Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Three Dudes and, well, their opinions, man.

Happy Day of the Dude, A&T dudes and dudettes! As you know by now, David, John and Pablo are big fans of The Big Lebowski. We may have written about it a time or two on/about March 6, the anniversary of its release date. This year is a big one, though: The Ballad of the Dude is turning 21. It's legally allowed to drink!

In celebration of this momentous occasion, the guys at A&T put together their own preferred reading lists to help The Dude graduate into proper cocktail-hood. The ground rules are basic: list up to four "traditional media" sources (books, magazines, pamphlets, bottle labels, etc.) and/or "new media" sources (websites, facebook pages, instagram pages, twitter handles, etc.) that have proven instrumental in our immersion into the cocktail-verse.

Not that we actually expect him to pick up a book or shift away from vodka, Kahlúa, and milk. That would be very un-Dude. But maybe you, dear reader, will feel inspired. There's some good stuff here... a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot what-have-yous. Enjoy!

DAVID: This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps.

I've been in the Alps, and... things happen? Usually it's just a shared beer, but I guess...

Right, so... up to four, huh? That, as my colleague John says, is easier said than done. The cool part is, this is pretty much the golden age of cocktails and beverages of all sorts, so the field's wide, wide, WIDE open. Seriously. Regardless whether you're into straight up booze, cocktails, wine, beer, saké, you name it, there's pretty much never been a better time to tipple. The field seems endless, and the outlets for learning about it are just about as wide. 

BUT... here, in the house of Alchemy and a Twist - unlike 'Nam - there are rules, of a sort. Even if those are pretty much limited to "we'll talk about cocktails, not beer, wine and saké," and the like. I will, of course, violate those rules in part with my first pick.

First: For the broadest possible range of all things potable, I love Imbibe Magazine. I particularly like this one specifically because it covers a wide spectrum - it's about anything you can drink, really, whether that's cocktails, particularities of Jamaican rum, interesting coffee, wine, the specifics of an old-school and increasingly rare Chinese tea... it's just interesting. It's accessible to anyone, rather than trying to cater to a single audience, and no matter what you're into you'll find things in one issue or another that either speak to your interest or get you curious about something you didn't know was a thing. 

And at the end of the day, curiosity's really what it's all about, isn't it? Cocktails are delicious (so's tea, coffee, wine, etc...), and lots of things that Imbibe might have articles on aren't necessarily cocktails, but might find their way into one, and wouldn't that be lovely? 

Second: Two books wrapped into one, because I'm going to cheat JUST a little more. The first is Liquid Intelligence, by Dave Arnold; the second is the Aviary Cocktail Book, by the team that brought us Alinea. Here's the deal with both of these: they are written by people who occupy the Temples of the Most High. They are written by people who have a whole lot more time and money and resources than you do, and who refer to their bar's ice program without even the slightest hint of irony. They are filled with recipes that require special kinds of filtration, spherification, reduction, infusion, and other arcane esoterica. They are filled with recipes that involve specialized tools, apparently designed by NASA, and processes that require a lot more time and attention than anyone not deriving their salary from it has time for. 

At first glance, many of these seem amazing, but unattainable. But if you read on in each book, there's almost always some sort of note a few paragraphs farther into each section to the effect that "you can also just use a coffee filter." 

In other words, there is magic in these books. And if you pay attention and let them spur your curiosity to try new things and experiment, you'll likely discover you don't need nearly the budget (nor the NASA-designed equipment) to make it happen that you might think. Let them spur you to try things that seemed out of your reach. It's not that you'll be able to do everything in them... but you can do a lot more than you'd think at first glance. Mostly what lies behind this recommendation is a sense that nobody ever stretches their capabilities by aiming for things they already know they can do. Sure, spherification isn't easy, per se... but it's also not rocket science, and once you figure it out (with a few bucks' worth of tools and chemicals), it's a seriously cool tool to have at hand. 

Third: we're going old-school here, the total polar opposite of the Aviary: Mr. Boston's Official Bartender's Guide

Seriously. Stop laughing... yes, I know about 10,000 books have come out since Mr. Boston's cocktail guide was published, and it seems hard to take a book seriously when it still has a recipe for a Screwdriver in it. 

