In April last year a pristine 1920s pub, the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, London, was illegally demolished just days before it gained listed status. This is not an unusual occurrence nowadays, but the story might have a happy ending as Westminster City Council has ordered the developer to rebuild the pub “brick by brick”. If this happens, it will be a rare victory for the beleaguered British pub.
Pete Brown’s book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (Jacqui Small), therefore, could not be more timely. It is part history, part celebration and part guide to some of the best pubs in the country. He is such a prolific writer, I sometimes wonder whether, as with Rembrandt, there is a school of Pete Brown working to the master’s instructions. Whatever the truth, this is an excellent book. Heartfelt, poetic and defiantly optimistic, it carries an implicit message: cherish your local or it may go the way of the Carlton.
Pubs may be fewer but they are likely to have a far better selection of beer than 10 years ago, much of it locally brewed. This is a worldwide phenomenon: I had a good craft lager in Beirut recently. Even more remarkably, some German breweries are now offering IPAs. Written with authority and wit, the new edition of the World Atlas of Beer (Mitchell Beazley) by Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont is the perfect guide to the rapidly changing beer scene.
It’s such a contrast to 1970s London which was, in the words of the influential architectural critic Ian Nairn, “a beer drinker’s desert”. Nairn features in Beer, in So Many Words (Safe Haven), a collection of writings on the subject edited by Adrian Tierney-Jones. It has its up and downs, but any book that contains Pete Brown (or perhaps school of), Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell is always going to be worth dipping into.
Original copies of Whisky (Birlinn), Aeneas MacDonald’s 1930 book, now change hands for hundreds of pounds, so it’s canny publishing to release a new edition in time for Christmas. MacDonald, the pseudonym of journalist George Malcolm, was one of the first writers to bring an amateur’s eye to what had previously been a dry, technical subject. He was not an expert, and part of the joy of this new edition is Ian Buxton’s humorous commentary correcting him. In fact, it can be read as a good-natured argument between two greats of whisky writing.
More academic is Rod Phillips’s French Wine: A History (University of California), which starts in prehistoric times and goes right up to modern EU wine laws. It’s a little dense, but almost every page contains a gem. I was particularly fascinated to read how champagne houses in 19th‑century France marketed to different political groups: one label showed a cheery Marie-Antoinette for conservative drinkers, another “an uplifting republican scene, to appeal to leftwing consumers”.
A strong contender for wine book of the year is American Rhône (University of California) by Patrick J Comiskey. It’s the story of a small group of winemakers who tried to turn California away from the cabernets and chardonnays that had made the state’s reputation and towards Rhône varieties such as grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Gosh, I’m not making it sound much fun, am I? Where Comiskey excels is in sketching the larger-than-life characters involved, such Randall Grahm, Kermit Lynch and Sean Thackrey (looking a little like Robert Plant in one photo), and putting the movement in the context of 1960s and 70s counterculture. My only quibble would be the subtitle: “How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink.” For all their energy, they never managed to change mainstream US tastes.
Some of the world’s most distinctive wines are made in the shadow of volcanoes. If, like me, you love wines from Santorini, Madeira or Taurasi near Naples, you’ll enjoy John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines (Jacqui Small). You can taste an edge to them, as if a volcanic eruption has somehow permeated the grapes. Szabo describes this taste as “like an impenetrable force shield of flavour that comes out of nowhere … ” Nobody knows quite why wines made from volcanic soils share this quality, but once you have tasted them you will understand what he means.
Finally a writer who can make you taste wines just with his words, Hugh Johnson. His “best bits from 55 years of scribbling” have just been published as On Wine (Mitchell Beazley). All that experience gives him a long perspective on what is an often hyped subject: “Wine is too slow-moving to make real, relevant news,” he writes. He comes across as the ultimate gentleman, but is not afraid to stick the knife in. Here he is writing in 1994 on verbose American wine critic Robert Parker’s latest tome: “Some editor’s input is badly needed.” This is the book I’ll be reading on Boxing Day with a glass of port. Then it’s off to the pub, if it’s still there.
• Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass by Henry Jeffreys is published by Unbound. • Save at least 30% on this year’s critics’ choices when you buy at the Guardian Bookshop. Visit bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Support the Guardian and its journalism with every book you buy this Christmas. *Free UK p&p for online orders over £10. Minimum £1.99 p&p applies to telephone orders.
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