I had so much fun reading The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails (TOCSC) that I could continue writing about it for months. But don’t worry, I won’t.

The book isn’t a work of fiction or nonfiction, of course, but a work of reference. In fact, in 2022 it won the Dartmouth Medal as the best new reference book of the year, Dartmouth grads being well-known for their expertise in the world of spirits.

In other words, the book isn’t meant to be read, but only to be referred to as necessary. Only an insufferable blogger would actually read all 1,000,000 words of the damn thing – and, worse, actually enjoy every minute of it.

In any event, I’ll bring this long series to an end (but not necessarily this week) with a few choice tidbits from TOCSC, almost-but-not-quite in alphabetical order.


Absinthe was banned in most countries in the early 1900s as a result of a dastardly cabal consisting of (believe it or not) the temperance movement and jealous wine interests. Supposedly, one of its ingredients, wormwood, was deadly. Actually, as TOCSC puts it, “millions of people drank genuine absinthe every day for over a century with no apparent ill effects.” So if you like the taste (I only like it in Sazaracs) pour some over a sugar cube and have at it.

By the way, the word “louche” refers to a glass of absinthe that has been “louched” with water. Absinthe contains substances, especially fennel and star anise, that aren’t soluble in water. They drop out of solution and turn the drink cloudy, a milky opaqueness known as the “louche.”

The Alexander Cocktail

This appalling beverage is made with brandy, crème de cacao, and heavy cream. It was listed as one of the “ten worst cocktails” in a 1934 issue of Esquire magazine and it hasn’t improved any over the subsequent nine decades. I mention it here only because it featured prominently in the first movie I ever took a date to – in fact, I (much later) married her.

In Days of Wine and Roses hard-drinking Jack Lemmon introduces then-teetotaler Lee Remick to booze via the Brandy Alexander and the results weren’t pretty. But that was okay because I didn’t notice – my date and I were making out in the back row.

Kingsley Amis

Comic novelist Kingsley Amis, father of Martin Amis, was a man who knew his booze and who was happy to share his opinions with the rest of us – he wrote many columns about booze for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express.

Amis, meanwhile, had no interest in food, which he referred to as “irrelevant rubbish.” He did make an exception for scotch-whiskey-with-fried-eggs, a well-known breakfast delectable.

Amis also wrote three books on booze – On Drink (1972), Everyday Drinking (1983) and How’s Your Glass? (1984) – and naturally I have them all and they are all well-thumbed and booze-stained.

Being himself an expert on the subject of the hangover, Amis naturally penned the best description of it in English literature. Here it is, from Lucky Jim, somewhat expurgated:

“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him … He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow … been expertly beaten up by secret police.”


Baijiu is, by volume, the most drunk spirit in the world, but that’s only because the Chinese drink it and there are a lot of them. No one outside China has ever tasted baijiu (and lived to tell about it).


If you are from Pittsburgh you already know what a Boilermaker is and you probably have one at your elbow as we speak.  For those unfortunates who hail from elsewhere, the Boilermaker consists of a beer – preferably Iron City – and a shot of whiskey – preferably Jim Beam. You sip the whiskey, wash it down with the beer, then order another round. And so on.

Yes, it sounds like a workingman’s drink and Pittsburgh has always been a  workingman’s town. But as TOCSC points out, Bob Dylan enjoyed his Boilermakers in Greenwich Village, slightly upgraded with Schlitz and Wild Turkey. Today many bars offer upscale Boilermakers made with craft beers and call whiskey.

Call vs well drinks

Speaking of call whiskey, most people already understand this, but if you don’t you can avoid disappointment by knowing that a “call” drink is a cocktail made with the specific brand of liquor specified (“called” for) by the customer. If you don’t specify you will almost certainly get a “well drink,” made with the cheaper brands hidden in the well behind the bar.

Bottled in bond

In case you‘re wondering, all the phrase “bottled in bond” means is that the contents meet the requirements of the US Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Those requirements include that the spirit inside is “made up of a single type of liquor, produced in a single distilling season by a single distiller, aged in wood for at least four years, and unadulterated except for the addition of pure water.” (TOCSC)

What’s an ABV?

Almost every bottle of booze tells you what “ABV” the liquor contains. It stands for “alcohol by volume” and determines the amount of tax assessed on the booze. Thus, if your gin is 40% ABV then the liquid inside contains 40% alcohol.

“Proof” is a similar measure, namely, twice the ABV – your gin is 80 proof. Bizarrely, the use of “proof” began when, roughly a century ago, people tried to calculate the alcohol in a liquor by (I’m not making this up) adding gunpowder to it and lighting it on fire.

If the booze didn’t catch fire at all, there wasn’t enough alcohol in it. If it burned yellow, there was too much alcohol in it. But if it burned blue, the proof was just right (about 114 proof).

Next up: The Oxford Companion, Part 13

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