An Engineer’s Guide to Cocktails

Hi!

An Engineer friend of mine, Kevin Liu, has written a book.

It is called “Craft Cocktails at Home“, but it should really be called, “An Engineer’s Guide to Cocktails”.

Lest you forget, a couple of Engineers made a very funny video a while back about the care and feeding of Felis silvestris catus for the literal minded. They called it, “An Engineer’s Guide to Cats”. I include it here, on the off chance that you have not laughed out loud recently.

From my initial skimming of the book, like the video, Kevin also manages to balance the geeky, the amusing, and the ridiculous in his new guide to Cocktails.

Also! The Kindle eBook version will be available for free! (Free, as in Beer!) from 28 Feb 2013 through 02 Mar 2013 on Amazon:

Craft Cocktails at Home on Amazon

Check it, and you will soon be using phrases like, “Orthonasal Olfaction,” in everyday conversation, not to mention enjoying perfectly clear ice in every cocktail!

I include a brief sample of the writing style, here, for your enjoyment.

Why Some People Hate the Taste of Alcohol and What You Can Do About It

I have a friend named Wes who cannot stand the taste of alcohol. At all. And I know it’s not his fault. He’s always a good sport, tasting every single drink I’ve made for him. Each time, he smiles, as if confident this time, this drink, he’ll find something he’ll genuinely enjoy and know exactly what to order at bars forever. For me, it’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. I carefully study his face, looking for a sign, the slightest hint of a smile that indicates he’s pleased, satisfied, or at least indifferent. But, every time it ends the same. Wes’s face tightens with disgust, his eyes squint, and his tongue hangs limp from his defeated mouth. Wes drinks Bud Lime and Corona. I drink the leftovers of Wes’s cocktails. Once in a while, I’ll mix up something exceptionally light and he’ll happily accept a glass in the privacy of the home bar, knowing he’ll never be able to bring himself to ask for an Amaretto Sour or a Dark and Stormy (hold the stormy) in public. Poor Wes.

So, go buy Kevin’s book. Or download it for free on Amazon and buy Kevin a drink the next time you see him, for all the work he has done in the service of cocktails, and the advancement of mankind.

Left Coast Review Responses

Some responses to my writeup of the Left Coast Libations book:

JimmyP:

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?

I was kind of torn about using St. Germain as an example, my initial thought was just to say something like, “excluding any liqueurs or spirits I know have been heavily promoted by marketing and/or spirits companies,” but that was just too unwieldy. So I picked St. Germain as my whipping boy.

JimmyP:

“The resulting liqueur has the beautiful clear scent of elderflower without some of the off flavors or, well, syrup-i-ness of the D’Arbo Elderflower Syrup. I don’t think St. Germain will be a completely one to one substitute in cocktails calling for the syrup; but, it is a great product all on its own. I’m really looking forward to experimenting with it in cocktails.”

Who do you think it was?

a. me
b. you
c. simon difford
d. no one ever said this.

Maybe I don’t get to go to enough bars and see what’s being abused?

I reserve the right to change my mind. I wrote that in March of 2007 on eGullet. I can barely keep track of the Savoy drinks I posted last week, let alone some comment I made as moderator of the Spirits and Cocktail Forum on eGullet three years ago. Besides, I still have a nearly full bottle of St. Germain that I purchased that year. I’m hoping it ages well, but it has floaties.

Frederic Yarm:

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…

“The Right Coast”, guess it depends on your perspective!

Collecting classic cocktail books is indeed a thankless task. Just be thankful you’re spending $30 dollars for books from Mud Puddle, and not $300+ on eBay.

Drinksnob:

Very well put.

Now, if only I the bars in my town had the balls to experiment, so I could actually taste some of these things at least once.

filip:

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.

Michael Lazar:

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

To be frank, I do feel a bit bad that I got carried away with my little rant, and didn’t really highlight the parts of the book that I DO really like.

First, the pictures are fantastic. As someone who takes a lot of pictures of cocktails, it’s hard to understate how great a job I think Jenn Farrington did taking the pictures in this book.

The attention to detail, is another thing which really I really appreciate. Instead of simply asking the drink makers for pictures and recipes, I know that they went through every cocktail in the book and made the cocktails at least once, sometimes several times. It is great that they include substitutions where appropriate and very detailed instructions for all the cocktails and pantry work.

Another aspect of the attention to detail, is the fact that they give credit to the creator of every drink in the book. Very few cocktail books take both the drink makers and cocktails serious enough to give credit where it is due. That is very cool.

And as a corollary to that, a lot of these recipes are, in fact, working cocktail recipes from bars. They are not just cocktails that someone won a contest with and made once. There are many examples here of very popular cocktails, modern West Coast classics, if you will. It is a credit to the bars and to the bartenders that they would put themselves out there and share these in the detail that they have simply out of the generosity of their spirits and commitment to the craft.

All of these things are a breath of fresh air in the world of cocktail recipe books.

