Iconic Spirits by Mark Spivak

Title: Iconic Spirits
Author: Mark Spivak

Genre: Non-Fiction (Popular Culture / History / Alcohol / Food & Wine)
Publisher/Publication Date: Lyons Press (2012)
Source: Pump Up Your Book!

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A look at twelve popular liquors and the history of their most popular brands.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal,

Do I like the cover?: I've got no strong feelings -- it's fine for what it is, it resembles what it is.

I'm reminded of...: Jeffrey Steingarten

First line: What's a lifelong, committed wine geek doing writing a book about spirits?

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you've got a foodie or nascent booze hound in your life.

Why did I get this book?: I love drinking. Wait, I mean that in a less horrifying way!

Review: I love cocktails. I don't watch Mad Men but I'm grateful for the resurgence in cocktail culture. Spivak's book is perfectly timed for those who are obsessed with martinis and those who are a little curious.

Iconic Spirits is a series of readable, nerdy, trivia-filled essays on twelve of the world's most popular and, well, iconic alcoholic spirits. This volume isn't a historical survey or even a popular non-fiction look at how these spirits were developed or evolved. Instead, Spivak chooses a snapshot moment to explore, a chapter in the long histories of alcohol.

Opening with a chapter on American moonshine, Spivak surprised me by not talking about how moonshine is made, or the Prohibition or Whiskey Rebellion, and instead focused on how early 20th century moonshine runners were the forefathers of NASCAR drivers. The moonshiners interest in fast stock cars and flashy driving became commodified and eventually family friendly-ified; the earliest NASCAR winners were notorious moonshiners. The chapter concluded, as they all do, with a series of recipes.

Vodka's chapter is focused specifically on the Grey Goose brand and how it achieved its luxury appeal; the bitters chapter looks at the Italian liquor, Campari. Spivak takes on cognac -- and many of its myths -- as well as tequila, rum, gin, scotch, absinthe, St. Germain (elderflower liquor), whisky, and the famous brands associated with each.

Mixing interviews, scientific research, trivia, and an obvioius enthusiasm for his subjects, Spivak's book is like having a non-pretentious cocktail geek hanging out with you. The book includes color-plates of ads (pretty!) and an extensive bibliography.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Iconic Spirits to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 12/20.


  1. Sounds like a book someone I know would like to read. Do come over and enter my giveaway too - a book by Michael Palmer, medical and political thriller.

  2. Ooh...this one sounds fun! I'm really into cocktail culture and wine too.

    1. I thought of you when reading this one -- Spivak is a huge wine geek (he has a column/blog called Uncorked) but moved into spirits, and I'm glad!

  3. Do you get much history out of the book?

    The drinking part doesn't appeal....

    1. Shelley -- there's history about many of the iconic brands associated with certain liquors, so there's that kind of pop culture/marketing history -- I enjoyed it -- and there's lots of socio-economic overlap (like the moonshine/Southern US/Prohibition/NASCAR connection) that made it quite fascinating!

  4. This one is not for me, as I am a non-drinker, but I have a friend who was once worked as a pro in a wine store, and he loves to make fantastic cocktails, and this would make the perfect book for his Christmas gift. Thanks for offering it in the giveaway. Very generous of you!!

    1. This is the perfect kind of gifting book -- and as I said to Shelley above, this looks at iconic brands as well as spirits and it is that pop culture/socio-economic examination I found interesting as well.

  5. I've gotten more into beer lately - I need a book like this about beer!

    1. See, beer isn't my thing, so I'd glaze over at that! ;)

  6. Usually I'd be inclined to favour a full history, or at least the beginnings, but an essay each seems like it'd be more detailed and fun. Incidentally I didn't realise Pump Up Your Book was back, good to hear.

    1. I really liked the brief focus -- as it was very fun to see a snapshot of the spirit or liquor in terms of one very specific context. Really enlightening!

  7. Oh well, cocktails! You have my attention ;D. It does sound like fun and a great gift idea, especially paired with cocktail glasses or swizzle sticks or cute napkins or something.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Weekend reads, or quaran-weekend