Books : Check Em Out is hopefully going to be a recurring post on books related to drinks. It's also a PSA that gets stuck in my head. It's probably a given but I'm going to mention it anyway - these reviews aren't written by a professional book critic. They're written by me. I like to read and I like to make drinks. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.
Craft Cocktails at Home by Kevin Liu 901 Very Good Cocktails by Stew Ellington
This is actually going to be about two books since I've recently purchased a few and these two happen to be self-published. They're wildly different but share the enthusiasm you might expect from people who decided to undertake such a massive endeavor on their own.
Kevin Liu's 'Craft Cocktails at Home' and Stew Ellington's '901 Very Good Cocktails' are both books I'm thoroughly enjoying. They also happen to be written by folks who aren't professional bartenders but their fascination with cocktails and commitment to making good drinks is undeniable.
Kevin Liu sets out to explain and untangle the science behind cocktails and the various techniques and methods used to construct them. He's put loads of good information in his book including charts, techniques and interviews with prominent people in fields relevant to the topics addressed. There's also several step by step plans on how to build some crazy devices at home on the cheap. And this is what I like most about this book - it's written for people obsessed with cocktails (particularly all the nuances that make them work - flavor, aroma, etc.) but who don't necessarily have access to the equipment available in most commercial kitchens or bars. Want to make a cold smoker? You can do it for under $20 (and you don't need a grill). Want to rig up a sous vide machine using your crock pot? Who doesn't! This book will show you how. Want to cryo-juice some cucumbers? Huh?! All you need is a ziploc bag, some freezer space and some cucumbers.
This book has an enjoyably conversational feel, albeit a conversation with an engineer well versed and comfortable casually throwing out words and concepts like hyperdilution and enzymatic bittering. He contributes to the blog sciencefare.org and some of the ideas/plans contained in the book are discussed at greater length there.
Also, if you're unsure how much you want to invest in all of the awesome barware the internet has to offer (and thereisalot) you might find the chapter 'Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Mix Your First Drink' refreshing. Don't have a shaker? So what, use a sports drink bottle. No jiggers? That's okay, the cap of your average water bottle holds 1/4 oz. Cut the bottom 3 inches off of that water bottle and use the cap to get the most common measurements needed (1/4 oz, 1/2 oz , 3/4 oz...etc) and mark the bottom portion of the previously cut up bottle with a Sharpie. Are you going to do it? Probably not, jiggers and shakers are cheap but you get a sense of his approach here. He's attempting to demystify the sometimes (some would say often) stuffy world of craft cocktails with science, bottle caps, duct tape, crock pots and an Aero-Press.
Other topics of interest include 'Does Hot Water Freeze Faster Than Cold?" Who hasn't argued that one before? (Turns out yes, 70%-90% of the time...in a lab). There's also a pretty fascinating section on the science behind barrel aging, where the principle of adsorption is broken down in a way that even I understand. Mostly. It's accompanied with a recipe for the Lincoln County which looks like a Boulevardier rested for a while on charcoal. Charcoal, you probably have that at home. You can do this...and call it science! And then drink it.
And in case there's someone in your life that hasn't been won over by the world of mixed drinks there is a section titled 'Drinks for the Cocktail Novice' which leads off with a recipe called "Something Fruity Not Too Sweet."
Finally, This book only costs $10. It's more than worth it.
Stew Ellington's 901 Very Good Cocktails is all about drinks. Before you even locate something to make you know you're in for a treat. It's a large book with loads of interesting and unusual illustrations. And, as the name promises, over 900 drinks. There are a lot of things that make this book worth the $25. From a practical standpoint there's the immediate appeal of a spiral bound recipe book - you don't have to use pint glasses to hold it open. The book has also been printed on paper which is water/booze resistant. While certainly not a requirement these are nice touches as many cocktail books, at least the ones I own, have pages stained with bitters, citrus juice, bourbon...etc.
