If you want to amaze your friends at the neighborhood pub or the next cocktail party, this book has all the right ingredients. In Proof: The Science of Booze, Kavli Science Journalism Award winner and first-time author Adam Rogers covers everything you can imagine about the subject. There are chapters on the science and history of yeast in the production of alcoholic beverages, the role of sugar, the processes of fermentation, distillation, and aging, the biochemistry of smell and taste, the effects of booze on the body, and the causes, prevention, and cure of hangovers. Rogers’ research was exhaustive; the bibliography is more than 13 pages long, and his travels took him from the ultra-exclusive New York cocktail bar Booker and Dax to Glen Ord Maltings in Muir of Ord, Scotland, to the San Francisco Brain Research Institute. The research was impressive, until Rogers described the “experiment” where he and two friends got totally blotto in order to test the effectiveness of some recommended hangover cures, at which point I decided his devotion to his subject had gone above and beyond.
So why only 3 stars? It’s not what he said; it’s how he said it. Rogers is an editor at Wired magazine, and Proof apparently grew out of a Wired article, The Angel’s Share, about the Canadian whiskey fungus. Proof is written in the same Wired style, and it just doesn’t work as well here. Wired often takes a light tone liberally laced with witty comments, which I normally enjoy, but the humor here often comes across as forced. Also the author will drop witticisms into the middle of an extended serious scientific description, where it seems out of place. The book also seems disorganized. There is a topic for each chapter, and the author covers a number of items under that topic without good transitions. For example, the chapter on Sugar talks about a 19th-century Japanese scientist named Jokichi Takamine who developed a process to replace malting in distilling whiskey. It says, "He was on the cusp of a new world of booze, but the Old World wasn't quite ready to let go yet." The next paragraph launches into a 5-page description of a present-day Scotch whiskey malting operation and how it operates. The book suddenly leaves that topic and jumps to a discussion of koji, the fungus that produces sake. My reaction is, "So what happened to Takamine's process?" Eventually the chapter gets back to Takamine and his process, but all it says is "it never really took off", hardly a very satisfying conclusion. In some chapters, the author leaves a subject abruptly and never does return to it. These kinds of problems are much less likely to occur in a shorter magazine article. Although Roagers has won prizes for his journalism, this is his first full-length book, and he hasn't quite made a successful transition to the longer format.
If you are very strongly attracted to the subject of booze or the style is not an issue for you, you will probably enjoy Proof. Otherwise, perhaps you should accompany your reading with a good stiff drink.