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?

8 thoughts on “Left Coast Libations Review

  1. Visiting the bars and bartenders is a bit of a challenge for us on the right coast. If I can squeeze out a dozen recipes, it will far surpass most book purchases (I think we’re up to 6 recipes although one was a disappointment).

    Considering that I have spent $30+ on a Mud Puddle book to discover that there are 3 new recipes and a lot of the same (or slight variations) as I already have, so far the ratio is not that bad in comparison.

    We don’t throw aside the St. Germain drinks, but I do agree about the special syrups and infusions. And the seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Although I’ll have a better chance getting those then I will from my Japanese or Peruvian cocktail books…

    • Heh, if anyone is doing something in the spirit of what I was trying to convey, it’s you Frederic.

      Hm, I’ll change the last section a bit, that paragraph was kind of caught between ideas.

  2. Erik. Thanks for the review and general thoughts on current (or not so current) trends in cocktails. I’m continuing to mull on ‘em.

    I was struck however by one thing with which I’d take actual issue: calling the book cocktail p0rn. First off, so long as you have access to decent liquor stores and produce markets, I count 54 cocktails (roughly half the recipes) you could make tonight—if you include the ones that call for St. Germain and if you don’t count things like simple syrup or basil as a special/exotic ingredient. Second, we did a lot of work proofing and scaling the recipes for the special ingredients so that folks who undertake them would be as guaranteed of success as possible. Where it was deemed helpful we included details what sorts of equipment you’d need, where to source certain ingredients, substitutions, etc. There’s even a lengthy discussion on frothing egg whites (and things that can go wrong) trying and ice (why not to get too wrapped around the axle about it).

    I would also point out that some of the cocktails in the book have incredible track records in the real world: Laughing Buddha, Chartreuse Swizzle, The Revolver (#2 most popular cocktail at B&B), Richmond Gimlet, Southern Exposure, and Carter Beats the Devil, to name just a few. And a few others are already showing their legs e.g. the Saffron Sandalwood Sour and Ueno San. And most of these, once again, are pretty simple to execute.

    Net/net: I’d say the book is less like p0rn and more like a really good sex instruction manual with hot models. ;->

    Cheers!

    Michael

  3. Go out and meet these bartenders and get to know them, and if you need a recipe or help mixing a drink, thank God we have Erik Ellestad and the Underhill Lounge. (I’m being serious, no sarcasm!)

  4. I’m so embarrassed. I used St. Germain in one of my cocktails. I only use it in one cocktail, and that’s the one in the book. Michael, can you remove the bohemian from the second edition and I’ll get to work on something that uses ketchup?

  5. Erik, I think from your standpoint your review is fair. But I would argue the book is not made for you, but for people who are looking to go past that “I can make a better drink than 99% of bartenders” but I’m no pro status. It fills a nice void between the amateurs and the professionals, it nestles itself into a niche that has not really been explored in print.

    IMO it’s for people who can make great classic cocktails and adapt recipes but are looking for inspiration to push their craft further. I would think the book is achieving it’s goals if it pushes someone to make an obscure homemade ingredient. Even if the drink from the book disappoints, at least they have a new ingredient to play around with.

  6. It’s very refreshing to hear your point-of-view. I started a blog not too long ago from the sole perspective that, despite have an extensive home liquor cabinet, I was constantly pushed towards new products and techniques every time I cracked a magazine or the latest book. I got fed up. Among my friends, most of whom are quite educated on the subject of a proper cocktail, gastro mixology has given way to the simple need for a good drink. Heck, look at the direction Scott Beattie has headed with Spoonbar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>