An interview with the author of ‘Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History’

Published on: November 14, 2012 | Last Updated on July 23, 2018
Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History

Travel writer Mark Spivak has penned a fascinating new book about twelve iconic spirits that have shaped the world of cocktails.

BOOK REVIEW – When we travel, my husband and I always taste alcoholic drinks that are iconic to the culture of the place we are visiting. So when we visited Peru, it’s no surprise that we fell in love with Pisco Sours. After multiple trips to Mexico, my husband is a confirmed Tequila sipper (although I still haven’t acquired that taste). Ordering a Bellini still evokes romantic memories of Venice for both of us.

When I first met my fellow travel writer, Mark Spivak, on a trip to Emilia Romagna several years ago, he was a confirmed wine geek. So I was surprised to learn that he’s radically changed his stripes as author of a new book, Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012). The tales he tells in the book stem from his own interest in some of the intriguing characters, who have shaped the industry and cocktail culture. Chapter by chapter, Spivak shares the rich tales he’s discovered.

“These are the best kinds of stories—the type a writer could never make up,” he says. “These spirits actually created moral crusades and legislation and brought about changes in government. From the average person’s point of view, these are untold and amazing tales.”

I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Mark Spivak some questions about the book, his travels and the cocktail culture:

Are the iconic spirits in your book all American? 

Not at all. The only one identified with America is Bourbon, which was actually recognized by an act of Congress as a “distinctive product of the United States.” The rest are made in places such as Mexico (Patron Tequila), Italy (Campari), and Canada (Canadian Club). Even Grey Goose, one of the most popular vodkas in the country, is distilled in France. Of course, gin and absinthe are both made here now, but the U.S. really isn’t the place you’d associate with those spirits.

What are some spirits associated with particular countries? 

Probably the best example is Scotch, which originated in the Highlands several centuries ago. The early producers used peat to heat their stills and flavor their malted barley, simply because it was the material at hand—they didn’t even have coal to heat their houses. Over time, the aromas and flavor of peat became linked with the image of the best single malts. It was an objectionable flavor profile to many consumers, but over time people got used to it. Now they almost demand it, and feel that the spirit is somehow inferior if it’s missing.

Are American spirits popular across the world?

Bourbon is enormously popular at the moment, and it’s an interesting story. Prior to the 1980s, everyone in Kentucky basically made the same style of Bourbon. They didn’t have the equivalent of an XO Cognac. Distillers knew that there were superior barrels in each storage warehouse, but they never thought to isolate them. The vogue in Bourbon started with the Japanese. They loved dramatically flavored whiskies such as Bourbon, but there were no high-end options available; gifting is an important part of Japanese business culture, and they began demanding more expensive Bourbon. I believe Blanton’s was the first one on the market, followed by the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection around 1984. Today the category is booming, and every distiller has a luxury product on the market. 

When you travel, do you change drinks to sample other types of spirits? Do you recommend that others do?

It certainly makes sense—sampling the local products gives you a sharper sense of place, and also brings you closer to the culture. For starters, it’s a matter of economics. If you want to drink Bourbon in Poland or single malt Scotch in Uruguay, the selection will probably be terrible and it will also cost you a fortune. On the other hand, if you walk into a café in Provence and order a pastis, you’re immediately signaling to everyone that you’re familiar and comfortable with the local customs. Odds are that someone will strike up a conversation with you within five minutes. 

Any other thoughts on spirits and travel? Tips for travelers on what to bring home?

We’re all creatures of habit, but try to be flexible. It pays off on many different levels. When in doubt, ask—people will be more than happy to share their lifestyle with you. As far as bringing spirits home, it’s unfortunately a risky proposition. You’d have to insulate it carefully and pack it in your checked luggage, which is risky: You may love ouzo, but odds are you wouldn’t want to wash your clothes in it.

Have you sampled a new drink on your travels that made the trip more memorable?

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