Early in the The Essential New York Times Book of Cocktails, there is the tantalizing quote, “Is there anything better than hearing the bartender say, “The next round’s on me.” Well, the Essential Cocktails book is not unlike that treat — it keeps rewarding with charming, irresistible Bacchanology story after story (Hey, did you hear the one about, “A Bird Walks into a Bar?) along with drinks galore – till one’s cups runneth over. With joy, sophistication, and romance…
So let’s have three cheers to Thanksgiving, perhaps that most American of holidays: food and drink, family and friends (Friendsgiving), gratitude and gratefulness. Now, more than ever, this is the celebration to mark a unique tradition – based in no small part on our heritage of abundance and diversity.
Cheers to the seasonal holiday celebrations that kick off this weekend and continue till the new year slogs in. If you’re a guest heading out for food and drink – or if you are the host/hostess looking for the perfect culinary swag bag gift item — The Essential New York Times Book of Cocktails is the “go-to” hostess gift.
In truth, this is a book perfect for these times. Tuck the book in a basket or greenmarket bag filled with the ingredients for a favorite recipe or two (see below) — and there’s the making of any number of “cocktail conversations.” Send one’s guests home with the book and a cocktail menu of the evening’s drinks — and it’s a Pinterest and future-frameable feature…
See, each of the book’s essays – culled from a treasure-trove collection of previous, sparkling New York Times beverage writers–bartenders & critics and chefs — who describe a cocktail’s genesis – apocryphal or fact – and in exhilarating prose, detail how those tales became lore and legend. Do you know who invented the martini? Or who or where lays claim to the Bloody Mary; the Sidecar? This is drink-ology at its best.
The Essential New York Times Book of Cocktails is head-spinning fun to read. It’s sophisticated and glamorous, at the same time.
After just a few short minutes talking with New York Times’ Cocktails Editor Steve Reddicliffe – one just has the sense that this is a lad you want to belly up with at the bar and, together, proceed to throw back more than a few cocktails with! His hearty laugh and witty stories also help explain why the entries he curated from an elite cadre of New York Times essays makes for such compelling reading.
Reddicliffe was the columnist for the Times’ popular, A Quiet Drink where he wrote about bars, restaurants, and of course, cocktails and beer. Drinking pedigree firmly established.
When approached to produce this book, he described how he started with the the table of contents, arranged by cocktail type – from the “all stars” or classics to the new craft or artisanal; producing a “fairly lengthy list of cocktails.” Continuing, he noted, “From there we went to rums and then punches..”
The drink tome provides 31 chapters from “Starts and Smarts” to “The Old-Fashioned,” “The Negroni,” “The Classics, (as a green, garden-lover have to applaud the chapter titled “The Shrub,” featuring berries and blooms), along with “Summer” and “Winter Drinks” and “Global Affairs.”
This Examiner has an abiding appreciation for the “Pitchers and Punches” brimming-with-cheer chapter; making punch often for parties and holidays — always to guests’ surprised delight. (Which in turn is surprising.) Reddicliffe explains, “Punches were so popular in the late 1800s and early 1900’s, when the Times first started covering drinks.” He confirmed, “They’re making something of a comeback. Maybe not as much as they deserve.” It’s often challenging to find new recipes. Here, there are nearly 30 — from David Wondrich’s “Original Chatham Artillery Punch” – a sure-fire knock-out that combines bourbon, Cognac, rum, and Champagne!) to “Punch-Drunk Love” by Rosie Schaap (tequila, watermelon, jalapeno, and Agave).
The Essential Cocktail book does indeed capture the undeniable romance that permeates the magic of cocktails: the shape of the glass, the way the light plays on the drink’s color and hue, the foreplay of preparation, including muddling, (with all due respect to contributing foodie essayist Mark Bittman who claims he doesn’t even like the sound of the word…), to shaking and stirring, and pouring, to tempting the salt or sugar lining the rim — to that ultimate sweet or tart taste. These drinks ignite the senses. Whew! Bring on a cooling frozen Margarita: “The Cool Side of Campy Frozen Drinks.”
And therein is the really enchanting part to the book – and that is discovering how these libations acquired their monikers. Straight out of a mystery or romance thriller or a Mad Men ad campaign – one name is more compelling than the next. If reading head notes in a cookbook is your passion than the essays Reddicliffe matched with the cocktail recipes will leave you intoxicated. Each story re-told would make any wallflower; bar royalty.