I was really torn about whether I should “review” the book at all, for all the reasons that I listed at the beginning of my write up.

There was no way I was going to do it, if I couldn’t think of anything real, meaningful, or provacative to say about it.

I just started with the idea of kind of tweaking Ted’s passive-aggressive tone in the “bios” and tossing it back at him as a sort of joke.

But some recent events in my life and another blogger’s write up of the cocktail program at a new restaurant, colored my review and definitely provided fodder for thought.

A lot of the questions which I put, are not just intended for other bartenders, but for myself as I approach the end of the Savoy Project and wonder about my future and what inspirations I will find.

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?

Mud Puddle Bonanza!

Mud Puddle Bonanza!

Woo! My order from Cocktail Kingdom arrived today!

Reprints of Vermeire, Ensslin, Straub, Maier, Kappelar, and home boy Boothby!

Japanese tins, some beautiful heavy mixing glasses, and even a bonus spoon!

Thanks Greg Boehm and Company, you are truly doing amazing things for the cocktail community.

PS. Ahem, the Aviation recipe in Hugo Ensslin’s book calls for Creme de Violette, not Creme Yvette!

Artisanal Cocktails

I recently received a copy of Scott Beattie’s beautiful new book, “Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus” in the mail.

I believe this had something to do with the tender mercies of the Mixoloseum crowd.

I’ve been interested in Mr. Beattie’s cocktails for some time now.

He has taken the seasonal, fresh bar to new extremes.  Experimenting with techniques and ingredients that others don’t even dream of.

As someone who has been known to include homemade granita and scented geranium leaves in cocktails (see the Rosey Fizz), I find his experiments and cocktail creations intellectually fascinating.

While he doesn’t quite take things to the extremes of some of the East Coast Mixologists, there is a lot here of interest.

However, that is also a problem, when we’re talking about whether it is likely that any of these cocktails will get made.

I have a relatively well stocked bar at home.  Well enough, anyway, to make just about any cocktail called for in the “Savoy Cocktail Book”.

Looking through Mr. Beattie’s book, I am having a real problem finding a cocktail I could make without taking a trip to Le Sanctuaire, the farmers’ market, whole foods, the liquor store, and then spending a couple hours in the kitchen doing prep.

Now, as someone who has called for homemade granita in an original cocktail, there’s definitely a bit of, “Hello Kettle, meet Pot,” going on.  And, sure, I’m willing to allow a certain amount of envy or jealousy on my part.

But to dig a bit deeper, the real problem I have with Mr. Beattie’s cocktails is that they almost always seem to put other ingredients and flavors before those flavors provided by the spirits.

My favorite cocktails are the Manhattan, Sazerac, Old-Fashioned, Martini and variations thereupon.  They are all about the character of the spirit in the drink.

The alcohol in most of the original cocktails in “Artisanal Cocktails” is provided by flavored vodkas or lightly flavored rums.  And then whatever slight character these spirits might express are often covered up with a host of mixers, fruit juices, herbs, and spiced syrups.

It’s almost like there’s a distrust of using a spirit with too much character or having too much of the spirit’s flavor expressed in the drink.

Even the Manhattan in the book, the “Frankfort Manhattan”, is made using Bourbon infused with Vanilla and Citrus Peel!

I mean, if you wanted to make your own vermouth and mess with it by enhancing the vanilla and citrus character, that would be cool. Then use your custom Vermouth in Manhattan. I would be totally down with that.  But why on earth would you want to infuse perfectly good Bourbon with Vanilla Beans and Citrus Zest? What do you do with the rest of the bottle?

I guess that makes me profoundly ambivalent.

There is a lot of interest in “Artisanal Cocktails”.  It is a well written and beautifully photographed book.  There’s a lot to think about in the recipes, ingredients, and techniques.  Mr. Beattie is pushing the limits of what we think a mixed drink can or cannot be.  And having sampled some of the drinks, I can say they are delicious.

But to channel my middle-aged curmudgeon, I’m just not sure if they are “cocktails” or if they are fruit and herb beverages which just happen to have a shot of vodka in them.

Additional Reading:

Raising the Bar: Scott Beattie of Healdsburg’s Cyrus restaurant turns cocktail creation into an extreme sport

Imbibe!

First, I want to apologize to David Wondrich for not writing up his new book “Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar” before Christmas, depriving him of whatever paltry sales a blog post here will generate. Sorry David.

In any case, the book had been covered so well by such stellar writers as Paul Clarke over at the Cocktail Chronicles, (“IMBIBE! (no, the other one)”,) and Jeff Berry over at Beachbum Berry’s Grog Blog, (“AN EDUCATED THIRST: PROFESSOR JERRY THOMAS, REMIXED”,) that I figured anyone with even a passing interest cocktails would have purchased it before Christmas. Heck, they should have pre-ordered the thing!

Plus, I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for many of my friends and family, as they were getting a copy for Christmas whether they wanted one or not.

