When it comes to cocktail books, we’re definitely living in a glass-half-full world. Whether you’re looking for a little history (The Old-Fashioned, by Robert Simonson, perhaps?) or a massive, luxe how-to (The Aviary Cocktail Book), the booze is flowing.
Getting up to speed on the latest volumes, with their bits of lore and inventive recipes, got me to thinking about tomes that pre-date the rebirth of the cocktail in the ‘90s. There’s Charles H. Baker’s The Exotic Drinking Book (1939), Bernard DeVoto’s The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (published the year Truman entered the White House and re-issued in 2010), and On Drink, the cuttingly funny 1972 primer by Kingsley Amis. Right up there—and in a class of its own—is The Compleat Imbiber.
Edited by renowned British wine writer, Cyril Ray, the Imbiber was a series of anthologies that appeared from 1956 until the early 1970s. In terms of content, it was rather all over the place. “I have imagined this collection as a sort of dinner party,” Ray once noted. “So there is order in it, such as becomes a dinner party, but not discipline, which doesn’t. No, no; not discipline.”
Although not spirits-centric, The Compleat Imbiber always gave hooch its attention. An early essay on vodka included the revelation that women in Peter the Great’s court washed their hair in the stuff before tossing it back. A later edition related how the Mint Julep found its way to the chambers of Oxford. Visiting a Denver bar in the 1960s, Hugh Massingham, a great chronicler of English country life, was delighted to spy “good old Johnnie Walker, as spry as ever” and quick to note such curiosities as “Hill Billy Reserve Whiskey, with its suggestion of some smoky still in a mountain chasm.”
While drink was the driving force behind the publication, essays by various luminaries on culinary topics, travel, and culture were a big part of the mix.
Highly literate, The Imbiber assumed its reader was, too. Volume 11, from 1970, for example, considered food and wine in Proust, offered a treatise on goulash, and included a short story by crime writer P.M. Hubbard. Coming from across the pond, the contents (and contributors) skewed British and Continental. But who’s to complain when John Betjeman, Nancy Mitford, Kenneth Tynan, Graham Greene, Isak Dinesen, Iris Murdoch, John le Carré and Aldous Huxley are telling the tales?
All of which makes owning one well worth the hunt. While purchasing a handsome vintage edition of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s The Official Mixer’s Manual or The Savoy Cocktail Book could leave you short on rent, copies of The Compleat Imbiber—on ebay, abebooks, and alibris—are generally findable for under $75.