Back in the day when I first worked behind a bar (longer ago than I care to admit), it was pretty much the only book around; but then you barely needed it, because 95% of everyone ordering a cocktail was getting a Mudslide, a Rum and Coke, an Appletini, a Vodka Tonic... talk about "not exactly rocket science." At that point the words "beverage program" would have gotten confused looks, and craft cocktails weren't yet a gleam in a young bartender's eye. The most complicated thing you were likely to get an order for was a Martini - not because it's a complicated drink on paper, but because people who order Martinis are hyper-particular (read: finicky as hell) and have no qualms about sending six attempts back at you if you don't get it the way they like it. 

I get that. I'm one of those people. But I digress... 

You had Mr. Boston's stashed somewhere behind the bar mainly because every once in a while some assho... some inestimably valued and honored guest walked in determined to Stump the Bartender. Obviously, this was the highlight of his week - and it was almost always a "he," don't ask me why. He would ask for a Road Runner (Vodka, Amaretto and Coconut Cream) just to see that confused flicker in your eye, and to smugly watch you go flipping through this little red book looking for help after admitting you weren't quite familiar with that one. 

BUT... and here's the thing... just like Rock 'n Roll emerged from the Blues, and Blues from older rhythms beyond that, Mr. Boston's was and remains a touchstone. All of those craft beverage programs, all of those pre-prohibition revivals, all of those hipster, Tiki-upgrade house-made craft experiences... the people who created those, or the people who taught them, all had Mr. Boston stashed somewhere behind the bar, and learned how to make an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan and a Grasshopper from it. 

It might not be the most glamorous, or exotic. It might be a bit stuffy and staid. NASA has never heard of it. But it's solid, and you can find everything you need to make everything in it at any bog-standard liquor store and supermarket. It'll teach you everything you need to know about the basics, about how to set up a speed rail, about when to shake and when to stir and how to chill a glass, and to this day every time I flip through it I find something I hadn't noticed that sounds interesting (A Japanese: brandy, orgeat, lime juice and bitters. Huh...). 

It'll give you all of the tools and combinations you need to build a foundation from and learn to riff on, or to make as wide as possible a range of stuff for people who might be intimidated by fancier, more complicated drinks. And if you really take a look at the modern-revival-pre-prohibition-house-made-craft-creation cocktail lists, somewhere stashed behind the bar you'll find an old dog-eared copy of Mr. Boston. 

JOHN: Hot damn this was... not easy. I was sorely tempted to break the "up to four" limit. But I could hear David chastising me with a simple "John, this is not 'Nam, this is A&T. There are rules", and so I reluctantly decided to abide. Sorta.

I decided to focus on a "beginner's level" selection. These are the books, websites, and videos that I turned to during my early forays into mixing; they helped refine my sensibilities, tastes, and techniques. That's not to say that these are only for beginners; to the contrary, going back through some of these resources for this post made me realize that in some cases I barely scratched the surface of what they had to offer. So with that, here we go!

#1 - Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails (book)
This was the first cocktail book I ever got, along with a reprint of The Savoy. While The Savoy is a piece of history in itself, Ted Haigh's book is more like a guided walking tour. It includes a brief history of the cocktail, an annex on standard classics, a rundown on the major contributors to the beginning of the recent cocktail revival, and a resource guide on unusual and hard to find ingredients. 

At the heart of the book are 80 plus recipes and the backstories Mr. Haigh provides for each. From long-lost cocktails that have experienced a rebirth - like the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Pegu Club - to drinks that you likely won't find anywhere else, like the Chatham Hotel Special and the Filmograph Cocktail, Vintage Spirits has you covered.

So why does this deserve a spot on your bar shelf? The history! By now, the best drinks in here have been picked up by other, more recent books. But Vintage Spirits goes above and beyond in detailing the origins and evolution of the drinks, as well as describing how Mr. Haigh adjusted certain recipes to account for modern tastes or sadly unavailable ingredients.

#2 - The Joy of Mixology (book)

Yup, same Regan.
Like Ted Haigh, Gary Regan is a legend from the early days of the modern cocktail revival. And if the name "Regan" sounds familiar (it's pronounced "Reeegan", not "senile bastard who all of a sudden doesn't seem so bad") but you can't quite place it, it's because Joy's author is also the inventor of Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6. What a guy!

