Left Coast Libations Review

First, I have a few disclosures regarding the Left Coast Libations book by Ted Munat and Michael Lazar.

  • I was sent this copy of the book by the authors in return for a potential review on this website.
  • I know the authors fairly well.
  • Many of the contributors are friends, acquaintances, or coworkers.
  • I was a contributor to the original Left Coast Libations booklet.

After reading that, you’re probably thinking, “Why should I read this review at all? He’s not impartial and probably pissed off that he wasn’t included in the book.”

Well, it turns out I was slightly included, at least in the introduction.

Next I’d like to thank Paul ClarkeBlair Reynolds, and Erik Ellestad. All of these fine folks were contributors to the original LCL, but were sadly not included in the version before you, as we elected to go exclusively with professional bartenders (Blair and Erik, by the way, have since become professional bartenders in a transparent attempt to gain inclusion in this book. If you see either of them, do not tell them where I am or how to get ahold of me).

And further thanks to Mr. Ellestad and Ms. Riggins for acting as my (unpaid) consultants in hatching a list of Bay Area and Los Angeles bartenders. If you are a bartender in either of those areas and feel slighted not to be included, you really need to take it up with those two. Thanks again Erik and Marleigh!

Hm. Maybe I should be pissed off.

Damn, if Ted and Michael weren’t such nice guys, I totally would be.

But, anyway, getting back to why you should read this review.

Really, you shouldn’t. You’ll be wasting time reading this review when you could be reading the book. The review won’t be as funny as the book, it won’t have any cocktail recipes, and I’m nowhere near the photographer that Jenn Farrington is. Heck, this “review” doesn’t even have any pictures.

But, maybe you’re still reading…

The book, to me, captures a moment in time, about 2 years ago, when West Coast cocktail culture was on a bit of a roll. Bars and restaurants were popping up left and right with quality cocktail programs, the bartender was the new rock star, and the liquor industry hadn’t quite bought into the scene.

Everyone in this book, and quite a few others, were doing what they thought was something new. Re-inventing, or rediscovering, the cocktail for a very interested and enthusiastic audience.

It really is kind of awesome that Michael, Ted and Scott took the time and effort to put out this labor of love dedicated to the people and cocktails that were inspiring them.

On the other hand, the moment seems to have passed, and the book feels a bit dated.

The economic downturn has taken a bit of steam from restaurant owners’ willingness to front ambitious cocktail programs. The DIY spirit of many was pissed on by the San Francisco ABC, who began enforcing a prohibition era law which essentially made house made infusions and liqueurs illegal. A lot of the bartenders in this book have moved on to more lucrative careers as Spirits “Brand Ambassadors”. And speaking of liquor brands, it seems the big boys have finally realized there might be some money in this whole “craft cocktail” renaissance, or whatever you call it, and they are now spending big bucks to gain the ears of whomever they decide at the moment could influence the public: bloggers, bartenders, etc.

I read through the book and the first thing I tried to do was find a recipe I could make.

First I discarded recipes that would require a ridiculous amount of prep work.

Then, I discarded recipes which called for St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, a.k.a. Bartender’s Ketchup.

Then, out went any recipes calling for “molecular gastronomy” ingredients like Maltose and Xanthan Gum.

At that point, I felt like I was left with some recipes which could stand the test of time, maybe didn’t even call for specific brands.

The list was pretty small.

Therein lies the book’s biggest flaw.

As a home cocktail maker, I hate having to spend money or invest a bunch of time, just to try one cocktail. I mean, what if I don’t even like it? Then I’m stuck with a lifetime supply of St. Germain or a pint of Saffron Sharbat.

To me, the bubble’s done popped, and it’s time to get back to the basics of what brings people into a bar.

Maybe there are a few people who are interested in your cocktail sorbet or smoked ice, but it really isn’t novelty that fills seats and keeps people coming back. Well, maybe, if you are Grant Achatz, Tony Conigliaro, or just have a huge expense account and don’t care about losses… But, think about it, there is only one El Bulli and only one Alinea, most of the rest of Molecular Gastronomy is poor imitation.

Reading Left Coast Libations, I feel like I’ve been there, I’ve made liqueurs, bitters, infusions. I’ve done that, I’ve experimented with making cocktails with obscure liqueurs and spirits. What really is next?

Experimentation like this is cool, but it’s not where I am at, and I’m not sure it is a way forward for bartending, except at a few special venues.

At the moment, I find people, technique, and service to be more interesting than recipes.

I guess that is the other part I found most disappointing about the book. The jokey bartender profiles, while initially amusing, don’t really tell you much about the people behind the drinks. After working in this industry for a bit, I can tell you that the most interesting thing about bars are the people who work in them. I have met few boring bartenders. Yet I didn’t really feel like I got a picture of anyone whose recipes were used in the book, other than the authors. Even more telling, while the drinks are lovingly photographed, they don’t have pictures of the bartenders who made them and barely any photos of the venues where they work.

What does that leave you with?

Drink porn and quite a few recipes you will never make at home.

Have I burned all my bridges yet? Let me try again, to blow up the remaining few.

My real advice: Use the book as a travel guide.

Get out of the house. Don’t even bother trying to make these recipes at home. Instead, travel out to a local, or distant, craft cocktail establishment. Visit the wonderful bartenders there and say “Hi”. Get to know them. Ask for whatever drink on the bar’s menu catches your fancy. Or ask for whatever is catching their fancy at the moment.

Then write your own book.

And, if you’re on the other side of the bar, consider this my challenge to you, to move beyond the novelty, culinarily inspired cocktail, and deliver something that will have some meaning and staying power for the future.

You’ve done that. What’s next?