The book describes cocktails as memory (ironic as too much of the “liquid jewels” seems to wipe out any recollection… But we’re talking responsible imbibing here.)
But really, some drinks are all the rage of a certain time in memory – think of the trendy sidecar in Paris, or the Cosmopolitan wrought by “Sex in the City of Gotham at the last fin de siecle.
The sheer breadth of beverages covered in the book is, well, breathtaking. “Working on the book, I discovered an appreciation for the cocktail.” That admiration sparkles on every page. The book’s witty and tart-tongued essays threads the anthology that brims with more than 350 recipes in one handy place. That’s reason enough to offer a toast!
This is a beautiful book – peppered with heady, be-still-my-heart, cover-girl photos of the cocktails and more than a few of the ingredients, such as The Bitter Truth at Death + Company. And a few former NY Times’ photographers I’ve had the privilege to work with, including Ruby Washington — the book includes her kinetic photo of the yuletide classic, “Tom & Jerry” pouring at Pegu Club that looks almost 3-D; and the same can be said about Marilynn K. Yee and her photos of the Jake Walker Bar in Brooklyn.
When asked if he has a favorite cocktail, Reddicliffe is disarming. (And mercifully doesn’t employ the usual punt: “Umm, that would be like choosing a favorite child…) Rather, he says with unbridled, sincere authority, “ Well, it depends on the season. Right now – I tend to like Applejack: a key ingredient in the “Jack Rose” — a classic cocktail, or Rosie Schaap’s “Autumn Bonfire.” The Apple Jack is fueled by the local and oldest distillery in the US: Laird & Company — America’s first commercial distiller. “Autumn Bonfire” features Applejack, maple syrup, and Black Mission Fig bitters made by Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters “It’s a great drink for this time of year: Thanksgiving and the winter holidays,” Reddicliffe noted. Sounded so good, this Examiner restocked her bar with the homegrown apple spirit to sample the seasonal creation.
This is such a unique book that the question seemed to be – how best to read it. Front to back? Pick a fave? Here again, Reddicliffe’s counsel is to be followed. He advised, “It’s a good book to dip into. It’s kinda like a bar menu — It depends on your mood – – you can jump in and out.” He explained, “You can find a drink you don’t know and try it. Or find a drink you love and then learn how to make it with slight variations – and then end up trying something new!”
He make the case for martinis and a slightly “wetter” version than most are accustomed to. This Examiner shared how she does indeed prefer a wetter martini (following years in the dry martini orbit…) The seguay happened after discovering the more botanical/floral notes found in Dolin vermouth. Reddicliffe agreed and then pointed out that the variety of craft vermouths now available help create a “more memorable, special martini.” He went on to describe how this allows a greater appreciation for a drink made the traditional way — and the way “it was once served.” Stuff an olive in that!
What’s the attraction to the fascinating names and liquor in general? No doubt, Sassy Sells. Many drink monikers are “Very tongue in cheek,” says Reddicliffe. That, and a cafe society create a cocktail culture.
To the question of “Do you think there’s been a monoculture in drinks just as there had been in food – leading to a renaissance in diversity and a craft and artisanal and rediscovery, he replied, “Yes, I think that this is the most exciting time to be eating and drinking — there is so mch great stuff in terms of locally sourced ingredients — and that applies to spirits and beer. In no small way, the rise in creative, hand-crafted bitters has fomented more creative cocktail recipes.”
He notes fans read the book from their bar and also from their night stand. (Cheers. And good night.)
Cocktail Recipe for AUTUMN BONFIRE
by Rosie Schaap
My Scotch-whiskey-inflected alternative to a Jack Rose
1 ounce non alcoholic apple cider or juice
1 ounce applejack
1 ounce smoky Scottish whisky (preferably Bowmore 12)
1 scant teaspoon maple syrup
2 dashes bitters (preferably Brooklyn Hemispherical Black Mission Fig, but Angostura works, too)
1. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir for 30 seconds.
2. Strain into a cocktail class (or serve over fresh ice in a rocks glass). Garnish with an apple fan or a slice of apple.
*Recipe provided by permission: The Essential New York Times Book of Cocktails
The Essentials New York Times Book of Cocktails is published by Cider Mill Press Book Publishers: independent publisher noted for their cookbooks, and is distributed by Simon & Schuster, Inc.