ginger and rum are complementary flavors, much like mushrooms and onions or haricots verts and almonds, but a Cuba Libre doesn’t work because it’s just a Coke with a higher proof content. I’m not quite sure how a mai tai passes muster with Curtis – I think that’s only an acceptable drink if you’re on a tropical island, and even so, there are likely better options – but in general he’s pretty consistent.

Curtis also includes recipes for modern drinks as well as brief recipes for ten classic (or just old) drinks that lead into the ten chapters. One of them, just called “punch,” looked familiar, and after making it I realized it’s the drink called “planter’s punch” in Bermuda, where my wife and I honeymooned and to which we returned for our fifth and tenth anniversaries. It’s strong and the predominant flavor is rum (Gosling’s Black Seal in Bermuda), and while you can garnish it with all manner of garbage, at its heart it’s a daiquiri with some water and maybe a pinch of nutmeg, the latter a nod to the classic punches of Britain. And it’s very easy to assemble:

Juice half a lime into a glass. Add one tablespoon of sugar, simple syrup, or agave nectar; 1 1/2 ounces of rum; and two ounces of water. Mix well and add ice.

The end of the book has a brief selection listing Curtis’ favorite rums from a cross-section of countries and multiple price ranges. I found most of them at a nearby liquor store (the one at Fresh Pond next to Whole Foods, for those of you who live around here). They’re sipping rums rather than mixing rums, for more serious drinkers than myself.

Next up: Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Alice Adams.

Everyday Drinking.

My introduction to Kingsley Amis came through his comic novel Lucky Jim, but Amis was also a prolific columnist on the subject of alcoholic beverages. Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis combines two previous anthologies of Amis essays on drink (1973’s primer On Drink and 1983’s collection of newspaper columns Everyday Drinking) with a series of ten-question quizzes, originally published under the title How’s Your Glass?. Although there’s a bit of repetition – mostly of information but occasionally of jokes – between the first and second sections, the volume is educational and extremely witty, plenty to hold the attention of an occasional drinker like myself.

Each essay or column is built around a specific topic, usually a specific drink or class of drink, with digressions on topics like how to drink without getting a hangover, how to stock a liquor cabinet, or the decline of the English pub (so strongly felt that he delivers the same rant twice). Amis’s chief skill in writing these essays, aside from an apparently indefatigable liver, is blending strident opinion with direct advice so that his lectures don’t become shrill or dull.

His essay on liqueurs, for example, starts with an explanation of where that class of beverage originated (from preserving fruits in spirits) to discussions of a few major types to a digression on Southern Comfort, including his discussion of a drink called a Champagne Comfort:

Champagne Comfort is not a difficult drink to imagine, or to make, or to drink. My advice is to stop after the first one unless you have the rest of the day free.

Amis lays into any practice of which he disapproves, referring to lager and lime as “an exit application from the human race if ever there was one” (it’s listed in the index under “lager and lime, unsuitability for higher primates of, 170”) or as a Harvey Wallbanger as a “famous or infamous cocktail … named after some reeling idiot in California.” He expounds on Champagne as “only half a drink. The rest is a name on a label, an inflated price tag, a bit of tradition and a good deal of showing off.” There are several columns and one section on how to stiff your guests by shorting their drinks or by fawning over their wives so the women will defend you to their grousing husbands on the drives home.

While Amis is busy amusing you, he’s educating you on the history and processes of drink as well as offering suggestions and recommendations, even on wine, a beverage he professes to dislike. Understanding drink means understanding ingredients, processes, industrial practices, and accumulated wisdom of old sots like Amis. He writes that it’s best to keep seltzer or sparkling water outside the fridge, as refrigeration kills the bubbles. Why isn’t Jack Daniel’s technically considered a bourbon? (Because it’s made in Tennessee, not in Bourbon County, Kentucky.) What do (or did) winemakers in Bordeaux do in poor harvest years? (Import grapes from Rioja, a region in Spain that’s a major producer of red wines, particularly from the Tempranillo grape.) And he won points with me with several mentions of Tokaj azsu, the sweet wines of Hungary made from grapes affected with the “noble rot” fungus.

He also includes numerous drink recipes, including a few of his own making, one of which is, in fact, named “The Lucky Jim,” a dry martini with cucumber juice. I’ll trust one of you to give that a shot and report back to me.

Next book: Hangover Square, a novel by Patrick Hamilton, author of Rope, a play that became one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more famous films.