Recently, though, it has come to my attention that some of my acquaintances (<cough>Rick<cough>) have not yet purchased a copy for themselves.

Now, I know perhaps you are thinking, “Why do I need a book about 19th Century cocktails and bar culture? I can make an Old-Fashioned as well as the next man. There’s nothing else to it, is there?”

Indeed, when I heard that Mr. Wondrich was working on this book, I wondered how he would make such things interesting to those of us already familiar with the subject matter.

The beautiful thing about Mr. Wondrich’s writing is that it is a joy to read. Indeed, I suspect if he applied himself to the subject of paint drying, he could, somehow, bring it to life.

He not only brings the culture of the 19th Century Saloon to vivid life, he provides seemingly endless amusing anecdotes about the cocktails themselves and the characters that created them. Boothby, Schmidt, and especially Thomas all get some time in the sun here.

Indeed, if I have any criticism of the book, it is that it spends too much time on cocktails, and not enough on the colorful characters and histories of the 19th Century. After reading the wonderful first chapter on the the life of Jerry Thomas, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed to get down to the business of cocktails, punches, and fancy drinks.

Sigh, I guess, ultimately, it is a cocktail recipe book, after all.

But, lest I also worry about that, Mr. Wondrich’s research and writing about those recipes is thoroughly fascinating and well worth going through. Not to mention, every recipe I have made so far has been outstanding. They may take a bit more work than modern cocktails, but the results are well worth the effort and the instructions impeccable.

Crack open your stingy wallet, mix yourself a drink, enjoy Mr. Wondrich’s prose, and smile.

Full disclosure: After I had pre-ordered a copy of “Imbibe!” the publisher sent me a copy. I didn’t cancel my pre-order, instead giving it to a friend. So, I figure we’re about even.

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday season!

I know I had a great holiday, visiting with friends and family.

Snowiest year in recent memory, however!

Haunting Midwestern bookstores turned up the following:

I couldn’t resist the suave allure of this copy of “Playboy’s Host & Bar Book” from 1971. Might have to finally get that bottle of Galliano!

1948 edition of “Bartender’s Guide…By Trader Vic”. Lots of fun recipes here and some pretty amusing insights in this early edition of Trader Vic’s Guide.

And finally, a vintage copy of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s “The Official Mixer’s Manual” from 1934. I’ve already noticed some discrepencies between this version and the 1956 James Beard edited version I had previously been relying on. For one thing, the Aviation Cocktail recipe in the older book is a verbatim copy of the Hugo Ensslin’s Aviation, calling for Creme de Violette and Maraschino. In the Beard edition it calls for Maraschino and Apricot Brandy. Certainly an odd substitution and one I’ve always wondered about. Nice to know it wasn’t Mr. Duffy’s choice.

I anticipate some fascinating reading in the coming months!

I hope Santa was as good to you, as he was to me, and wish you an exciting an eventful new year!

Cheers!

edit – typos

Just a Bunch of Drinks

Over the years cocktails with a lot of drinks have been popular. Sort of compendiums of the state of the cocktail art, as it were. The first of these may have been “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” Other big ones include the various Mr. Boston Guides, Cocktail Bill Boothby’s “World Drinks and How to Mix Them,” and one of the most influential modern drink bibles, “Jones’ Complete Bar Guide.”

They tend to be long on recipes, but short on instructions, details, or information.

In his annually published DiffordsGuides to Cocktails, Simon Difford has been a bit different. He usually has a good section on methods, pictures for each cocktail, origin details for many cocktails, and little articles about featured cocktails. He also has an exceptional index of ingredients and recipes which include them. Not to mention a short list of some of the world’s best bars.

Now up to DiffordsGuide # 7, in many bars these annually released books have become the go to guides for young bartenders, especially those of the European persuasion.

In number of recipes, DiffordsGuide #7 does not let us down. Including over 2250 drink recipes, you’re not going to run dry any time soon.

One of the nicest things about Difford’s Guides is that they not only include drinks from American bartenders, but also from Europe and the world. It includes relatively recent cocktails from San Franciscans Jacques Bezuidenhout and Dominic Venegas, along with many of the leading lights of modern Europe’s bar scene.

I find it interesting that, as in all Mr. Difford’s books, there are rather a lot of very sweet sounding cocktails and many layered shots, (or “Shotails” as Mr. Difford likes to call them.)  I’m not sure if this is a difference between West Coast and European taste, or just Mr. Difford’s preference.

Still there are enough interesting old and new classics in Difford’s Guide #7 to keep any person entertained for, well, the rest of their life.  Certainly no cocktail enthusiast would complain if they found one under their Christmas, (or Valentine’s Day,) tree.

Full disclosure: When I read on the Spirits Review Blog that a new Difford’s Guide had been released, I sent a note to Christopher Carlsson asking how he had got his sweaty little hands on a copy. He suggested I contact them. I did, and they were kind enough to send a copy for review.