Joy follows in the footsteps of classics like Embury's Fine Art of Mixing Drinks and Johnson's Bartender's Manual. There are of course the recipes, a history of cocktails, the obligatory overview of glassware, tools, spirits, mixers, modifiers and garnishes, business and management tips for professional bartenders, and a general theory of mixology. It is, in many ways, a gussied up Mr. Boston's. Everyone should have at least one of those in their collection.

So why should you add Joy to your collection? Tucked into a concise 29 pages is a categorization of all the cocktails in Joy that will blow your mind. Ever wonder why the Margarita, the Sidecar, and the Kamikaze all feel so remarkably similar to make? Because they're all basically the same drink, and if you have a peak at Joy's "New Orleans Sours: Chart 3" table, that obvious fact hits you smack in the face. Trust me, you'll never be as excited again to flip through 29 beautiful pages of charts. This is the cocktail literature version of the red pill, my friends.

#3 - Small Screen Network (YouTube channel)
This is me cheating. When I was first getting started, I stumbled across this channel and damn near never pulled myself out. There are about 11 years worth of videos here to peruse, with most of them falling between 3 and 5 minutes. There are dozens of hosts and "shows" available here, mostly all of excellent quality. My personal favorites are "Raising the Bar with Jamie Boudreau", "The Morgenthaler Method", and "The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess".

Boudreau brings a lot of style and an excellent understanding of blending and complementing flavors. He also has a ton of great advice on technique. Morgenthaler comes across as a bit of an assh... the kinda guy that might have walked into David's bar and ordered a Road Runner. But he's ruthlessly funny and, much like myself, a bit lazy; his blog is full of great tips and advice on how to cut corners without sacrificing quality. He also completely changed my understanding and appreciation for French 75s.

Oh, and there's this:

Let's face it people, we're living in a YouTube world. There's no shame in tapping into that resource, reducing your learning curve, and making yourself a quality drink as quickly as possible. Go do it!


Oh, sorry. Right. This initially sounded like a simple ask because it's easy, but it's too easy, to name books you grab for inspiration. It's almost like the paradox of choice, not knowing what to pick when there are so many things from which to pick. 

My first pick is also one of my first cocktail books, and one that seems most fitting for El Duderino: 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson. Not only does this keep true and consistent with the Dude's own three ingredient preferred drink of choice, this provides an array of, you guessed it, other three ingredient cocktails. Aside from the obvious, what's great about this book is that is provides options for both classic and modern cocktails. Each recipe has either the history of the cocktail (for the classics) or the "author" of the modern options. For the most part the cocktails are easily recreated with few requiring your non-standard ingredients (but there are a couple in there...). There are 75 recipes in there and pretty pictures, too! 

My second pick is The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. This isn't perhaps your typical cocktail book it's a really interesting and educational read. While it's 400 pages, this isn't exactly teeming with recipes--there are about 50 cocktail recipes plus recipes for syrups, infusions, and garnishes. That being said, there are several goodies in there. The best part of this book is getting that understanding of what natural ingredients go into what. How do they impart and affect flavor? How do all these things come together? It's a dense book but if you're into that sort of thing, and I'd guess you are if you've read this far, then it's worth picking up. 

The Imbible: A Cocktail Guide for Beginning and Home Bartenders by Micah LeMon is my third pick. In part I chose this book because the author is a fellow Virginian. However, the great thing about this book for, let's be honest, people like me, who are still learning the ins and outs of mixing things together in the comfort of their own home is really understanding the foundation of the most common cocktails and how these drinks evolve by substituting one ingredient for another, learning more about ratios and proportions. LeMon starts with the most basic building blocks and slowly extrapolates a classic cocktail to a modern iteration. For those people who are already pretty swish behind a bar there are still some great tidbits in there but those who want to learn more would benefit the most. 

My final pick doesn't really fit in with the previous choices but it tends to be my go-to for inspiration, recipes, feedback, and directly connecting with other cocktail aficionados: Instagram. I love seeing the range of people from home bartenders to professional mixologists all over the world create and share recipes. There are people all over willing to share their thoughts, ideas, and riffs. It really does have a sense of community and collaboration and more and more I'm reverting to my saved posts to recreate what others have. 

The great thing about all of our picks is that there are no wrong answers, these are just like, our opinions, man. 

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