Jason Wilson is the spirits writer for The Washington Post, which means he gets paid to fly to Europe and get drunk. It sounds like a dream job, and Wilson is well aware; in the self-effacing introduction to Boozehound: On The Trail Of The Rare, The Obscure, And The Overrated In Spirits, he jokes that he’s sure the fact that he and his friends are termed “lifestyle columnists” is probably a sign of the impending apocalypse.
But as long as the economy can still make it economically viable for a newspaper to pay someone to visit Milan for the sole purpose of throwing back five glasses of amari in a row, it’s good to have a man like Wilson on the job. Although his essays and travelogues about exotic and little-known liquors occasionally fall victim to the same overblown rhetoric he despises in wine writing, he does an outstanding job of conjuring the images of time, place, and sensation that are so vital to the appreciation of any fine food or drink. As he goes from Norway to Italy and from southern France to New Orleans in search of rare finds, he’s always careful to separate the genuine pleasures of drinking from consumerist hype and corporate-sponsored product lore, no matter how charming it is—and he’s the first to admit when he’s stumped, as when he wonders why he and his friends are so taken with a violet crème liqueur that dates back before they were born.
Boozehound is at its best when Wilson really puts his foot down—he isn’t an absolutist about his drinking, but he’s extremely opinionated. And while readers who already agree with him will more enjoy passages where he heaps endless scorn on the very idea of flavored vodkas, or rails against the tyranny of the dry martini, he’s never less than engaging when he writes about these issues. His stories of “liquor store archaeology”—the endless quest for obscure tipples unearthed from bottom shelves and back rooms—are also engaging, but the current renaissance in unconventional spirits makes it easier to prepare the many recipes he generously provides between each chapter.
Some of the best stories in the book involve questions with no answers: How did Jägermeister, a German tipple preferred by middle-aged men of the bourgeoisie, become the shooter of choice for American college students seeking a cheap buzz? Can marketing savvy ever transform the heady Scandinavian drink aquavit into something more than a holiday tradition? Do little old men on bicycles really hand-pick elderflowers to make St. Germain? But it’s a lot of fun tagging along with Wilson as he tries to find out.