Book Review: The Architecture of the Cocktail

architecture-of-the-cocktail-2The Architecture of the Cocktail is a neat idea and an even neater-looking book. Using architectural blueprint-style diagrams, author Amy Zavatto and illustrator Melissa Wood take you through 75 drinks, largely classics with a few modern cocktails thrown in. But rather than include a pretty picture, each cocktail is “designed” in black and white, showing the glass, ice, and the amount of each spirit graphically. The drawing on the cover of the book (right) gives you a better sense of what this looks like.

Nifty look, but completely impractical, it turns out. Trying to use this book to actually mix a drink is an exercise in frustration, as you try to figure out whether diamond crosshatches are supposed to be rum or the the diamond crosshatches with horizontal line overlays are. (This gets super fun with the Long Island Iced Tea recipe, the inclusion of which is grounds for a whole other discussion.)

Where does that leave us, then? Pretty book, short on utility. That might fit perfectly on your bookshelf, but it’s crowded out on mine.

C / $12 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: A First Course in Wine

first course in wineNovices will swoon over this handsome, lovingly photographed, generally quite beautiful guide to the basics of the wine world. As the name suggests, this is a first course in wine, and the book dutifully walks through some of the first questions a new wine consumer might have. What different grapes look like, where they’re grown, how wine is made, what to drink with different kinds of wine… that kind of thing. This is the kind of book that trots out the full-page chart of what you call oversize wine bottles (27 liters is a Goliath!), even though anyone reading this book will never encounter wine in that capacity.

There are many, many photos of vineyards in all their glory here… though not much explanation about why the wine lover should care about them (aside from their natural beauty). There are a few pages on offer about viticulture basics, but this is never tied into the art in the book. Similarly, despite copious photos of wine labels (many larger than life), only a few pages give the reader information on how to read them.

Still, for a “first” course in wine, this is a book that at least gets the basics down in a rudimentary fashion. It doesn’t hurt that it looks nice on the shelf, too.

B- / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Cocktails: The Bartender’s Bible

Book-Cocktails-The-Bartenders-BibleHoly vermouth, Batman! This is one big ass book of cocktails!

Simon Difford, with his 11th edition of this monstrous tome from diffordsguide, packs over 3000 cocktail recipes into some 500 pages of material. Hardbound, with a glossy cover, it feels like a textbook, and it practically is.

Now there are many cocktail books that can claim quantity like this, but how many of them are full color on every page? Each recipe featuring a (very small) photo of the finished drink? None that I’ve seen, and that thumbnail picture is what makes this book a keeper over many others of its ilk. Just like when you’re cooking dinner on the stove, having a picture to know what you’re aiming for can make all the difference.

Difford’s collection is exhaustive, even though some of the recipes feature slightly odd ingredient lists. (I’ve never had a Casino with orange juice in it, nor a Sazerac with Angostura bitters… not that those are wrong, per se.) I love how he offers variants for most of the drinks (“If you like this, try this…”), gives a quick sentence about how each drink should taste, and provides historical information on some of the more classic concoctions. The text is tiny throughout, though, so bring your reading glasses.

A- / $34 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The Signature Series

eric ossimina with the signature seriesTired of cocktails that include rhubarb-bacon bitters or crystallized foie gras garnishes? Well have I got a book for you.

The Signature Series isn’t really a book so much as a life experience. At least that’s the goal of New Jersey-based author Erik G. Ossimina (aka “EGO”), who has collected 100 of his own homegrown recipes and self-published them in this weighty, 8.5 x 11-inch tome. Ossimina’s recipes are, well, unique and … er … potent. Let’s just say you’ll need to stock up on Everclear if you hope to make many of these concoctions at home.

As for the other ingredients, they’re quite varied, as the beverages run the gamut from martinis to tall drinks on the rocks to punches to Tiki cocktails. At least one is designed to be set on fire, so take the appropriate precautions.

One cocktail, the first in the book, is composed of Jack Daniel’s, “Absolute Vodka,” and Pepsi. A straw is also ordered.

