I’d forgive you for assuming Thad Vogler’s book, By The Smoke & The Smell, is pretentious. It’s a travelogue about the search for rare and artisanal spirits like grower-produced armagnac and small-batch mezcal, for starters. Add to that Vogler’s lofty pedigree: The Yale graduate operates two of the most renowned bar programs in the country, San Francisco’s Bar Agricole and Trou Normand. But this book is compulsively readable, even for those of us who’ve never set foot in Calvados or Havana.
Vogler deals spectacularly in the sensual details of why we love travel, or the beverages that evoke travel: the myths, the stories, the sexy sights and sounds. In his Cuba chapter, the reader is strolling with him through Havana Vieja, smelling cigar smoke on the night air, hearing old car engines’ sputtering staccato, an overly sweet mojito’s sugar still lingering on our tongues. He’s a wonderful chronicler of detail and an incisive judge of character, offering straight-forward but still generous estimations of his travel companions’ character.
Of course, you’ll get the most out of this book if you’re a spirits geek. (I plan to send it to my own cognac-loving brother for Christmas.) But Vogler’s message is more universal: Artisan has become such a buzzword that, despite the popularity of small-batch everything, we risk losing its true meaning and therefor the foods and beverages that honestly embody it. Given my beer background, I found many parallels to traditional European farmhouse ales and regionally specific lagers.
If Vogler has a thesis statement in his 200-odd pages, I think it’s this, from his armagnac chapter: “To taste a spirit produced in the same way and from the same material it was made a hundred years ago is to connect through the experience of taste with our ancestors, to know how they lived. It is time travel and communion… We dread becoming just bartenders: shills for shitty brands, not champions of the beautiful.”
Yes, declaring yourself a “champion of the beautiful” might earn you a reputation for being a bit of a snob, but I don’t think Vogler would much care. He’s a man on a mission, and his notes from the crusade are well worth your time.