The River Cottage Booze Handbook [a review]

From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

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Just about anything in this world can be transformed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, if you know what you’re doing. That is precisely the message of John Wright’s new River Cottage Booze Handbook. As the title perhaps implies, the booze culture of Wright’s world is more akin to Hobbits in hobbit-holes or Redwallian friar mice in forest abbeys. His passion is for the forageable fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, and roots you can pick for yourself in the wild, and the delightful concoctions you can then make from them for next to nothing.

The book is a series of recipes for the most unusual and delightful drinks, divided up into four categories: infusions, wine, cider, and beer. From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and the true test here is whether these recipes are truly drinkable. Since the mint patch in my backyard is in season right now, I decided to follow Wright’s recipe for Watermint Vodka (67). My variety is actually chocolate mint, but the infusion was simple to make and turned out quite well within just a couple hours. (I decided to get a little crazy, however, and add some lemon thyme leaves after a few hours. I wouldn’t recommend it–the resulting flavor was close to cough syrup.)

One of my favorite parts of the book is Wright’s discussion on each recipe. Sometimes he offers tips on where to find various ingredients and how to identify them in the wild, or what sort of cocktails you might make, or how to maintain the correct specific gravity when adding high water content ingredients. All the while he maintains a wonderfully dry sense of humor.

The one downside to the Booze Handbook is that Wright is English, and the book is really aimed at the UK. Though the edition I am reviewing here is the US edition, there are plenty of terms that Wright uses that are unfamiliar to me as an American reader. This gets most problematic when certain ingredients don’t even grow (natively) in the US, such as Alexanders. One might expect that in a US edition of a book like this, substitutions would have been made.

Notwithstanding, this book is a pleasing collection of recipes, many of which I intend to try soon. The hardcover edition is gorgeous, with innumerable high quality photographs, thick paper, and a rugged binding. I would recommend it if you enjoy crafting your own beverages from raw ingredients and you’re comfortable with the necessity of figuring out substitutions for UK-native ingredients.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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