Boook Review: By The Smoke & The Smell
The book we’re featuring this episode is called By the Smoke and the Smell, written by award-winning San Francisco bar owner Thad Vogler, and the rambling subtitle is: “My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail.”
Thad Vogler is a denizen of the fine city of San Francisco, and that’s where he’s set down his roots by creating some of the most renowned beverage programs in the country.
His bars are called Bar Agricole, Trou Normande, and Obispo. I’m not quite sure if that last one is open yet, but it will reportedly be a Cuban-inspired rum bar in the Mission District of San Fran.
This book is a globe-trotting catalog of Thad Vogler’s adventures in various traditional distilling cultures. Each chapter begins with his arrival in a new country with a revolving and occasionally recurring series of companions who you kinda get to know over the course of the book. France, Scotland, Cuba, Oaxaca Mexico, Kentucky – these are the history-steeped, culturally charged, and radically different settings for the author’s quest to find the most authentically produced and delicious spirits to serve at his bars in the United States. As Vogler travels, he uses his interactions with the people and spirits he encounters to examine some of the larger questions the service and spirits industries face at this particular moment in history.
At first, this focus might seem a bit narrow. After all, most of us aren’t bartenders or distillers.
But on the other hand, most of us do occasionally travel (or at least aspire to travel) to interesting places. And most of us DO go out of our way to taste delicious food and drink.
So if there’s a universal access point to this book, I think that’s it. And what really makes it an enjoyable read is that Vogler’s storytelling style has just the right balance of landscape description, character building, and personal reflection to keep you turning page after page. If you’re a boozehound, you’ll be completely enthralled by the flavors and characters in this book, but even if you’re not, I think you’ll really enjoy examining the various cultural core samples that the author extracts on his quest to better understand various spirits and distilling traditions.
Vogler does have a couple obsessions that pop up a number of times in different chapters. One is his fascination with the microbiome and the impact it has on distilled spirits. He’s always asking about yeasts and applauding people who let the wild microbiome of their region penetrate their juice, rather than opting for a completely sterile operation. The other things you’ll see him put under the microscope are the sacrifices that small, independent distillers make on a daily basis to safeguard the quality of their product, even though they are largely unrewarded for these sacrifices, at least financially speaking. So if you’d like to be better-read on either of those subjects, I’d say that By the Smoke and the Smell is about the best casual introduction you can find.
There IS a dual anxiety floating around in the background of this book, and it comes from the fact that the author is a bar owner, and the bar business is risky on a good day. He’s also existentially plagued by the disappearance of many of the things he loves in his small-batch artisanal spirits. But to give Vogler some credit, he rarely lets this anxiety take over entirely. It’s always rescued by some pithy remark, like “Bourbon is basically sweet oak juice,” or an ironic description of what his companions are doing or saying in real life while he’s in a corner waxing philosophical.
To listen to an excerpt from By the Smoke & the Smell, please download this podcast wherever podcasts are available, or use the audio player at the top of the page.