Warning! The word “geek” or the phrase “geek out” appears a lot in this review. Because I geeked out over a lot of stuff.
Proof: The Science of Booze is a great showcase that displays the slugfest between religion, science, academia, and tradition when it comes to all things alcohol. And how, even in this enlightened age, the battle continues.
I generally don’t care for the Introduction section in books because I often find them boring and tiresome to read. However, when I open a book and am immediately struck by the quality of the writing and the information, I have to start at the beginning. Proof successfully walks the fine line between storytelling and well-documented, thoroughly cited reference book. Although the title Proof: The Science of Booze would indicate a focus only on whisky (as it’s spelled in the book) and other distilled spirits, it gives full acknowledgement and recognition of wine and beer, the predecessors of distillation.
The Introduction begins as the author seeks out a well-hidden but traditional-quality bar. It’s a place on the lower east side of Manhattan whose proprietor “engineers” cocktails. The proprietor offers him a taste of one of his newest experiments. He compares the taste to “a stewed cedar shingle.” I chuckled and knew I was in for a treat.
The author, Adam Rogers (whose inner flap photo shows him as a man with a 40s, Bogeyesque kind of vibe), serves up a great dram of knowledge nicely disguised in an entertaining narrative.
Proof has eight chapters: Yeast, Sugar, Fermentation, Distillation, Aging, Smell and Taste, Body and Brain, and Hangover. The chapters are followed by a Conclusion, Acknowledgements, Notes (on each chapter), an extensive Bibliography and Index.
My original idea was to touch on each chapter; however, when that turned into a 3000 word treatise and I still had two chapters to go, I decided to scrap that idea and just give a summary of the book. I’m a logophile as well as a bibliophile, which means I geeked out over the great use of the language and clever turns of phrase.
In a nutshell – as much as possible – in Chapter 1 the author follows yeast from the belief that juice turned into wine by magic all the way to the current era where individual yeast strains are bred somewhat like cattle. The chapters Sugar, Fermentation, and Distillation walk the reader through the entire process, all the while injecting bits of unexpected information, including how the shapes of stills affect the final product.
As a wine geek, my favorite chapter was Aging. Everything you ever wanted to know about the wheres and whys of oak barrels, the differences between species, and most importantly, the ways oak is used in the production of the different types of alcohol is described in this chapter. In addition, other means of storing spirits is discussed, including other types of woods, concrete, and stainless. Spoiler Alert: Wine is best.
The chapter Smell and Taste takes wine tasters to task on the various scents and tastes they can detect in wine. I have to admit that I felt very vindicated, especially when reading the science. But I still can’t view, smell, and taste a wine and declare it’s Pinot Noir, for instance. Still have to do the deep analysis.
The twin horror chapters of Body and Brain and Hangovers were no fun to read. While the health benefits of red wine are well known, the facts are that alcohol can cause untold problems to the body if overdone, or if the person isn’t aware of his/her personal susceptibility to alcohol’s side effects. The effects of alcohol abuse on culture, accidents, and the economy are painfully listed. Hangovers begins with “Good Morning Sunshine! You are so screwed.” I had to laugh because although I haven’t had a real hangover in many years, I could certainly relate to the sentence. I was entertained by the “remedies” that have been suggested and that have been researched. Or not researched. It’s quite a read.
The upshot is that I recommend that you buy the book. Even if you just want to learn a little about the science of booze (and wine and beer and sake) this will still be a good read because of Mr. Rogers’ great research and storytelling skills. On the other hand, if you’re a geek as I am, you’ll lose your mind. This book is packed with studies and stories and physics and has the bibliography to back up everything he says.
Full disclosure: I received this book for the purpose of reviewing it. However, I had purchased it on Amazon (Kindle) because of my ongoing certification studies.
This is great book for neophytes, geeks, wonks, snobs, aficionados, and the booze-curious.
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