There are a couple of things though which further enable this book to stand apart from a lot of the other drinks related books out there. Like Kevin Liu, Stew Ellington's bartending is done mostly at home and this book is borne purely of his enthusiasm for the subject and the encouragement of friends. He's clearly read a number of drinks-related books, blogs and forums and what he's written is the product of a "self-educating project" to make 1000 cocktails. During what I imagine, enviously, was a rigorous 'research' period Mr. Ellington devised "a criteria that is at once esoteric and scientifically unfounded" which he used to rank the drinks he made. The 1000 recipes were rated on a 5 star scale and only those scoring 4, 4 1/2 or 5 stars are included. The resulting score assigned to each drink is made clear throughout the book by the color used in the drink's name. If you only feel like making 5 star drinks, no problem, just make the ones where the drink's name is spelled out in black letters (as opposed to purple or blue). There's also a list of the 5 star drinks in the front of the book if you want to see them all in one spot.
Speaking of lists, 901 Very Good Cocktails is full of them. The sheer quantity of lists (68!) is somewhat staggering and another feature which helps define this book. The lists include categories like standards, highbrow, lowbrow, cheap, expensive, sweet, dry, bitter, herbaceous, prohibition era and vintage and so on. If you're not sure what to make though, you're unlikely to go wrong with one of the drinks from "The 16 Greatest Cocktails in Creation." Sure, that's an audacious title for a list. Will you agree with all 16? Who knows. There may be instances throughout the book where you'll be inclined to part company on the merits of a particular drink but that can be said of any book and really there's enough information and attention to drinks, both old and new, to warrant piles of respect.
But back to that list of 16 for a second. I had never had an Un Cafe Va Bene until I spied it on this list and that drink is a uniquely gratifying pleasure. The aroma runs up to greet you with bitter chocolate, coffee and rich dark fruit. The taste of the drink itself followed suit. I don't mix with coffee that often but this one was absolutely fantastic.
There are other things that make Mr. Ellington's book worth owning if you like cocktails. His level headed approach to technique and barware is not presented in a daunting or stuffy manner. There are also a couple of pages which will prove handy if you typically only have a couple of things on hand but have been keen on figuring out how best to expand your options without sinking tons of money on a shopping cart full of booze (although that would be pretty awesome).
The drinks in this book cover a lot of ground. There's a nice mix of classic and contemporary recipes. There are drinks from nationally recognized bars and bartenders next to ones that have been around for 100+ years. And, I know I've already mentioned it but the guy mixed and drank 1000 cocktails. And took notes. And ranked them. And then came up with an incredibly comprehensive series of lists cross referencing the drink's genres, flavors, styles...etc. The lists are insanely thorough and ultimately, thankfully, easy to use and a great way to find some new favorites.
Regan's Elixir - Kevin Liu
1 oz Regan's Orange Bitters
1 oz Dry Sherry (or other dry, acidic wine)
1 oz Simple Syrup (1:1)
3 drops Saturated Saline Solution (3 parts water to 1 part salt)
Combine all ingredients and serve as an aperitif over ice.
Un Cafe Va Bene - Matthew Biancaniello, Hotel Roosevelt, Los Angeles via 901 Very Good Cocktails
2 oz Cynar
3/4 oz Creme de Cassis
1 oz Espresso
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Ellington's notes: This drink is magic. It tastes like espresso with cream, sugar, chocolate and chicory. And like you're smoking a really good cigar. It's ridiculous!
Red Ant - Thomas Waugh, Alembic, San Francisco via 901 Very Good Cocktails
1 1/2 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1/2 oz Kirschwasser
1/2 oz Cherry Heering
1 tsp Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal
2 dashes Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Garnish - 3 cherries on a pick
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Monk's Revenge - Kevin Floyd, Anvil, Houston via 901 Very Good Cocktails
1 1/2 oz Benedictine
3/4 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 tsp Campari
1 tsp Fernet Branca
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.