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Guides to the spirits world

Tomes that rate a toast from imbibers of wine and liquor.

The liquor cabinet is perennially full of books on wine and spirits. Here are three - a drinking travelogue, an ode to wine art, and a handy primer from one of America's top sommeliers - that stand out as top shelf.

"Boozehound" by Jason Wilson (Ten Speed Press, $23). Is absinthe quite as sinful now that it's legal? Was it ever good at all? Do cocktails taste better when crafted by a mustachioed bartender dressed like a character from The Great Gatsby in one of those faux Prohibition-style speakeasies, so trendy now they're becoming referred to as a "speakcheesies"? Does flavored vodka even deserve to exist?

With the craft cocktail scene now one of America's hottest trends, these are pressing questions indeed. And judging from Boozehound, an entertaining behind-the-scenes romp across the world of spirits, Jason Wilson, ironically a resident of dry Haddonfield, is clearly the man to give such subjects their due. A longtime travel writer, currently a spirits columnist for the Washington Post, Wilson's book is part pithy memoir of a sambuca-soaked kid-turned-haute-liquor-pro, part homage to the beauty of odd bottles, part social commentary, and part irreverent travelogue that's at its most engaging when Wilson is on the road. My favorite scene is when he finally gains access to Jägermeister's legendary herb room in Wölfenbuttel, then proceeds, to the chagrin of the German PR people, to actually begin writing down the secret ingredients. We feel his melancholy at his realization that "the rumors of deer's blood and opiates [in Jägermeister] are completely unfounded." It was like learning, he said, that Santa Claus does not exist. But with rare wit and what seems like a boundless thirst for esoteric bitters, Wilson boldly soldiers on.

"The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels" by Tanya Scholes (Santa Monica Press, $45). "Never buy a bottle just for the label," has long been one of my unofficial maxims for savvy wine shopping. It's the juice inside that matters, not that cute penguin. But I've acquired a new appreciation for the craft of a great label after perusing Tanya Scholes' coffee-table ode to the genre. With more than 400 illustrated modern examples, it shows just how far into the world of art and commerce these mini-canvases have come since the days when Old World bottles still dominated the market shelves with monotone "just-the-facts" labels that many found both confusing and intimidating. Whether it's a cheekily illustrated label from Australia (well represented here) or the photo of a '50s-style matron tilting back nebbiolo on "Trixi's Secret," the convict tattoos for Orin Swift, or the mythical Slovenian gnomes for Edi Simcic, it's clear just how far the world of wine has come, too. As Manfred Krankl, the vintner behind Sine Qua Non, says of the modern art labels he paints for his one-of-a-kind cult bottles: "For every great painting, there is a perfect frame. . . . And so it should be with wine."

"Secrets of the Sommeliers" by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (Ten Speed Press, $32.50). No one understands the meaningful details of enjoying wine - and how to communicate them to the public – quite like a skilled sommelier, and Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina's many restaurants, is one of America's best. In his collaboration with journalist Jordan Mackay, Parr manages to pour forth an impressive breadth of wisdom, both practical and esoteric, in a very manageable 200-page gulp illustrated with evocative sepia-toned photos. There are profiles of fellow sommelier legends and favorite importers, as well as lucid advice on learning how to taste, buying old wine, and even acquiring the right corkscrew (apparently, the double-pronged "ah so" is a must). There is also a clear and handy primer on principal grapes and regions with recommended producers. But some of the best tidbits are saved for the sommelier's special domain of pairing wine and food - especially fish, which can vary on such subtle factors as how it's cooked or the temperature of the water the fish came from. Raw fish? "Never use oaked wine." Cooked with skin on? "Probably . . . grilled or sauteed, which means . . . this is red-wine territory." Wise words to drink on, indeed.