Fresh off the press, here is a book for the boozy, literary-minded dreamers in your life. Probably helps if they have a penchant for historical anecdotes and prohibition-era cocktails. The book, published by Elliot & Thompson, describes itself as an “illicit history of booze in Britain” and pulls together colourful accounts of bootlegging, smuggling and traditional spirit-making. Written by Ruth Ball, a chemist and a dedicated drinker herself, this is a lively and engaging read, despite the esoteric subject matter.
My favourite story comes in the Gin Craze chapter about an Irish adventurer who arrives in London in 1736 on his uppers and sets up an illegal gin-vending machine in a rented house. Disguised as a picture of a cat, the contraption pipes out gin through the house’s front window, via the cat’s paw, in return for a few pennies. Growing lonely in his gin palace, our Irish hero invites a beautiful prostitute to assist him. Ruth writes: “The rest of his story is far too lurid for these pages.” Shame!
There are plenty more anecdotes about a ship running aground in the Hebrides during World War II with 22,000 cases of whisky in its cargo, smugglers feigning death on the Wirral to hoodwink the local customs officer, old women hiding barrels under their skirts and fishing boats cutting loose kegs at sea to evade capture. As Ruth admits, the book is really “the history of people defying the British authorities”.
It concludes with a practical guide to the plethora of modern ‘speakeasys’ (legal bars masquerading as illicit drinking dens) that are popping up all over London. If you don’t fancy your chances on the streets of capital, the book’s pages are also littered with cocktail recipes ready to try out when you feel like warming your toes with some “liquid fire”.