Max Allen, Intoxicating: Ten Drinks that Shaped Australia

Thames & Hudson, July 2020, 242 pp. (plus a further reading list), ISBN: 9781760761004, p/bk, AUS$32.99

 

Well-regarded wine writer Max Allen takes readers on a grand tour of some of the most important drinks in the history of Australian drinking in his new book Intoxicating: Ten Drinks that Shaped Australia. Allen, named the Australian Wine Communicator of the Year in 2018 (now that’s something to have on a business card), explores the often complicated story of alcohol in Australia – from home brews right through to mass produced beers and everything in between – to present both a history and an appreciation course.

This book is full of big stories and little anecdotes, from the colonial to the contemporary, and are told both as interview and as memoir.

Allen is very conscious of Country, and his chapters on the Indigenous drink way–a–linah, made from gums found on the edges of boggy frost plains in Tasmania (p.9), and on the potential to make wine from native grapes in New South Wales (p.211), serve as beautiful and thought-provoking bookends to this work. These conversations with those seeking to preserve Country compel us to think more deeply about the environment and the traditions of Aboriginal Australians. In between are stories of beverages much more familiar to the palates of non-Indigenous Australians. There is a strong focus on wine as well as forays into those iconic beverages Victoria Bitter and McWilliam’s Port.

Through it all there is a phenomenal amount of information on the specifics of certain types of drinks and on their cultural contexts. This is where the intoxication lies. For Allen, it is clearly not just about an end product – though he has obviously enjoyed sampling what is available since he tried his first Brown Brothers Spatlese Lexia back in the mid-1980s (p.1). It is also about how a product came about: the people and the places, the ambition and the experimentation, the producers and the sellers. Each glass, from a cheap bin end to a Penfold’s Grange, has a story.

Allen also includes some details on drinks that you can ‘try at home’. There’s the Blow My Skull created by Thomas Davey, a former Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land back in 1815 (a drink I tried to have made available at a recent staff Christmas party; surprisingly, there were no takers). There’s also a Sherry Cobbler, a White Lady, a Japanese Slipper and, just in time for summer, an All-Australian Negroni.

There is no index sadly and there are no detailed references, though Allen does credit where his ideas and information comes from within the text. For those who are keen, there is an excellent list of further reading included with many of the books listed featuring extensive referencing and indexes that facilitate targeted exploration.

Intoxicating: Ten Drinks that Shaped Australia is less of a reading experience and more of a chat, and Allen is incredibly good company. Strangely, in a year that has seen many of us not socialising at all, this book, which is very much about being with other people and how we often spend time with family, friends, neighbours and workmates, is meaningful compensation for what we might have missed. Indeed, in some ways, this work is perfect pandemic reading because it is so terrifically engaging. It is as if Allen has brought all these really smart and very friendly experts into your home. It is a long-lunch on a Sunday afternoon where people share their knowledge, speculate about the future and, of course, have a drink.

Cheers!

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2020  

Visit the publisher’s website here: Thames & Hudson

Pick up a copy at the State Library of NSW shop on Macquarie Street, or online here.

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