Another drink (#8) is actually a series of three shots: 1 1/2 oz. each of green creme de menthe, Jagermeister, and Everclear. “If you have to walk alone and do all three shots yourself then I applaud you,” writes Ossimina. (FYI: The first page of the book discusses alcohol poisoning and what to do if you suspect it.)

“The Train,” drink #34, consists of five shots followed by a Budweiser.

If I have to pick a favorite, and that is tough, I may have to go with The Widow Maker (#49), which is vodka, Southern Comfort, and gin, mixed with equal parts Sprite and “Bartles and James Strawberry Wine Cooler.”

I mention the order of the drinks because the name of the book, The Signature Series, suggests how it is supposed to be used. Each recipe page is abutted by a blank page — a page which you are supposed to sign when you complete the consumption of the adjacent cocktail. Then, when you’re all done (or have had enough), you are supposed to pass the book down to your son or daughter, so they can continue the tradition of the Signature Series, creating, per Ossimina, “an historical record that will recount on the times shared over the years with your family and friends.”

“It could be like a rite of passage.” Presuming, I guess, that you can still get Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers 40 or 50 years from now.


Book Review: Liquid Vacation

Liquid VacationThe Tiki drink revival may not have really taken off the way that rum nuts had hoped, but fanatics intent on making fruity, high-proof drinks in the comfort of their own homes and hula skirts can find solace in Liquid Vacation, a large-size recipe book from P Moss, who runs Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas (reportedly the world’s only 24/7 Tiki bar).

While there are about a dozen Tiki classics to be found here — Mai Tai, Fog Cutter, Scorpion — you can find those schematics anywhere. Rather, it’s the 77 original concoctions, all from Frankie’s bartenders — that are the bigger draw.

There’s a science to mixing rum, sugar, and fruit juice, and Moss will get you to your destination in style, if a bit addled in the brains. Be warned: None of these drinks will be simple to make, and the ingredients list will challenge even the best home stocked bar… unless you keep Tuaca, jasmine liqueur, falernum, POG juice, guava nectar, and papaya nectar handy. Well, perhaps now you have a reason to stock up.

Bonus: Every drink gets a glorious full-page photo, and a handy “skulls” rating system clues you in to how potent each cocktail is: “More skulls equals more fun.” I don’t think there are any drinks in the book that clock in at fewer than three skulls.

A- / $28 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The Best Shots You’ve Never Tried

The Best Shots You've Never TriedAfter a certain age, the word “shot” becomes anathema, and when pressed, the “discriminating drinker” is likely to sip a shot of tequila or whiskey for a good 10 minutes instead of in one, grimace-faced gulp.

However you take your shots, by the slug or by the sip, Andrew Bohrer wants to elevate the game. His book, The Best Shots You’ve Never Tried, is fairly self-explanatory, featuring over 100 recipes for pint-sized cocktails, most with three ingredients or less.

This latter point shouldn’t be overlooked. Many home bartenders get put off by cocktail recipes that require a dozen ingredients, home-infused syrups, and exotic garnishes. But if you can pour a 1/2 oz. each of Kahlua, Baileys, and Vodka into a shot glass, you can make a Little Lebowski Urban Achiever. And drink it just as quickly, too. Strega-vodka-cream? Chartreuse-pineapple juice? Parfait amour-vodka-sherry? Bohrer’s ingredients may require a trip to the back bar (or the liquor store), but they’re never so overwhelmingly exotic that you’ll skip to the next one in the fear that you can’t make the drink. (Whether you want to drink it is another story.)

The book’s design is clearly aimed at the veteran shot drinker, with lots of neon, askew text, and graffiti-like fonts. This may be at odds with the otherwise upscale nature of most of Bohrer’s recipes, but it does serve to remind you that, after all, a shot is still a shot.

B+ / $6 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Savory Cocktails

savory cocktailsSometimes you don’t want “something sweet.” Sometimes you want something, well, savory.

Greg Henry’s book, Savory Cocktails, offers 100 recipes were sugar (in all its forms) is not the focus. Separated into various chapters such as Sour, Spicy, Smoky, and Strong, Henry walks you through some basic nonsweet stuff (Martini, Bloody Mary, Pickleback) but focuses on originals (most from third-party barmen around the country) that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else. And yeah, a lot of them have a little sweetness, usually in the form of a flavored syrup.

