Liv Albert and Thea Engst, Nectar of the Gods: From Hera’s Hurricane to the Appletini of Discord. 75 Mythical Cocktails to Drink Like a Deity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022). 9781507217993.
Reviewed by Brooke Kolhagen, University of North Texas, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nectar of the Gods, far from the average cookbook, is a collection of cocktail recipes themed around tales and figures from Greco-Roman mythology. The book is co-authored by Liv Albert, who is responsible for the book’s mythological content, and Thea Engst, who provides the recipes. The book is studded with vivid illustrations by Sara Richard. While the book’s primary motive is to entertain, its exploration of myth is competent and educational.
Greco-Roman history and mythology are staples of Western pop culture. Many readers of Albert and Engst’s cocktail book may have grown up reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series or watching Disney’s Hercules, having become acquainted with the tales and figures of Greek mythology from a young age. Nectar of the Gods situates itself within an ever-growing corpus of media that explores ancient mythology for the purpose of entertainment. Albert herself is the creator of a popular Greco-Roman mythology podcast and has forged a career out of presenting ancient myths in an informal and humorous fashion. She brings her educational background to this rich media landscape, having earned a degree in classical civilizations, adding a unique perspective to her work on mythology.
While the book utilizes the bounty of alcoholic spirits which are available in the present day, Albert opens the book by recognizing the importance of wine, the only alcoholic beverage available to the ancient Greeks. Along with a list of ingredients for use in its recipes, Part 1 of the book begins by introducing some features of the Greek symposium, such as the drinkware the ancients used and their comparable modern equivalents. For example, one might substitute a Mason jar if they do not have an amphora on hand (14). The book immerses the reader in the ancient world, playfully teaching them how they might recreate their own symposia.
The rest of the book follows the formula of a recipe accompanied by a brief summary of a mythological tale or figure, along with the subject’s historical significance and a witty quip linking the subject to the recipe. Each entry is very brief, only half a page on average, and written in an engaging and conversational style. Parts 2 and 3 contain drinks themed around gods, both major and minor. The fourth part of the book is themed around heroes, the fifth around Greeks of mythological and historical renown, and the final part around supernatural beings and miscellaneous myths. Albert adds a modern, feminist perspective to each retelling, condemning the rapacious behavior of figures such as Zeus and Pan and championing women such as Medusa and Medea, who have been unfairly demonized and whose victimhood often goes unrecognized.
The narrative style of Nectar of the Gods is far more engaging than one might expect from a cookbook. It covers a variety of mythical characters ranging from extremely well-known figures such as Dionysus or Achilles to relatively obscure ones such as Iphigenia or Bellerophon. The book introduces a small selection of ancient Greek and Latin terms, which aids in immersing the reader into the world of myth. While the book is not and does not try to be academic in nature, the versions of myths that it presents are very simple and occasionally deficient in nuance. The book hesitates to include many literary sources other than the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. I suppose this comes from the authors’ desire not to get too “in the weeds” with minute details, but I think that readers might appreciate the background information. Minor complaints aside, one who is not already well read on mythology is likely to come away from the book having learned a thing or two, and the experience of reading the book while also enjoying its recipes is memorable. My personal favorite entry was the Cosmopolitan, which discusses the ancient Greek cosmos and the origins of some famous zodiac signs.
Nectar of the Gods represents one of many diverse entries in the media landscape themed around ancient culture, offering readers a chance to immerse themselves in Greco-Roman mythology while enjoying creative cocktails. Fans of ancient history and mythology are likely to enjoy this book for its novelty, and even a casual reader who is solely interested in its recipes may find themselves learning a thing or two about the ancient world.
Table of Contents
Part 1. Bar Basics: Kylikes, Kraters, and Kantharoi (12–27)
Part 2. Indulging with the Olympians (28–51)
Part 3. Imbibing with Immortals (52–79)
Part 4. Getting Hammered with Heroes (80–103)
Part 5. Guzzling with the Greeks (104–29)
Part 6. Sipping with the Supernatural (130–52)
In Nectar of the Gods, the summaries are pretty short, as the recipe and instructions have to fit on one page. When writing these summaries, how did you decide what information to include and what to leave out?
Liv: I had a lot of fun with this book, particularly in comparison to my first book. Because this was ultimately a book of cocktails I had a bit more free reign in terms of what myths I covered and how I covered them. Basically, I let my own biases come through a little more openly here. I focused on women characters as much as possible and I was a little less kind to some of the more problematic men than I was in my first book where the priority was getting across the ancient mythologies (hence cocktail names like The Crimes of Theseus and Jason’s Folly). While I consider everything in the book “accurate,” I did have a bit more fun with my phrasing and in peppering in my own opinions in the style of the podcast that I’m known for. That said, one of my favourite aspects is the inclusion of ancient drinking vessels in the introduction and recipes. While I did have to really play with the ancient uses, I was thrilled to be able to include those bits of history and archaeology, and it was even more exciting to see how they were then used by our amazing illustrator Sara Richard!
On a related note, how do you balance academic precision with entertainment value when writing things like the mythological summaries in Nectar of the Gods?
Liv: As I mentioned, I was a little looser with this than in my first book because this was, ultimately, cocktails. While I was able to have a bit more fun with my opinions on certain characters, that it was ultimately a book of cocktails with such brief descriptions also gave me some more freedom in terms of the characters I could talk about. Where goddesses like Thalassa or Amphitrite might not have enough sourcing to include detailed stories in a book of mythology, there is certainly enough on these interesting sea deities to give them a cocktail of their own. I think in the end it made for a more comprehensive look at the more obscure gods and characters that rarely get included in other works of mainstream mythology due to a lack of sourcing, etc. So while I wasn’t primarily concerned with academic precision (I am also not an academic myself and haven’t been in academia in over a decade), my own knowledge and passion for lesser known characters and stories made for an insightful look into myth, alongside such tasty cocktails.
3. This is a unique book in being a cocktail recipe book that is themed around Greek mythology. How did the writing process go for this book? Were the drinks themed around your summaries or did you write the summaries after learning what the recipe would be?
Liv: We had a somewhat unique way of working through these recipes as everything was facilitated through our publisher. Because of this we didn’t actually speak until closer to the book’s publication! Basically, I came up with cocktail names based on myths I wanted to talk about, flitting from very mythological accurate titles to silly puns and plays on existing cocktails. I gave vague instructions/inspiration for the recipes, which were then passed on to Thea (for instance, one of my favourites is Agamemnon’s Bath Water, where I said something like, “Inspired by a Negroni, something strong and deep red…Agamemnon was famously stabbed to death in his bath”). Some had suggestions for ingredients where these could be mythologically linked, others for visual aspects like blood and gore and so on, and Thea ran with it!
Thea: Everything Liv said! I’d just like to add that this system worked fabulously for me. Getting started every day with the inspiration and guidelines already there for each drink made creating 75 original recipes in such a short amount of time a lot more manageable. I liked her system so much that I have used it for similar projects!
Thank you so much for your responses, Liv and Thea! The narrative style of Nectar of the Gods (along with its creative and tasty recipes, of which I did enjoy several!) is one of its greatest strengths, allowing it to stand out as a fun read despite being a cocktail book at its core. I really appreciate the point Liv made about including stories on lesser-known deities in this book—this provides an educational angle to the book that may bring a greater understanding of Greek mythology to readers unfamiliar with its many obscure characters. The creation of Nectar of the Gods is living proof that there is more to the field of classical mythology than stuffy academic volumes, and that fresh and fascinating perspectives on these age-old tales can be found even in the most unexpected places.