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]

Book Review: The Curious World of Wine

curious_world_of_wineWine is indeed a curious world. Just drinking everyday bottles of the stuff is enough to vault you into a world of confusing terminology, exotic places, and strange people for the rest of your life.

Purdue University’s Richard Vine does the wine fanatic no favors with his book, The Curious World of Wine, which only serves to add to the mystery. A collection of loosely sorted and generally quite short “fun facts,” Vine devotes 210 pages, 10 chapters, and over 100 segments of only a few paragraphs each to one oddball tidbit or another about the world of wine.

Historical vignettes and etymology make up the lion’s share of the book. Some of this you’ll likely have heard before (toasting was born to exchange liquids between two glasses to ensure no one was being poisoned), some you likely haven’t (Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild conceived of Opus One while the Baron was lounging in bed). Most of the tidbits are at least interesting, even if they’re short on being actively educational.

Vine’s writing is typical of academics — straightforward and largely humorless aside from the overuse of wordplay — but breezy enough to make it easy to get into. If trivia’s your name and wine’s your game, give this book a look.

B / $15 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The New Old Bar

the-new-old-barChicago-based restaurateurs Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh go by the moniker of “The Hearty Boys,” an homage to the restaurant they run, Hearty. In this, their second book, Smith and McDonagh focus on the bar, offering 200 cocktail recipes (including all the ones they serve at Hearty), plus a chapter or two that cover the basics of how to run the bar.

The recipes run the gamut from classics that have recently made a comeback (Pegu Club, Boulevardier, Corpse Reviver #2), as well as newfangled recipes of the Hearties’ devise. Grilled fruits are a common and interesting theme, as are flavored syrups (recipes are included for these separately). One even uses roast beef (as a garnish). By and large the selection is interesting, skimmable (recipes are not sorted but are mere alphabetized by name), and fairly easy to replicate.

The final portion of the book features a welcome collection of bar snack recipes, with 25 items offered, each sounding more delicious than the next. Poutine and Kix Mix… breakfast of champions!

A- / $14 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Dr. Cocktail

dr cocktailCan drinking be medicinal? Since the dawn of time alcholic beverages have been billed as good for the body. That’s how legions of drinkers got their hands on booze during Prohibition, even — through a doctor’s prescription.

Alex Ott, “the sorcerer of shaken and stirred,” takes things a step further with his book Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind and Body. (“Dr. Cocktail,” by the way, is Ted Haigh, so don’t get confused…) In this slim, hardbound book, his goal is to create cocktail recipes that use herbal, traditional, natural, and homeopathic ingredients. These in turn are meant to reduce stress, encourage romance, build your appetite, or curb hangovers. Whether Ott’s mixture of gin, cranberry juice, and cucumbers really has anti-aging properties, well, that’s a matter for the scientists to look into, I suppose.

I was surprised how simple and straightforward most of the recipes in this book were. No acai, no yumberry, or any of the other foodstuffs that are generally considered really really good for you. There’s nothing really more unusual than turmeric and aloe juice here, which is great if you actually want to make this stuff, but bad if you’re looking for something truly novel that you won’t find elsewhere. Many of the recipes here look good, but more than a few are modest spins on time-worn classics. (I remain flummoxed how a Bloody Mary with a ton of Grenadine, Scotch, and bacon bits will detox you.)

But the most annoying thing about Ott’s book is the rampant product placement. While many a bartending book will call for certain name brand spirits, Ott’s does so in virtually every recipe. Hope you stock up on Svedka Vodka, Ecco Domini wines, and New Amsterdam Gin! One has to wonder: Does Ott really drink that much Svedka? Or is he just giving his employers (he’s an ambassador for all three) a contractual shout-out… on your dime?

B- / $13 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Drinking Japan

Drinking JapanI’ve never been to Japan, but it’s at the top of my list. When I get there, I plan to drink it. The whole thing.

Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan will surely help. Part guide book, part encyclopedia of Japanese alcohol, the tome guides you throw the best places to get a sip of sake, shochu, Okinawan awamori, Japanese beer or whisky, or western beverages throughout the country and explains what you’re drinking along the way. Tokyo of course has the lion’s share of the coverage, but you’ll find over 100 recommendations for great drinking establishments throughout Japan.

Every bar (most are actually restaurants too) features an interior photograph, a map, and detailed directions of how to get there. Bunting’s attention to detail is astounding, including the hours, the cover charge (in detail), and even whether there’s a menu available in English. The picks seem thoughtful, varied (from holes in the wall to hotspots like the New York Bar from Lost in Translation), and nearly all worth visiting. And the writing is both fun and educational — particularly if you don’t know your honkaku from your happoshu.

When I eventually make it to Japan, this book is coming with me.

A / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]