The book is straightforward, the pictures numerous (if not quite A-grade in quality), and the searchability is strong. If you’re looking for a drink and your sweet tooth is out of commission, you’ll be able to find something here. If you can’t, well, maybe try some beef jerky.

B+ / $12 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The Drunken Botanist

DRUNKEN BOTANISTIt only came out last year, but Amy Stewart’s incredibly obsessive-compulsive tome, The Drunken Botanist, has already become a staple of the spirits obsessed.

The idea is deceptively simple. Whatever you drink — Scotch, rum, tequila, vodka — has its origins in the earth — barley, sugar cane, agave, potato (or whatnot). Where do these plants, fruits, and vegetables come from? What makes them different than what we put on the table? And (of course) can you grow your own?

Stewart is deep in the rabbit hole on this stuff, taking you through the botanical origins of, say, the tamarind, describing how it grows and where, and how it’s used in beverages. Tips for growing your own plants — typically herbs and spices — are proffered, and Stewart of course peppers the text with plenty of cocktail and flavored syrup recipes.

Easily digested and broken up into natural chunks, The Drunken Botanist is both easy to jump in and out of while also making a fantastic reference. What’s lemon verbena, anyway? Mauby? Myrrh?

I won’t spoil the answers.

A- / $16 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Craft Cocktails at Home

craft cocktails at homeAs food has evolved beyond grilled steaks and baked potatoes, so have cocktails. It’s now common to see bar menus stuffed with cocktails that involve homemade tinctures, smoke, infusions, foams, pearls of goo, and god knows what else. Molecular mixology is a real thing, and it’s come to the masses.

Kevin Liu’s book, Craft Cocktails at Home, is not about molecular mixology. The illustration on the cover and tagline — Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-Pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science — may trick you into thinking otherwise, but don’t be fooled. This is a book about using modern techniques, intelligence, and good old brute force into making your cocktails the very best they can be. Trust me, you’ll want to read it whether you’re a home tinkerer or the main stickman at a four-star joint in Manhattan.

For the bulk of the book, Liu covers the basics. The very, very basics. Mainly, he looks at the stuff you never, ever, not once thought about and explains why it makes a difference in your drink.

For example, did you know: In blind tests, people overwhelmingly prefer the taste of four-hour-old hand-juiced lime juice to just-hand-squeezed lime juice? (Even four-hour-old machine-juiced limes were preferred over the fresh stuff.) Liu guesses at why in the book. — but the point is this: The guy is testing how old your juice is and what tastes better.

As well, Liu looks at simple syrup recipes to find the best mix of sugar to water, examines how different types of glasses chill in the freezer, and how much a “dash” really is (it matters!). He even shows you how to make homemade mineral water. Charts and graphs abound.

The end of the book is devoted to 65 cocktail recipes, “hacked,” including some spins on the classics (Why drink a Manhattan watery and warm-ish? I won’t ruin the fun…) and some that border on the molecular. I wish there were more of them — and for the second edition, I’d like to request color photos, too.

Buy it!


Book Review: The Home Distiller’s Workbook

home distillers workbookFirst things first: This stuff is totally illegal. You can’t distill moonshine, whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, or anything else at home. It is quite dangerous in many ways. If the still doesn’t explode, you could always poison yourself with methanol. Or you could get killed in prison. (Unlicensed still raids are a real thing.)

Still determined? Jeff King is your friendly pal who can guide you through the process of setting up a still and making just about anything. Through 85 pages of Arial-font writing he’ll guide you through the basics and walk you through the difference between your thumper box and your slobber box. I’ve never made my own spirits, but I get the sense from the book that I could handle the basics after a couple of close reads (and given the right equipment). But even equipment may not be essential. King takes things to simpler and simpler levels, even including designs for a still built out of a teapot.

King’s book is far from refined or sophisticated, and it looks like it was printed in bulk at the local copy shop, not unlike The Anarchist’s Cookbook. But considering the quasi-illegal nature of the subject matter, the scrappy look sort of fits. You’ll find worse ways to spend your nine bucks if you want to get in on the game. God help you.

B+ / $9 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]