If you’ve missed out on the last decade of cocktailing, don’t despair: Paul Clarke has just published “The Cocktail Chronicles: Navigating the Cocktail Renaissance with Jigger, Shaker and Glass,” a compendium of 200 annotated recipes that nonchalantly touch on the history, spirits, techniques and philosophies you need to know in order to drink like someone who’s been boozing it up in sophisticated style since 2005.
That’s just what Clarke, executive editor of Imbibe, has been doing since the launch of his pioneering cocktail blog. The trove of online material provided a foundation for his smart, chatty book, but Clarke rewrote nearly everything in an effort to simplify the bitters, liqueurs and bar spoons that can cofound home bartenders. The end result is indispensable.
Since I know Clarke from my time in Seattle, a full-fledged review didn’t seem fair. But we recently talked about a few of the book’s guiding principles:
Q: For those immersed in the cocktail world, complex drinks with 47 ingredients are starting to seem normal. But how much of what’s happened in the last 10 years has trickled down to the drinking public?
A: Well, I think the general public is increasingly articulate about cocktails. They recognize nuances between different styles of spirit, and they’re increasingly looking for novelty and creativity.
That said, anything food-and-drink-related is always a moving target. When people go down to a cocktail bar and peruse the menu, I can see it being overwhelming, akin to someone who has just discovered they like wine being presented with an encyclopedia menu, and it’s just intimidating. What I wanted to do was give these people an on-ramp. Not to dumb it down too much, but make it accessible.
Q: It’s interesting you mention wine, since wine writing is so often so awful. Why is cocktail writing generally better?
A: I think cocktails just lend themselves more to fun. Wine writing has long veered toward serious reverence, whereas cocktails, this is something that happens in a bar. I took this very much to heart in approaching the book, because if we manage to rob cocktails of this sense of fun, we’re kind of dooming this cocktail renaissance as it’s getting its wings.
Q: I’m wondering how you put that fun into words. How do you approach a cocktail as a writer, as opposed to how a bartender or spirits producer would look at it?
A: First is just a simple sense of enjoyment. You ask: Do I like this drink? And if the answer is no, why am I proceeding in drinking it? But also looking at what does this drink taste like to me? Does this taste like October or July? Does it taste like something I’d drink after work in a bar, or out on the deck at a barbecue? What are the various things that this drink brings to the table? What kind of story does it tell you?
Let me pick one example from the book: The Chartreuse Swizzle, it’s a contemporary cocktail. The beautiful thing about this drink is it’s what we think of as an island-style drink. It’s something you drink in a hammock. But it’s Chartreuse, this venerable French herbal liqueur made by monks for centuries.
So it’s that beautiful mashup of old-world culture with new-world style of drinking. It’s the kind of thing that can only take place in San Francisco. When you look at it from that perspective, that’s a gorgeous story.
Q: So when you say that’s a San Francisco drink, does that mean regional differences are persisting in cocktail culture?
A: I think any differences we had early on are increasingly blurred. You’ll find the same attention to and reverence for detail that was long a hallmark of the New York City cocktail movement in Dallas and Fayetteville, Ark., and Spokane, Wash. At the same time, things we thought of as West Coast signatures, such as farm-fresh, working with the kitchen, you see that in Boston.
But I think we’re also seeing the increased localization of the cocktail bar. A lot of these bars are working within their local environment, looking at what’s seasonal. And with the boom of craft distilling, it’s relatively easy for a bartender in Charleston to use a local gin or local rum in their cocktails. That’s beautiful in some ways, in that it makes traveling a lot more fun. Now you’re certain you’ll find something you won’t find at home. It does make it more challenging if you do encounter something to try to replicate that in another city.
Q: The book that your book most reminded me of was “Joy of Cooking,” but of course there’s a pretty dramatic split between home cooks and professional restaurants. Do you think the divide is less stark when it comes to drinking?
A: I think it’s increasingly moving apart. When I wrote the book, and I started to decide on a direction I wanted to go, I wanted to hold these together for as long as I could. I wanted to eliminate that divide between the professional bar and home bar as much as I could.
I wanted something that translates to the average consumer, but that will also be able to be picked up by a professional bartender. A lot of the books that you see coming out are increasingly detailed, which is useful if you’re a professional, but limiting if you’re a home bartender. I think as cocktails become increasingly more specialized, and as we see things that are difficult for anyone else to pull off, that may provide a benefit to the bar, because no one else has it. But it limits the approachability of those drinks, and it limits the lifespan of that individual drink.
Part of the beauty of drinks like the Penicillin or the Old Cuban is these are contemporary classic cocktails that can be widely replicated at any bar in the world. There’s nothing excessively fussy, and they’re all incredibly delicious and approachable by consumers and professional bartenders alike. I’m trying to eliminate that divide so we can continue the joy.
Q: I know you’ve spent a lot of time looking at old cocktail books in your research. How do you think your book will look to people 100 years from now?
A: In planning this book, I looked at some of the books of the past that I have frequently turned to as resource books, such as “Esquire Drinks” by David Wondrich and Dale DeGroff’s “Craft of the Cocktail,” but I also looked at “The Fine Arts of Mixing Drinks” by David Embury, which first came out in the late 1940s, and Esquire’s “Handbook for Hosts.” These were things where people were taking a broad view of their particular era, and presenting not only recipes, but philosophy about composition.
So what would Embury look like if it came out in 2015, with everything we’ve experienced and encountered? I did very much approach this as making it a snapshot. I recognized that everything going on in the world is very dynamic, and everything I’m writing about is destined to change, but I wanted to present a snapshot and hopefully create a resource that can be used to better understand our food and drink scene.
Q: Where would you suggest that someone picking up your book begin?
A: I actually would start in the middle of the book, which makes no sense, but chapter three is enduring classic cocktails: The daiquiri, old fashioned, Manhattan, martini and negroni. That presents why these cocktails endure, and why they’ve served as a foundation and inspiration. Pretty much everyone has had a Manhattan or a martini at some point, so this presents you with something you’re familiar with, but it’s presented alongside variations and interpretations. The next step is experimentation.