After decades of transforming everyday life into a service industry, Americans are embracing DIY as a second language, with whole industries devoted to restoring the lost garden of earthly delights.
BRING HAPPY HOUR HOME
Organic produce and farm-to-table dining, artisan cheeses, small-vineyard wines, etc., are badges of the newly educated palate. There are more has-beens wielding knives and renovating houses on cable TV than on “Dancing with the Stars.”
And now we are in the age of the mixologist. You read it here first: The next Cooking Channel will be the Cocktail Channel. While drinkers’ manuals to consuming wine, whiskey, beer and so on have been flourishing for years, the trend now calls for how-to books designed to reinvent happy hour as home entertainment.
Among the most useful, and admirably unpretentious, is The 12 Bottle Bar: A Dozen Bottles. Hundreds of Cocktails. A New Way to Drink. by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, which leads you gently from buying the basics to making the best of them—a friendly offer made even less threatening when you realize that the dependable dozen includes two vermouths, two bitters and orange liqueur (i.e., Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc.). Even more admirable, it reminds readers that being a good host has more to do with joining your guests than trying to impress them.
At once the wittiest and most comprehensive of new spirits encyclopedias, The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol: A Cocktail of Amusing Anecdotes and Opinion on the Art of Imbibing, by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham, arose from a theatrical lecture at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011, but it’s more than wordplay. It’s a succinct but surprisingly sound romp through the history of spirits, their great proponents (Jack Kerouac for tequila, Thomas Jefferson for wine, Hemingway for rum), a bit of myth and culture (the Wild West) and even some great movie moments as well as a restrained selection of famous labels. Oh, and did you know? Jesus was a beer guy. (Toga party, anyone?) It may also be the first such tome with a Kickstarter pedigree, making it a truly populist publication. The collage-style illustrations and graphic timelines are equally admirable.
AN AMERICAN CLASSIC
Although it might sound painfully stodgy, Michael Dietsch’s Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times is a fine introduction to artisanal ingredients you actually can make at home. A shrub is simply a beverage combining fruit and herbs or spices with vinegar, or in some cases citrus fruit. It’s a style of drink that goes back millennia, and was a staple of Founding Mother pantries; one of the recipes comes from Martha Washington, another from Ben Franklin. Such beverages are still common elsewhere—I have a bottle and recipe book from the wife of a highly regarded Japanese winemaker—and are immensely soothing by themselves as well as in mixed drinks, which makes them perfect for mixed-ages parties (or, as per Dietsch’s wife, for the pregnant or indisposed). Most of the 40 or so shrub recipes here have only three or four ingredients and don’t even require cooking; what a lovely weekend project!
FOR COCKTAIL NERDS ONLY
At the far end of the accessibility spectrum is molecular mixology, and only true cocktail geeks (or those looking for gifts for them) will get the full frontal benefit of Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail Momofuku’s resident mad scientist Dave Arnold, who is to cocktails as Richard Blais is to home cooking (doesn’t everyone use liquid nitrogen in the kitchen?), discourses at length on the correct size of ice cubes for specific concoctions, quick-cooking bitters, countertop distilling, eutectic freezing (look it up), comparative percentages of ethanol in mixers and so on. Fortunately, there are a few recipes that don’t require a vacuum machine, so maybe you and your Significant Nerd can bond over those.
Matt Teacher’s The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival begins with a foreword by Arrigo Cipriani, son of the co-founder of the legendary Harry’s Bar in Venice, and includes interviews with distinguished bartenders and producers, but sometimes there’s a little too much Teacher in the talk. It is, however, a lush and beautiful book full of what might be called cocktail porn—full-color photographs of concoctions, shakers, bars, etc. (Nearly 40 percent of the book is entitled “A Catalogue of Gin Distillers,” and what with the pictures of various producers’ bottles, it starts to feel a little like a sales brochure.)
Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, by Heather Greene, is modeled on the now-familiar wine manual style, combining history, terroir (bourbon vs. Irish, and that pesky “e”), science and technology (distilling methods, barrel aging), education (deciphering labels) and storage and entertaining tips (recipes and glassware). Greene, who teaches a whiskey course at Manhattan’s Flatiron Room and was the first woman to serve on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting panel, plays up the chick-liquor schtick a little too much, but she’s particularly good on tasting elements and flavor and aroma descriptions. As she points out, women seem to have better noses.
Now, if someone would just outlaw the subtitle, we could save a forest.