Reading the Alcuin Winners: The School of Sophisticated Drinking

This post is the first in an occasional series that takes a deeper look at some of our Alcuin book design award winners. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’ve come to depend on the Alcuin awards list as a dependable source of good books to read over the year.

The award winners are often books I would not have found out about any other way, and I often find that these well-designed books are also great reads. But I think our judges might balk at the notion of reading every single book they’re asked to judge each year. So my intention is to write in this space about a select few based entirely on my own interests and see if there’s some truth to it: is a well designed book likely to be a good one?

The School of Sophisticated Drinking (Greystone, 2015)

The School of Sophisticated Drinking (Greystone, 2015)

I’ve been getting back into making cocktails lately after a fairly long hiatus, mostly due to the expense of tracking down enough bottles to rebuild a capable home bar after moving from Vancouver to Toronto. It’s been an enjoyable winter activity that helps stave off the chill with a shake and a stir – and makes staying inside worth doing. So, it seemed like a good time to pick up Kerstin Ehmer and Beate Hindermann’s The School of Sophisticated Drinking (Greystone Books). It received an honorary mention Alcuin award in the prose non-fiction category in 2015. Peter Cocking designed the cover, and the text design is by Nayeli Jimenez. It should be noted that another cocktail-related book won an award in 2015: A Field Guide to Canadian Cocktails – a sign of a good trend, perhaps?

Curiously, The School of Sophisticated Drinking comes to us from the Victoria Bar in Berlin. It was written from a series of lectures put on at the bar by Ehmer and Hindermann. The book started its life as Die Schule der Trunkenheit (Google translate tells me this means “The School of Drunkenness,” which perhaps the publishers thought might not sell as well in Canada?) It was originally published in Germany in 2013 and was translated by Jamie McIntosh. You can compare the design of the German version here.

The book is structured according to seven “semesters” that are devoted six spirits and a wine: brandy, vodka, whisky, rum, gin, tequila and champagne. The book’s key thesis is that a history of alcohol reveals much about the history of cultures, societies, and civilizations themselves. As they write in the introduction, “Every shift in power, every war, every technical innovation left an impression on the appearance and taste of alcohol brands up to their present state. … vineyards and factories burst into flame only to rise up again, and tax on alcohol made some wars possible while also financing schools and railways. Politicians, generals, writers, musicians and actors found inspiration and downfall” (p. xiii). Hence, The School of Sophisticated Drinking is no technical manual on the production of various spirits. Each essay is filled to the brim with tales about actors, artists, politicians and lesser-knowns whose lives were intertwined, for good and ill, with alcohol. Have you heard of the champagne riots? How about Hogarth’s print Gin Lane? Both are here, and lots more. Mixed with these stories are more technical details about how each of the drinks are produced. Even for someone like me who spends a lot of time researching the history of wine and spirits, there’s plenty of well researched detail to soak up. And though the rambling style occasionally loses the reader, it will make for an enjoyable read for drinks novice and expert alike.

The book’s design reflects the human scale of its histories, I think. The Alcuin judges’ comments were as follows: “Another example of a book that transcends the expectations of its genre through many interesting and usual choices, especially the chapter starts.” This translates, in the book itself, to warmth lent by the soft paper and Leitura News, the base type for the main text. Chapter headings use the great Art Deco style Northern Phoenix and Neutraface with a small ornament. And sprinkled throughout are lovely pencil drawings of bar interiors and drinkers that wouldn’t be out of place in a cocktail manual from the 1950s. I also noted that the page numbers hang around the bottom of the page in the left or right-hand margin, giving the page layout an easygoing look. All of these elements and others give the book a comfortable, readable feeling that somehow translates the feeling of comfortably setting up with your favourite drink in your favourite bar. To The School of Sophisticated Drinking and its admirable designers, cheers!